Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is a professor of history at The College of New Rochelle. She is the author of “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete” and “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together.” As the former supervisor of NBC’s Olympic Research Room, she is a veteran of eight Olympics, with an Emmy win in 2012. The views expressed here are solely hers.
During Sunday’s Super Bowl, NBC treated football fans to a series of ads, called “The Best of US,” that featured some of the most high-profile American athletes who will be competing at the Winter Olympic Games, such as defending women’s slalom gold-medalist Mikaela Shiffrin, figure skater Nathan Chen, and snowboarders Chloe Kim and Shaun White.
But it is Lindsey Vonn’s spot that probably got the most traction. The emotionally charged profile set to Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” showed Vonn’s career arc, from a toddler snowplowing down a slope to a teenager schussing through a course, from an almost unprecedented number of podiums to a series of devastating crashes, her mangled body airlifted off a mountain by helicopter, followed by footage of brutal physical therapy and training, Vonn fighting her way back to the mountain for her fourth Olympics’ appearance.
These athletes are part of America’s “what to look for” in Pyeongchang. As always, the “what to look for” in an Olympics can be complicated. And while the Olympic Games are always a global event, world politics promises to play an outsized and more complex role this time around.
In many ways, the Olympics are the perfect place for an athlete to say his or her piece. Some Americans, like Vonn, have already staked some political claims. Last December, the skier told CNN she was representing “the people of the United States, not the President,” at the Olympics. Openly gay skier Gus Kenworthy and figure skater Adam Rippon have been vocal about Vice President Mike Pence leading the US delegation, especially because of what they view as Pence’s anti-LGBT positions. Other athletes might be waiting in the wings to make some kind of political statement during the Games, which last throughout most of February.
Using the Olympic Games to make a political point is not, of course, new, nor is it limited to the host country and its neighbors. In the last year or so in particular, American athletes have followed the example of Colin Kaepernick to more overtly use the playing field for political purpose. While Kaepernick remains unemployed, no NFL team willing to sign him, Vonn has gotten a taste of what the consequences of making a political statement can be like. After her comments about Trump, some of the backlash seemed extreme. According to Vonn, some hoped that she would break her neck. After a minor injury in a pre-Olympics race in Switzerland, others told her that God was punishing her for being anti-Trump.
The moment, she wrote later on Instagram, “opened up my eyes as to how divided we are right now.”
Korea’s politics, to be sure, have been center stage for months, with some questioning whether the Olympics should even take place amid the missile tests of the North. And now, with news that Kim Jong Un is sending his younger sister to the Games – marking the first time any member of the Kim dynasty has visited the country – the event promises to be as politicized as possible.
In 1988, when Seoul played host to the world, North Korea boycotted. But after a series of extensive talks, the country is sending a delegation of 22 athletes to Pyeongchang, competing in skiing, speed and figure skating, and hockey. Once again, the two countries will march together under a common flag in the opening ceremony, which they have done three times before, and field a unified women’s hockey team.
But despite these peaceful gestures, protesters met the 140-member orchestra sent by North Korea via ferry on Tuesday, holding signs with Kim Jong Un’s image crossed out by giant black lines and using the Olympic spotlight to show just how they felt about the temporary lift on sanctions.
For some Americans, the idea of an Olympic athlete protesting on the world stage is far more troubling than an NFL player taking a knee on home soil. But as athletes have long shown, whether they be Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising black gloved fists in Mexico City in 1968 or Super Bowl victors, including Torrey Smith, Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long, refusing to visit Trump’s White House, their beliefs do not disappear when they step onto the court, the field, the ice or the snow.
As NFL protests unfolded last season, US Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said athletes should be able to air their opinions. But the Olympics, he admits, are a bit more complicated because of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which aims to keep all eyes on sports without distraction. But the USOC isn’t in the business of screening its athletes before team selection to make sure they leave their silent gestures – the bended knees and clenched fists – at home. Blackmun, for one, has supported an athlete’s ability to embrace the rights and privileges of citizenship.
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On the eve of the PyeongChang Games, these remain questions. Despite the political turmoil that greeted the Winter Olympics in Sochi four years ago, from anti-LGTBQ acts to Olympic venues built on indigenous lands, there was little that strayed from sport until athletes from Ukraine asked the International Olympic Committee if they could mark the bloodshed in Kiev by wearing black armbands. But the International Olympic Committee, citing Rule 50, stood firm then and remains adamant that the Games be without politics.
The Greeks, of course, didn’t see the Olympics as eliminating politics from daily life. Rather, they saw sport as a way to visualize peaceful resolutions to political problems, connecting athletic competition to diplomatic measures, and invoking the notion of ekecheiria – truce – to disrupt feuds and rivalries, wars and hostilities.
Rather than worry about who may or may not take a proverbial knee with a medal around their neck, maybe we need to understand that protest is the best of us and US – taking a stand, expressing an opinion and bringing home the gold.