Amid nuclear threats, the Olympics are walking down a familiar, ugly path

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist
The 2018 Winter Olympics are set to begin in PyeongChang, South Korea, on Feb. 9, 2018. (Getty Images)

Six months from now, athletes from across the globe are expected to travel to a city less than 50 miles from the border of a country playing nuclear war games with the rest of the world. Of the many things at which the Olympic movement excels – corruption, bribery, fraud, waste and hypocrisy are particular specialties – its ability to place the world’s games in troubled places surely tops the list.

The International Olympic Committee gleefully sold its soul to Russia for the 2014 Winter Games, happy to let profiteering oligarchs and a systematic state-sponsored doping program run free alongside one another while providing cover for the annexation of Crimea upon the Sochi Games’ conclusion. Then came the Rio Games, set amid crushing poverty, swathed by fear of the Zika virus. The mosquito-borne hysteria proved overblown. Brazil instead was left with diseased stadia that sit empty and rot, monuments to greed and excess and avarice that define the Olympics of today.

In contrast, PyeongChang, South Korea, does not carry the stench of recent Olympic depravity. It may not be a classic, picturesque European ski haven, but it isn’t some snowless metropolis like Beijing, site of the 2022 Winter Games, either. Its malady is purely geographical. When the IOC awarded PyeongChang the 2018 Winter Games, it could not have anticipated an American president responding to the provocations of North Korea by threatening destruction “like the world has never seen,” a phrase last approximated by a commander-in-chief after he introduced the Atomic Age. But here we are, talking about miniaturization and intercontinental ballistic missiles, fretting about that inflection point where words turn to bombs, understanding that not only PyeongChang next year but Tokyo in 2020 will live under the constant threat of annihilation from the most irrational of actors.

And it’s amid this dread that Olympians stare at the potential danger, weigh it against four years of grueling training for an unmatched apex and, well, shrug. They comprehend the gravity. They recognize the threat. They’ve just got better things to do than worry about it.

Maddie Bowman is 23 years old. She won Olympic gold in Sochi with a flawless halfpipe skiing run and went viral thanks to her grandma. She balances training for PyeongChang with studying for college, though neither keeps her from remaining historically conscious enough to grasp the threat of North Korea that has existed for decades.

Still, when Bowman attended a February test event at Bokwang Phoenix Park, where the freeskiing and snowboarding halfpipe contests will take place, no sense of impending doom imperiled her.

“When we went to South Korea, I felt safe,” Bowman told Yahoo Sports. “And in Russia, I felt pretty safe. I think as skiers, we obviously don’t see risk as a big thing in our lives. In talking with fellow athletes, it’s like, yeah, maybe the Olympics won’t happen, but it’s hard for us to see that risk. It’s not going to get in the way of my goals. I like to keep up with what’s going on in the world and am concerned with decisions we make as a country, but it’s not affecting my training.”

The chatter among fellow Olympians, Bowman said, centers more on the possibility of the PyeongChang Games being canceled rather than athletes pulling out because of concerns over the region’s stability. Considering only World War I in 1914 and World War II in 1940 and 1944 caused Olympic cancellation, Bowman hopes such concerns are purely hypothetical.

Whether individual athletes start to reassess their commitment to PyeongChang is worth monitoring, particularly if the saber rattling ratchets up. Zika anxiety prompted a rash of golf and tennis stars to withdraw from Rio. For them, of course, the Olympics are little more than a charming detour. Those who spend years training in anonymity, from alpine skiers to bobsledders to speed skaters and beyond, treat the Olympics with great reverence in spite of its obvious warts.

Maddie Bowman, who won gold at the 2014 Games in Sochi, isn’t letting political threats get in the way of her journey to PyeongChang. (Getty Images)

Bowman straddles the line between those two worlds, with freestyle skiing featured annually on ESPN during the X Games but the sport still niche enough to afford her peace and quiet outside of its community. She can go to PyeongChang without being mobbed and come away remembering more that “the people of South Korea are amazing” than some overwhelming sense of alarm.

Perhaps that will fade, the rhetoric bending away from threats and toward progress, whatever that may look like. It’s a lot to ask, and for sports’ great ability to unite, and the Olympics’ unparalleled aptitude at weaving into that a pure shot of unfiltered jingoism, the idea that the PyeongChang Games may serve as some grand unifier is asking a bit much.

South Korea’s sports minister, after all, suggested in June that perhaps the Olympics be co-hosted, with a North Korean ski resort serving as an official site. Two days later, the overture was shot down, and now it’s unclear if North Korea will send athletes to PyeongChang after failing to qualify any for the Sochi Games.

Even if North Korean athletes endeavor to win their country’s third winter Olympic medal and 57th overall, it does little to allay the apprehension that courses through the world today. North Korea wants to destroy the West and all for which it stands, and few events so closely draw together the countries that enrage it as does the Olympics. And six months from now, it may well play sitting duck, barely 50 miles between PyeongChang and Pyongyang, another Olympic Games as much about where it is as what it is.

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