I love the Olympics, I really do. Every two years, along with the rest of the country, I get way too invested in sports almost no one normally watches like curling or beach volleyball. In my lifetime, there have been some amazing Olympic ceremony moments. From Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic torch in 1996 to the Spice Girls reunion in 2012, the ceremonies have almost always been something to behold, at least in my opinion.
But this year was different in PyeongChang, South Korea. First, Russian athletes were the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” because of the doping scandal recently uncovered after the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. The United States and Russia obviously have a long history, both politically and athletically. It was categorically odd to see the Russians, the third largest delegation after the United States and Canada, with muted uniforms and a simple Olympic flag. But there was a bright moment, at the end came the delegations of North and South Korea, marching together, one athlete from each nation both holding the flag.
This was a nice moment, I thought to myself, but then the camera panned to Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, sitting nearby Vice President Mike Pence. The tension was palpable. She had a stoic, icy and almost menacing, look on her face and you could have cut the political tension between the United States and North Korea with a knife straight through the television. Would these two nations find the peace the Olympic games seems to have always promised by bringing the world together?
In my 27 years of existence, the United States has been the most powerful country on the planet. I was born at the end of the Cold War and the U.S. has been a powerhouse ever since. You could say the Olympics have been a metaphor for that because the United States has almost always had the highest medal count in the Summer Olympics, while faring a little worse in the Winter Olympics. This year was no different; the United States finished fourth after Norway, Germany, and Canada.
But somehow, it felt like none of it mattered. I don’t know if it was NBC’s lackluster coverage of the games, the feeling of a sterile, cold environment in South Korea on television that desperately needed the usual showcase of a host nation’s culture, the Parkland tragedy, or a combination of all three. After the shooting in Florida, soon after the games opened, it felt like watching these athletes compete for medals in events like alpine skiing and figure skating was not even remotely important. 17 people had lost their lives, but here I was watching Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski give figure skating commentary, both dressed like they lived in the Capitol from the Hunger Games. With kids dying unnecessarily back home because of our own inabilities to pass any meaningful gun control legislation because of Republican politicians’ reliance on NRA campaign money, it really did feel like the Hunger Games.
Then, there was the Twitter commentary aimed at Lindsey Vonn, Adam Rippon, and Gus Kenworthy. Lindsey Vonn has been the darling of alpine skiing since she made her Olympic debut at age 17 in Salt Lake City. Before the games, Lindsey said she would represent, “the U.S. but not President Trump.” When it came time for her to perform in the downhill and she finished third on the podium, the Twitterverse went wild saying it was karma for not supporting President Trump. Rather, it had nothing to do with the fact that she was the oldest female to ever medal in an alpine skiing event. Adam Rippon and Gus Kenworthy, two of the first openly gay Olympians, took to Twitter as well to express their displeasure with what they perceived to be Vice President Pence’s homophobic policies. Instead of bringing the world together, it seemed that we could not even bring the country together during these games.
Near the end of the games, assistant to the president Ivanka Trump showed up for the closing ceremonies with Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in tow to represent the United States during the closing ceremony. It was reported that Ivanka spoke with President Moon of South Korea to possibly begin negotiations to thaw the icy relationship between North Korea and the United States. Ivanka and Ms. Sanders took awkward photos taking turns trying on Lauren Gibbs’ silver medal for bobsledding. I’ll try not to read too much into it, but it seems telling that they found one of the few black athletes competing in the Winter Olympics to use for Trump Administration PR.
I’m not trying to disparage South Korea because they were a wonderful host nation to our athletes and the rest of the world’s athletes, but the timing of these Olympics could not have been worse. When all is said and done, will PyeongChang be remembered as the catalyst for change and peace between nations? Will it be remembered for having a significant impact on changing the actions of Kim Jong-un? Or will it be remembered for being as fake as the snow the alpine athletes competed on? It’s hard to say as a new report by the U.N. shows that North Korea has supplied Syria with supplies for the chemical weapons used on the Syrian people by President Bashar al-Assad.
While the world grapples with how to deal with North Korea and problems in the Middle East, how will the United States be a meaningful partner in creating peace if we cannot even have any peace amongst ourselves? The increasingly uncivil discourse between American citizens seems to have one simple question in common with the Olympics: is America really great again? According to the final medal count, the verdict is no.