x

Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Don't lose sight of the sport in the Winter Olympics

The talk might be of diplomatic twists but what the Games represent is truly inspiring

North Korea's cheer squad wave the unification flag, cheering the combined Korea Ice Hockey team in their match against Switzerland. Grigory Dukor / Reuters
North Korea's cheer squad wave the unification flag, cheering the combined Korea Ice Hockey team in their match against Switzerland. Grigory Dukor / Reuters

The Winter Olympics in South Korea, which began on Friday, have undoubtedly made for a fascinating spectacle. Following the news that North and South Korean athletes would march and compete together, the eyes of the world descended on the small city of Pyeongchang. From a diplomatic perspective, the first couple of days have not disappointed. But as a result, the sport itself has been somewhat overshadowed. The importance of a resolution to the North Korea crisis has been made clear on these pages. But what the Olympics and its athletes stand for is as inspiring and instructive as the diplomatic jockeying on show in Pyeongchang.

Diplomatic developments have been astounding. A handwritten invitation to visit Pyeongyang, given by Kim Jong-un’s sister to South Korean President Moon Jae-in yesterday could bring about the first such summit in more than a decade. Kim Yo-jong is part of the most senior delegation to visit the South since the 1950s. Meanwhile the United States is mistrustful of her brother’s charm offensive. US vice president Mike Pence was seated near Ms Kim at the opening ceremony. Visibly irked, he stayed seated when the united Korean athletes took the field. This is the closest we have come in decades to rapprochement between two countries technically still at war. But trusting the mercurial Mr Kim wholeheartedly seems imprudent.

This is not the first time sport and politics have successfully intertwined. Less than a year after an American table tennis squad toured China at the zenith of the Cold War in 1971, Richard Nixon became the first US president to visit Beijing. In 2011, amid frequent clashes and nuclear brinkmanship, the leaders of India and Pakistan met on the sidelines of a cricket field in the Indian city of Mohali. Other occasions have been less upbeat. Following US President Donald Trump’s rebuke last year of NFL players who knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality, the US seemed more, not less, divided. At its core, the Olympics offer a message of individual and collective endeavour. It is about the power of the human spirit to rise to the pinnacle of sporting achievement. Amid all the diplomatic fanfare, we should not lose sight of that.