The Olympic Games are more than mere sporting events. Sure, countries from around the world send their best athletes to compete and, hopefully, bring home the gold. But the Olympics also offer a space for diplomacy outside of the conventional realm of political talk.
This year, the twenty-third Winter Games are being held in PyeongCheng, South Korea, just fifty miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Unsurprisingly, media outlets have been bursting at the proverbial seams with talk of North Korea’s involvement in the Games.
Having this reclusive country compete in the Olympics is not as unusual as people might think. According to The Washington Post, North Korea has sent a delegation to every Summer Games (save for two it boycotted) since 1972, with a surprisingly successful record. However, North Korea has been less active in the Winter Games. But, this year, two figure skaters named Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik qualified to compete.
Bring up North Korea in a room of five people, and I’m sure you will get at least ten opinions on the matter. But it seems to me that people are constantly reacting, with few diplomatic talks including the reclusive country in question. That is not to say the United States or South Korea are completely at fault for not engaging in these talks; they have tried many times and have been met with an unresponsive North Korea.
I think these Olympic Games can change that, or at least be a step in the right direction. There is positive news of openness that may have gotten lost in the news cycle. Some examples of this include: North Korea reopened their border hotline with the South and officials from both Koreas engaged in a face-to-face meeting. I’m not trying to say that North Korea is not dangerous or should not be taken seriously as a threat. But in order to get everyone to a safer and more stable place, I think having dialogue that includes all concerned parties actually sitting at the same table is a huge step in the right direction.
In addition to having countries and representatives in the same place, the Olympics offer a reprieve from reality. Anxieties that govern our daily lives do not have to be as tense during those few short weeks of the Games.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, two gymnasts, Lee Eun-jun and Hong Un Jong, of South and North Korea respectively, stopped to take a selfie. These two girls would have never met outside the walls of the gymnastic stadium and have probably heard damning propaganda about each other’s home. But, inside the walls of a gym where all that mattered were numbers on a scoreboard, they were allowed just to be girls who happened to share a love for the same sport.
Now, there is talk of North and South Koreans sharing a four-man bobsled that would be one of the forerunning sleds sent down the chute to test conditions before the races. On the major scale of geopolitics and nuclear weapons, a bobsled seems insignificant. But the symbol of two differing nations peacefully sharing the same space sends a powerful message of cooperation to the world.
Can we expect to see more similar encounters in the future? Will there be formalized talks that take place on the sidelines of events? At a time when everyone is concerned with the size of a button attached to a nuclear warhead, the world needs a chance to take a breath. I don’t think it can be stressed enough: talking and diplomacy pave the way for a better world. Without understanding the other side of the equation, no real or lasting solutions can be reached.
In ancient times, the Olympics were so important that historians used to measure time in Olympiads, the four-year cycle of the games. Moreover, the Games were seen as Pan-Hellenic, belonging to all of Greece. The modern Olympic Games are modeled on such a tradition; we all belong to the same world and should share the same desire for a good life. American, South Korean, North Korean, in the end it makes very little difference. Having our athletes compete along side each other is a reminder that the world is capable of coming together.