Millions of viewers have settled in over the past several days to watch the 2018 Winter Olympics, which kicked off in Pyeongchang, South Korea on Friday, Feb. 9. Watching the Olympics is, for many spectators, a time to relax and enjoy the thrill of competition without worrying about politics. However, Olympic history has been far from apolitical, and, in the present day, politics continue to exert a significant force on the Games.
The unified Korean delegation has been among the most discussed examples of the extent to which politics are intertwined with Olympic competition, but it is far from the sole instance of politics slamming up against gamesmanship.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has long supported the idea of diplomacy through the Games. From its inception, the IOC has put the Olympic Games forward as a means of promoting international understanding, though understanding and goodwill have often been lacking.
Perhaps the most famous instance of politics interacting with sportsmanship is the case of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, when Nazi policies prevented German-Jewish athletes from participating. Jesse Owens, a black American who medaled four times in 1936, winning the gold in the 100 meters event, the 200 meters event, the long jump, and the 4 × 100 meter relay, faced discrimination at home in the U.S. as well as in Germany, where his successes reportedly incensed Hitler.
Political violence bleeding into the Games has also been a feature of competitions in more recent decades, with the murder of 11 Israeli Olympic team members during the 1972 Games by a terrorist organization.
Today, no less than in the past, politics have been a notable aspect of the Olympic Games. A significant amount of coverage has centered around host country, South Korea, and its relationship with its neighbor, North Korea.
Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim-Jong Un, North Korea’s totalitarian dictator, has been a particular locus for controversy, with U.S. media especially comparing her to prominent Americans such as Ivanka Trump. Backlash has also followed certain types of media coverage of Kim Yo-jong, with some claiming that media attention has overemphasized relatively superficial aspects of her personal presentation and interactions with foreign leaders at the expense of more substantive subjects such as a potential discussion between North Korea and liberal democratic South Korea over the military relationship of the South with the U.S.
The unified Korean delegation itself has been critiqued by a number of South Koreans, some of whom suggest that any reconciliation process will need to come as the result of a complex series of comprehensive end-status negotiations. For the U.S. too, contemporary politics have proven significant with Vice-President Pence’s refusal to recognize the Korean delegation at the opening ceremonies meeting with some criticism and his record on LGBT+ affairs coming under fire from Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon.
Avid fans of the Olympics sometimes suggest that the Games should be free of politics. In reality, regardless of whether an apolitical Olympics should exist, such a separation has never existed. Politics have and will continue to influence the ways in which competition and sporting events are conducted.