North and South Korea re-opened a hotline last week for the first time in two years and, among other things, talked about North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics. Incredibly, North Korea now says it is planning to send athletes, officials and a cheer squad to the upcoming Games.
As Defense Secretary James Mattis cautioned, it is too soon to know if this is a one-off or “a real olive branch.” But if nothing else, the two sides are talking to each other — and about figure skaters. It’s a welcome deviation from the customary bellicose rhetoric.
The Olympics are less than month away, and familiar alarm bells have been sounded. Before London and Sochi, the coverage featured as much talk about terror as swimming and skiing. In Rio, we were told that Zika-carrying mosquitoes were set to take over every venue. But those concerns, which never materialized, pale in comparison to the dangerous prospect that a South Korean Olympics presents: a threat from North Korea, just 50 miles away from the heart of these Games, and a leader who says “a nuclear button is always on my desk.” But what if South Korea actually turns out to be the best possible place for the Olympics?
The massive security operations at every Olympics, while they will be on high alert in Pyeongchang, have been a model of success in the post-9/11 world. And, alongside the dangers, there’s a symbolic point to be made this time — the location of these Games couldn’t be more apt. The most heavily fortified border in the world, abutting one of its most isolated regimes, and with two countries still technically at war, should bear witness to the most peaceful, unifying event the planet has to offer.
The rise of South Korea — from an agrarian, war-ravaged society to an international economic power — is one of the most transformative global success stories of the past half century. The culmination of that rise was both accelerated and embodied by a seminal event: the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. Roughly a year before those Games, South Korea was reborn as an open society and democratic state, with its first directly elected president, and a new range of social norms, from civil rights to a free press. The Olympics introduced this new South Korea to the world and now, 30 years later, the Olympics are returning.
Over two weeks in February, fans will be treated to a familiar, exciting and unique collective experience of shared pride in individual achievement. American superstars such as the snowboarder Shaun White and the skiers Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin are returning to the snow to chase gold medals. On ice, an 18-year-old acrobat from Salt Lake City named Nathan Chen, who’s transforming his sport with an unprecedented array of quadruple jumps, will make his own bid for gold. And from around the world, new characters with fresh narratives will fire the public’s imagination. My personal favorite is an underdog story: the Nigerian women’s bobsled team, making its unlikely, sure-to-be-adventurous Olympic debut.
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The Olympics have never been merely about sporting events; they’ve also been a powerful reminder of what the world can be: citizens of the planet, coming together, to experience different cultures devoid of judgment or hatred. The athletes’ infectious enthusiasm for this temporary way of the world fuels our desire to one day, somehow, make this a reality for ourselves and future generations.
Cynical detractors can often outshout thoughtful critics, and the Olympics make a convenient target. The Games are far from perfect, and no one should ever claim they are, but they are perhaps more vital now than ever. Thirty years ago, South Korea’s role as Olympics host ignited economic growth and national identity. Perhaps this winter, as the world returns to this critically important peninsula, there will be a de-escalation of tensions and a renewed emphasis on hope and cooperation. Warts and all, the Olympics may turn out to be the best vehicle for such an essential transformation.
Jim Bell is the president of NBC Olympics Production and Programming.