The Koreas: Games on and off the field as Winter Olympics offer a chance to thaw relations

The Koreas: Games on and off the field as Winter Olympics offer a chance to thaw relations

Here we are again with the quadrennial Winter Olympic Games – this time in PyeongChang, South Korea. But some astonishing diplomatic developments may be an even bigger story than the games themselves. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a slalom down memory lane and looks at the North-South Korean developments as well as the fact that even South Africa is represented this year at the Olympics.

Back in 1985, the author was perched precariously at the starting point for the Olympic men’s downhill skiing course, located just beyond downtown Sapporo, Japan. (Sapporo had hosted the games in 1972 and the infrastructure had been kept up as part of the city’s tourism efforts). From the finish line at the bottom of the hill, the course had looked rather long and daunting but still manageable, even for a novice skier, just as long as one moved carefully down that mountainside slope and didn’t take undue risks.

But perched at the top of the course, it felt like one was perched at the edge of a precipitous, near-90-degree drop, down a treacherous, life-threatening mountainside course, expressly designed to maim or even kill the unwary.

Nevertheless, once one was there, a kind of honour was involved, and so this increasingly nervous skier pushed off, heedless of the growing possibility of imminent death, in order to begin skiing down the monster course. Gravity took over and we were off. An absolutely phenomenal feeling of exhilaration took hold, offering intimations of what champion skiers must feel when they conquer a challenging course or set a new world record.

By the time I was about half way down the slope, another skier glided up to me from behind and he asked if I was injured. I’d already taken so long to reach this point, the course manager had become concerned something had happened to me on the way down, perhaps a major injury or even a heart attack, apparently.

Eventually, by the time I came to a halt at the end of the course, I had actually achieved a record. Unofficially, I had achieved the longest-ever descent time down this slope – but I had made it down in one piece. Afterwards, we all went off and had enough sushi and Sapporo beer to soothe anyone’s bruised ego.

Living in Sapporo, Japan, my colleagues were initially incredulous that I did not – yet – ski. That defect determined, I was soon bundled off to the Teine Highlands (an easy drive from the city’s downtown) and put under the care of the Yuichiro Miura ski school. Miura himself was world-famous as the hero-subject of the documentary film, The Man Who Skiied Down Everest. Miura had actually skied down the Lhotse face of the globe’s highest mountain (although truthfully, he had fallen down a significant portion of it in a fall that could have easily ended his life instead). He had created a famous ski school on the site of some of the facilities created for the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo. Miura was also famous for successfully climbing the highest mountains on all seven continents, and he was a self-effacing, gentle, soft-spoken force of nature despite his achievements.

Miura was not going to teach me himself, of course, but he did assign one of his crack young teachers, Kyoko Kimura, to take me on, along with two other American diplomats recently assigned to Japan who had similarly only watched skiers, rather than joining in the sport themselves. Like pretty much every other teacher in Japan who imparts a skill or craft to a novice, she was relentless and unforgiving in urging us on, pushing us to do better; challenging us to tackle the slopes, despite our hidden fears and terrors about concussions, broken hips and limbs. And so we learned, despite our obvious lack of talent.

Photo: Consul Mark Minton, with Kimura sensei and Yuichiro Miura and J. Brooks Spector, on the snow at Teine Highlands Ski School, 1984. The author wears black, a ski mask, gloves and hat.

Watching the first two days of the 2018 Pyeong Chang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea on television, memories of my very modest skiing career have come pouring back, even though, truthfully, I was always being passed by small children who seemed to have been born on those slopes, and even by an occasional elderly person such as Yuichiro Miura’s own 90-year-old father. They all had an excuse, of course. They had been born in Sapporo and the city had enormous powder snowfalls every winter. As a consequence of this meteorological circumstance, 11 ski lifts ringed the city. City buses even had ski racks on their sides during the ski season so that residents did not need to drive to the slopes in order to participate in the sport. Their regular commuter bus passes were sufficient. Japan is like that.

But it turns out our family has another connection to think about as these winter games begin. South Africa has a one-person team, comprised solely of 20-year-old Connor Wilson. He took up skiing competitively while he was studying abroad after his first sports love, equestrian show jumping, had to be put on hold when his horse developed a serious medical condition, incapacitating the animal.

Skiing was his second choice, and by the time he had entered the University of Vermont in the US to study veterinary science, he was already skiing on the slopes every spare moment he could arrange. Vermont has great skiing too and he became internationally ranked in the sport. But our connection? His family had actually been our near neighbours in Johannesburg for several years and my wife had taught him music at school when he was younger.

For local sporting patriots, South Africa’s only competitor in this Olympics takes his competitive turn early in the morning of 18 February. Naturally, we shall be watching and cheering him on, even as he faces an extraordinarily competitive field of the very best skiers from Europe, the US and other nations – many of whom have much more international competition experience than Connor has been able to manage. Wilson is actually one of 12 African competitors in this Olympics appearing for eight countries, a new record, all on its own, before anyone even hits the ice or snow. For international audiences, the Nigerian bobsled team has captured the imagination of many, as well as the fact that one of those team members will also compete in the solo skeleton event – a really daredevil kind of sledding.

