The Olympics are coming, if Dennis Rodman can keep the peace: Arthur
It's tough to stay focussed on the Games in South Korea when North Korea and the U.S. have been playing their own games.
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So, Korea keeps sneaking up on us. No, not that Korea. Like a man with an odd haircut walking through a forest clanging cymbals and blowing whistles and setting off explosives to keep the bears away, North Korea is trying to be noticed. When you are detonating nuclear payloads, you’re not exactly tiptoeing around.
But the actual Olympics in South Korea are fewer than five months away! You, like me, may have forgotten they existed because one, the NHL decided that it would prefer to take its puck and stay home, and two, the implausibly coiffed and overly bellicose leaders of both North Korea and the United States have been engaged in recent I-will-rain-down-fiery-hell-on-you-during-recess-Stewart kind of posturing, featuring nuclear weapons. The thought of thermonuclear war tends to focus the mind, and not on who will win the luge.
But the Pyeongchang Olympics are coming, and its crises are beginning to become clear. Ticket sales have been slow. According to The Associated Press, Koreans bought just 52,000 of the 750,000 seats organizers hope to sell in country during the first buying window between February and June. Oh, and with sponsorships also lagging, they are also $267 million (U.S.) short of the money needed to operate the Games. That’s before something goes wrong and costs more money. (And something always goes wrong and costs more money.)
But the nukes are the thing, really. In fairness, there is always a looming crisis before every Olympics; it is part of the rules. For instance, before the first Olympics I covered in Beijing in 2008, people worried about both the air quality, and the prospect of authoritarian oppression. Well, the Chinese government then shut down industrial production and sidelined half of the city’s cars every day to clear the air, and also arrested anybody who protested, up to and including grandmothers who were sentenced to hard labour. So, half-right!
In Vancouver we worried about apathy and a lack of snow, and they both worked out fine, though we did kill a Georgian luger and blame him for dying. London was worried about terrorism, and everything went as smoothly as Hugh Laurie adopting an American accent. The worry in Sochi was one-eyed suicide bombers, and we all settled for settled for authoritarian political oppression, a new Olympic corruption record, and the former KGB helping Russian athletes dope by passing bottles of urine through a hole in the wall.
Oh, and Russia invaded Ukraine before the Olympics ended, which pretty much derailed Ukraine’s bid for the 2022 Olympics and helped send the 2022 Games back to Beijing. Circle of Olympic life, as it were.
And finally, in Rio the worries were the economic crisis, the corruption crisis, the money problems, Zika, and the water that was soaked in sewage and the occasional floating human arm. Well, the Games managed to groan away just long enough that all the foreigners had left by the time the economy collapsed. Oh, and the corruption there was so endemic that Monday, the IOC didn’t even bother to deny there was bribery involved in the awarding of the Games. This, to be clear, is a first.
So now the IOC, raising the stakes in a competitive media environment, has managed to place the Olympics 80 kilometres from the border of a nation which bombed a jetliner the last time South Korea hosted the Games — the bombing was orchestrated by Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il — and whose looming nuclear crisis has reached the point that Dennis Rodman has offered to “try to straighten things out for everyone to get along together.”
It’s always something, right? Rodman is actually the only human being on Earth who is known to be friendly with both Kim Jong-un and Trump: he gave the Korean leader a copy of Trump’s book The Art Of The Deal in one visit. Rodman, the former NBA star turned D-list celebrity, might literally be the best chance of avoiding a war. It is possible that reality TV was, in the balance, one of our worst ideas.
Look, some people accuse the media of overhyping pre-Olympic worries, and sometimes that’s fair. But maybe it’s more that the Olympics are one of the most complicated things a country can attempt, and there are worries no matter where you put it. Sometimes the problems get solved; sometimes they don’t; sometimes they are not solvable.
But this time, the idea of being overshadowed by a nuclear showdown between the United States and Korea is different, right? The Olympics have been placed within the potential path of the most unpredictably led nations on earth, and also North Korea. Kim Jong-un is defined, according to The New Yorker, by his tolerance for risk. Donald Trump, meanwhile, might decide to bomb North Korea because the military briefing lasted more than 10 minutes, and he got irritated, and bored.
So there is some tension, some worries. Look, it’ll probably be fine. Maybe some North Korean athletes will be involved in the Games, acting as human shields. Maybe North Korea will be busy with its own sporting festival, which they did last time. There will probably be some sabre-rattling, some media trips to the DMZ, and an Olympics that slides past its worst-case scenario, like all the others. We’ll probably all have a good time.
And if we don’t, frankly, the Olympics will be the least of anybody’s problems. Good luck to everyone, and especially, as ever, Dennis Rodman.