Participation: an Olympic demonstration sport

As the 2018 Winter Olympics – known in these early days as the “Goodwill Games” – kick off, I’m reminded of an article I wrote in Toronto’s NOW Magazine four years ago, as the Sochi Olympics closed, and of how politics can enter for better or for worse into the arena of international sport.

My 2014 NOW article contemplated whether Canada’s athletes did the right thing by participating in the Sochi Games in the face of widespread protests against the Russian government’s overt anti-gay stance. I also considered other Olympic boycotts, including one I’d been personally affected by (Canada’s refusal to send athletes to the 1980 Moscow summer games). Overall, I felt – and still mostly do – that participation and engagement usually top boycotts and silence, notwithstanding times when egregious, ubiquitous moral transgressions by nasty regimes call for an outright refusal to play along with the charade.

Pyongchang in 2018 is different. South Korea, as host nation, has done yeoman work welcoming the world while figuring out how to deal with their angry, isolated cousins to the north. Seoul, in conjunction with the IOC, has opted for the full red carpet rollout for North Korea, not only inviting the north’s athletes to join the competition, but also asking Kim Jong-Un’s sister (also her country’s highest ranking diplomat) to take a place of honour for the opening ceremonies, one row behind a stony-faced Mike Pence & wife – and, remarkably, effectively unifying south and north by having athletes from both parts of the peninsula march into the stadium as one united “Korea,” a simple term not heard in geopolitics for generations.

Seeing these inspiring young stars walking together – young people separated only by ills and accidents of power and politics in the time of their great-grandparents – almost gets you believing that sports can heal the biggest of rifts, can remind you that divisions are arbitrary, that hatred is unnecessary and unity our natural resting state. Almost… The TV news covers this unprecedented unifying march first, but quickly jumps from Pyongchang to the horrors of Syria, the pathetic parade of sex abusers brought low, and the rest of it.

But here at the 2018 Olympics we see that participation and inclusion have their great benefits, just as joining in was right for our athletes in Sochi 2014, as it was for John Carlos and Tommie Smith in 1968, and for Jesse Owens in 1936.

And beyond the politics – more important than the politics, most times – we get to marvel at the athletes: the ones who come first, those who end up on the podium, but also all those who don’t. All of them warrant all the attention and applause we can give – for winning, for losing, for being there. And for participating.


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