About two weeks ago, as I sat on the couch watching the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, I was amazed by what I was seeing. No, I’m not talking about the 1,200 drones that formed the Olympic rings in the night sky (although they were also pretty impressive) but rather the fact that, for the first time since 1991, athletes from North and South Korea marched out under one flag.
While the Olympics’ primary goal is to serve as a competitive sporting event for elite athletes, it also functions as a platform for political and societal issues to be brought to light — an important tradition of the games that should be maintained.
Politics have played a large role in the Olympics for many years, starting from the first modern games, which were held in 1896 in Athens, Greece. These games acted as a mediator between political rivals Germany and France who still weren’t on good terms after the Franco-Prussian War. Both countries first hesitated to send athletes to the competition but eventually did, which helped give rise to the tradition of the games and political mediation.
Another well-known example of political staging in the Olympics was America’s Olympic boycotts during the Cold War. Because the Soviet Union refused to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, then-President Jimmy Carter decided the United States shouldn’t send athletes to the 1980 games, which were being held in Moscow. The United States was joined by 61 other countries, including West Germany and Japan. Four years later, the Soviet Union boycotted the Olympics which were held in Los Angeles, claiming concern for the security of their athletes. Political rivalry and alliances played a huge role in these consecutive games, but these aren’t the only times politics have played a role in the Olympics.
As demonstrated by history, the Olympics have acted as a source for solving political disputes as well, and this year is no exception. North and South Korean athletes are competing under one flag this year, which displays a picture of the unified Korean peninsula. They also combined athletes from both countries to form the women’s hockey team, and North Korea sent a group of cheerleaders to support all the athletes. Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, is also present to watch the games and represent North Korea. In particular, this year’s Winter Olympics are showing the effect the games and the athletes can have on not just political issues but also societal issues.
For example, U.S. men’s figure skater Adam Rippon hasn’t hesitated to share his feelings on Vice President Mike Pence. In an interview with USA Today, Rippon, who’s an openly gay athlete, said he wouldn’t go out of his way to go to the traditional meet-and-greet between the Olympic athletes and the official delegation — which Pence led this year — because of the anti-LGBTQ comments Pence has previously made.
Rippon has also used his platform as a high profile athlete to speak about LGBTQ representation in the games and body image issues and eating disorders among male figure skaters. As an Olympic athlete, all eyes are on you. For Rippon, this was a perfect opportunity to shed light on the issues most important to him.
While some believe the Olympics should focus on the art of the sport, this is one of the main events that has the opportunity to bring people from all over the world together. Every two years, athletes of various disciplines from more than 200 countries come together for the highest level of competition one can experience. And every two years, people from all over the world gather in front of their TVs to watch and cheer on the athletes and support their home countries.
Of course, athletes aren’t required to use their position to talk politics or express opinions on serious issues, and bringing political disputes to light is not the main goal of the games. However, as it’s been shown for many decades, the Olympics serve as a perfect platform to raise awareness for such issues. The Olympics aren’t only a celebration of sport but also a chance for athletes to speak up, for nations to make amends and for the public to stay aware of the world around them.