The Olympics Will Only Make the Korea Crisis Worse
The founder of the games dreamed of inspiring world peace. He created an event that's always done the opposite.
In the lead-up to the 2018 Winter Olympics, scheduled for Feb. 9 to 25 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, representatives of the two Koreas have suddenly resumed direct talks, suspended two years ago, and Kim Jong Un’s reclusive regime has elected to send a team to the games. South Korea, for its part, is expected to propose that the two squads march together in the opening and closing ceremonies behind a “United Korea” flag.
Such comity would be fully in accord with the modern Olympic ideal as fashioned by the movement’s founder, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin. He envisaged his project as a wonderful vehicle for international peace, global understanding, and goodwill.
But if we go by actual Olympic history, rather than the lofty claims set forth by Coubertin and his successors, the current promises of improved international relations and durable inter-Korean reconciliation could well turn out to be hollow. Participating nations have always seen the Olympiads as perfect opportunities to strut their sovereignty on a grand global stage.
The enduring disconnect between grandiloquent Olympic ideals and often-painful realities was established at the very first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896. Held against a backdrop of ongoing Greco-Turkish strife, the games included no Turks. (The Turks would have boycotted if only they had been invited.) Hungarian athletes refused to participate as part of an Austro-Hungarian imperial squad, while the Irish rejected appearing alongside the English in a British Empire team. (Both groups competed separately, under their own colors.) A German delegation managed to make the show, though only at the last moment. Still reeling from the Franco-Prussian War, France had tried to get the Boche — the Allies’ favored pejorative for the Germans — excluded from the event.
Franco-German tensions were also evident at the Paris Games of 1900. On arriving in Paris, the German team encountered graffiti saying, “Pigs — Down with Prussia!” Germany’s team captain found an enormous pile of excrement in his bed. Denied opportunities to train on French equipment, the Germans performed poorly, and even those Boche who won their events often did not receive their medals.
It was the British and Americans who were at each other’s throats at the London Games of 1908. The Yanks saw this confrontation as an integral part of America’s larger challenge to Britain’s political and economic leadership in the world. During the opening ceremony, the American team ostentatiously neglected to lower the Stars and Stripes when passing Britain’s royal couple. Deeply insulted, English fans let out a chorus of catcalls. On the athletic field, too, things quickly got ugly between the Yanks and the Brits. The Americans cried foul when their opponents used heavy iron-soled boots to “pull them over” in the tug-of-war. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt fully concurred with his country’s protests over “so-called British sportsmanship,” applauding a post-games parade in New York City at which revelers dragged a papier-mâché effigy of a British lion.
A key dimension of Coubertin’s dream for the modern games was an “Olympic truce” modeled on an ancient Greek tradition, whereby warring factions either stopped fighting during the quadrennial Olympic festivals or ensured that the fighting did not disrupt the sacred competitions. In reality, this tradition often went unobserved in the ancient world, and the same has held true for the modern era. When the world went to war from 1914 to 1918, the 1916 Olympics — scheduled for Berlin, of all places — had to be cancelled. (Likewise, the Summer Games planned for Tokyo in 1940 and London in 1944 fell victim to the deadlier competition of World War II.) As for Berlin, it got the Summer Olympics in 1936, and we know what a peaceful portent those “Nazi Games” represented.
Through all the modern Olympiads, the one we might want to keep foremost in mind regarding Pyeongchang 2018 is Munich’s ill-fated summer festival in 1972. Those Munich Games were held in the pro-Western half of a once-unified nation brutally divided by ideology. A central purpose of the organizers was to promote dialogue and reconciliation between the two Germanies. This aspiration dovetailed with West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik — his “opening” to East Germany and the communist bloc.
More broadly, the West German hosts hoped that Munich ’72, brimming with warm Bavarian Geműtlichkeit — cozy hospitality — would help thaw the ongoing Cold War, of which their land was a prime victim. And like every modern Olympics since Athens 1896, this “athletic festival of peace” would, according to the International Olympic Committee, make the world a better place by fostering international understanding and goodwill.
The Munich Games achieved none of these goals. For the East Germans, Munich ’72 was not about coming together with their Western counterparts, but about showcasing their sociopolitical apartness. Allowed for the first time since joining the Olympic movement to appear as a fully sovereign state, with their own uniforms and national symbols, the East German visitors did everything they could to stress their singularity vis-à-vis their Western hosts. Insisting that their sole purpose in coming to Munich was to cheer on their own athletes, visiting East German fans refused to fraternize with local leftists and even rejected Bavarian beer, falling back on a brew they brought from home.
Aggrieved by the East German delegation’s standoffishness, the West Germans, traditionally leery of patriotic display, ended up cheering exclusively for their own squad and proudly waving their national banners. In retrospect, we can see that this failure to connect on the part of the two Germanys anticipated the difficulties that would attend national reunification some 20 years hence.
As for “thawing” the Cold War, the most revealing test of that aspiration at Munich came with the famous USA-USSR faceoff for the gold medal in basketball. The foul-filled match ended with a 51-50 Soviet victory so contested by the Americans that they refused to accept their silver medals. (They still haven’t picked them up.)
Of course, Munich ’72 is not remembered today primarily for its inter-German feuds or that “Cold War on the Court,” but for the terrorist attack by the Black September group on Israel’s Olympic delegation that left 11 Israeli Olympians dead. Black September chose the Olympics for their operation because the games offered the widest possible stage on which to call world attention to the plight of the Palestinians. Instead, the “Munich Massacre” dramatically aggravated Israeli-Palestinian enmity and helped to propel a cycle of violence and counterviolence that lasts to this day.
South Korea’s sole experience to date with Olympic hosting — the Seoul Summer Games of 1988 — thankfully yielded no human tragedy on a par with Munich ’72. And yet those Seoul Games, like Munich, might offer a cautionary tale for Pyeongchang 2018.
Initially, the South’s bitter rival in the North offered to co-host this party, thereby showing the world just how peace-loving the much-maligned regime of Kim Il Sung actually was. At the same time, Pyongyang warned that if its offer were rejected, the North would not participate in the games at all — and furthermore that some “military accidents” might transpire. Sure enough, North Korea elected not only to boycott the Seoul Games but also to try to sabotage them in advance with a terrorist attack. In 1987, North Korean agents smuggled a bomb onto a South Korean passenger plane, killing all 115 people on board. Of course, the Seoul Games went on as scheduled, just as the Munich Games, per orders from International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage, resumed in the immediate aftermath of the Black September attack.
So far, Kim Il Sung’s grandson Kim Jong Un has undercut the impending South Korean Games only by souring the atmosphere with his ongoing nuclear arms buildup and frightening ballistic missile tests. Pyeongchang 2018 will undoubtedly go on, and perhaps the two Korean teams will indeed march together behind a common flag.
Yet once again, if past Olympic history means anything, the party in Pyeongchang will not bring true reconciliation between North and South or make the world at large a more harmonious place. And just as the Berlin Games of 1936 did not dissuade Hitler from re-arming for war, these Korean Games will not convince Kim Jong Un to stop adding to his nuclear arsenal, much less give it up altogether.