The XXIII Olympic Winter Games are now open, and 242 athletes, both famous and all-but-unknown, are representing the United States in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Thirty-one of them (more than any other state) hail from Colorado, including a remarkable six from Steamboat Springs, two – mogul skier Keaton McCargo and slopestyle skier Gus Kenworthy – from Telluride, and Hagen Kearney, a men’s snowboarding/snowboardcross competitor from Norwood.
Southwest Colorado is also represented, not by an athlete but by an expert. Durango High School and Fort Lewis College grad Mark Pevny left for South Korea on Jan. 15, one of a three-man crew in charge of designing and building the Olympic halfpipe. Enough snow, and frigid temperatures, should ensure his work receives acclaim.
Olympic detractors call the Games wasteful and point to the construction expense for facilities that are sometimes under-utilized later, even abandoned, while saddling the host countries with massive debt.
Others find that Olympic ideals are spoiled in practice by politics; the Games seem ultimately meaningless when viewed in the hard light of our present reality.
No doubt that the political aspects of these Games loom large: Olympic organizers have “rebranded” the spelling of the area to PyeongChang so that viewers around the globe do not confuse it with Pyongyang, capital city of North Korea.
Politics and the Olympics are often inseparable, and often, though not always, to the denigration of the Games. Generations later, the 1936 Berlin Olympics are remembered best for American sprinter Jesse Owens smashing the myth of Aryan superiority in Hitler’s showcase Games.
Unfortunately, the legacy of Munich in 1972 is one of tragic politics, with the death of 11 members of Israel’s team and one German police officer in a terrorist attack that overshadowed some remarkable athletic achievements, including Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals in swimming.
And what do we remember of the Moscow Games of 1980? Virtually nothing because in the American mind the Games barely existed – President Jimmy Carter ordered an American boycott of the Games in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
These Games are taking place in a tense atmosphere under a cloud of missle-rattling by North Korea’s Kim Jung Un and corresponding threats of “fire and fury” from President Trump. But last month, North and South Korea agreed to march together during the opening ceremony, and have formed a unified women’s hockey team. Symbolic moves, yes, but still significant.
All the athletes, regardless of nationality, are bringing their dedicated best to the celebration. We would be well served to retain that same level of hope and optimism.
In years to come, perhaps the 2018 Winter Games will be remembered as a turning point – a move from confrontation to reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula – two weeks when the best representatives of the countries of the world inspired a turn from preparations for war to a dedicated process for peace.
What a return on investment that would be.