The idea that Kim Jong-uns heart has been melted because North Korea has been permitted to send a figure skating pair across the DMZ to compete in Pyeongchang next month feels a bit of a stretch
For an event that claims to exist in the rarefied air far above politics, it's remarkable how often the Olympics is used as a political pawn. In recent years Beijing use the 2008 Games as a curtain raiser for their new era of global domination, while Vladimir Putin used the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi as the curtain raiser for his invasion of the Crimea, among various other Corinthian enchantments.
Every Games is a hotbed of political activity of differing kinds, with the VIP seats filled by power players building every kind of deal. When the FBI wanted the late, far-from-great Fifa official Chuck Blazer to provide them with some primo proof for their corruption investigation of Fifa, they send him to the London Games, where the key fob he hurled casually down on the table at a series of meetings recorded all manner of interesting and incriminating conversations with big hitters.
The only people absolutely excluded from the right to make any political statement at all at an Olympics, of course, are the athletes, who can expect to be disciplined harshly for espousing any sort of political position anywhere near the pulpit. If this has always felt like a glaring inconsistency that exhibits the mega-event's underlying contempt for those working that make it, it is not one that ever seems to have troubled Thomas Bach. The IOC president acknowledges merely of his organisation's questionably-claimed successes, and never its thoroughly-owned hypocrisies.
In this respect, his leadership has a flavour of former Fifa president Sepp Blatter, who stimulated little secret of his longing for a Nobel peace prize, which he expected to be awarded for bringing peace in the middle east via the medium of football. Or something like that. Blatter always veered between two comically contradictory perceptions of football- when it suited him, the game of which he was in charge was the greatest soft power force on earth, able to bring about world peace and so on. When it didn't- if there were criticisms of any Fifa-related activities, for instance- he would retreat back to a position where it was only a game. A wonderful game, yes, but only a game, and certainly not something with the power to insist, for example, that tournament hosts bring in statutes to reduce the boggling count of indentured labourers who die building their infrastructure. With Blatter, you could always predict which version of football would turn up.
Thanks to news from the Korean peninsula, you can be fairly sure which version of the Olympics is about to turn up in a Thomas Bach statement. Where other entities have failed to bring about rapprochement, the Winter Olympics has allegedly succeeded. Ending a two-year standoff, delegations from North and South Korea met in the truce village of Panmunjom on Tuesday, where they opened talks with the confirmation that North Korea will send athletes and cheerleaders to the Winter Olympics in South Korea's Pyeonchang next month. Two figure skaters have already qualified but had yet to confirm their places; there is now speculation that wildcards for further athletes may be offered.
I have already seen various suggestions that this shows the incredible” power of sport”, in particular its ability to bringing the most intractably opposed of foes together. To which the only reasonable response is: now who's being naive, Kay?
Barely a week ago, Kim Jong-un was reminding the world about the nuclear button on his desk. The idea that his heart has been melted by the prospect of sending a figure skating pair to Pyeongchang feels … a stretch. None of which is to look a potential gift horse in the mouth. Anything rendering nuclear war one iota less likely is – you have to think- a species win.
But I think we can all live without the spectacle of Bach's organisation taking any sort of credit for breaking the stalemate. Despite it looking like quite the sport love-in over in the demilitarised zone, the IOC would be wise to avoid making any great claims about the biathlon's place in all this. As far as relations between North and South Korea and Washington go, the Winter Games is nothing but a plot device- what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin. Realistic experts in the region suspect it is rather more likely to be part of an attempt to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington, where the nuclear-button-measuring contest goes on apace.
Presumably for tactical reasons, meanwhile, the IOC will overlook the fact that the DPRK is a country of grotesque human rights abuses akin to those which have secured other nations a ban on participation in the past. Even permitting North Korean athletes be participating in high-profile international competitions might be regarded as a mixed bles for them- there have long been gossips that those whose performance underwhelms the Kim regime will incur penalties for themselves and even their families. After the 2010 DPRK World Cup side lost 7-0 to Portugal in South africans, there were reports that the returning players and coach were sent to the coalmines for hard labour. Verified accounts certainly had the team subjected to a six-hour, on stage dressing down for “betraying” the country's socialist struggle.
Still, we must expect Bach to be looking on the bright side as he waffles about the building of bridges. Then again, he is the type of athletics governance official who would doubtless survive in post even in the event of a nuclear apocalypse. So perhaps he hasn't much to lose either way.
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