But what about this Olympics Games in the larger picture? It is a safe bet there will be extraordinarily exciting match-ups in speed skating; ski jumping; various types of snowboarding; ice hockey games; and, of course, the ultimate crowd pleaser – those single and pairs figure skating competitions. There will be much gushing over new records and amazing performances of multiple airborne spins by the ice skaters, and heartbreak from accidents or upsets by young global stars in the making over long-time, established favourites. But, somehow, and unexpectedly, international diplomacy seems to have seized the spotlight as an unusual special event, all by itself, and this has threatened to capture many of the headlines that would ordinarily have gone to those skaters and skiers.

In a way, it was almost impossible to see how it would have come out any other way, with the games in South Korea and tensions on the Korean Peninsula on the boil. Back during the Cold War, an ice hockey face off between teams from the US and the Soviet Union, or one-on-one match-ups between figure skaters – from the Soviet Union and the West – took on almost as much focus and attention as a tense military stand-off, save for the fact that combat would be infinitely more destructive to the world.

Commentators took to quoting philosopher William James and his early 20th century essay about sports becoming the moral equivalent of war as humankind became more civilised, but not quite yet. There were even films about miracle victories, such as the American men’s ice hockey team’s defeat of a much more powerful Soviet team comprised of professional skaters cleverly disguised as virtually no-show factory employees, when the US team had been assembled from leading undergraduate university students on sports scholarships.

But amid the blood-curdling threats and counterthreats being issued between the US and North Korea over the latter nation’s intentions to test and then build a nuclear bomb-equipped intercontinental missile force; the exchanges of increasingly histrionic insults between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump; and an ongoing forward ratchet of economic and financial sanctions against North Korea, something else was brewing. South Korean President Moon Dae-in and the local organisers had taken to calling the upcoming gathering the “Peace Olympics” and, as hosts, extended an invitation to North Korea to participate. Despite North Korea’s scheduling of one of their vast military parades in Pyongyang as a kind of provocative demonstration of force, they accepted the invitation.

Several North Korean athletes who had international competition points sufficient to compete were selected, there was agreement that the two nations would form a joint female ice hockey team, and the North would send a high-level political delegation, busloads of cheerleaders, demonstration martial arts teams and so forth. And the two teams would therefore also enter the opening ceremonies as a joint team, rather than as two separate teams.

In fact, the North Korean delegation was headed by the elderly Kim Young-nam, the titular head of state, but also included the powerful Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s 30-year-old sister and the apparent head of the country’s propaganda messaging – including shaping the imagery for this visit – as the key member of the delegation. Meanwhile, the US was represented by Vice President Mike Pence for the opening ceremonies.

One great surprise from the initial encounters was an invitation to South Korean President Moon to visit Pyongyang, delivered by Ms Kim. At the opening ceremony, Pence seems to have shared some air space with Kim Young-nam, but he tried hard to avoid even having the slightest interaction with Ms Kim. In fact, Pence demonstrated a kind of sullen churlishness that even extended to refusing to stand to welcome the host joint team, in visible contrast to almost everybody else’s applause and cheering. No gold medal for Pence, for sure, although the North Koreans probably deserve one for seizing the initiative of this invitation and as a result of all the headlines that have come with their participation and this sudden invitation.

Then, early in the games, the unified Korean female ice hockey team squared off against the Swiss. It was a massacre on the ice, but an extraordinary moment for Olympic history nonetheless. The Swiss butchered their opponents  8-0, with one Swiss skater scoring three goals in the first period. But the fact of the match itself and the efforts of the newly unified team’s coach, Canadian Sara Murray, surely deserve a special medal as well. They only had a few weeks to practice and to meld styles and playbooks together and their efforts took place to the accompaniment of the roar of the crowd and the amazement of more jaundiced international onlookers as well.

While no one realistically expects this ice hockey team to be the actual harbinger of peace on the peninsula, if there is a further détente that eventually turns into something more serious and permanent, a decade from now, analysts may well point to that match as the moment something unexpected suddenly became possible. Of course, the geopolitical facts on the ground remain. The North Koreans appear to be firmly set on their missile and nuclear ambitions, even as the US and its allies oppose this development. The North Koreans continue to keep up their massive military demonstrations, even as the US and South Korea carry out their own joint military exercises (although the most recently scheduled ones were postponed until after the games as a nod to the need to keep sports out of politics – or politics out of sports). And there is not yet any real ceasefire between the US and North Korea in the airwaves or via Twitter feeds. And North Korea remains a repressive totalitarian regime.

The North Koreans have, however, through their public relations coup, managed to tap into a fertile field of opinion in South Korea that supports concrete moves to construct ties across the De-Militarised Zone, thereby exposing differences in strategic approaches between South Korea and the US in this matter. In that sense, then, this hint of an opening of connections between North and South presents South Korean President Moon Jae-in with some real opportunities and challenges, but also some potential major pitfalls if he and his American counterparts (let alone with Japan) fall significantly out of step in dealing with Kim Jong-un’s notoriously secretive regime. This will be a contest to watch. DM

Photo: Kim Young-nam (L), president of the Presidium of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly and Kim Yo-jong (C), the sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un at the women’s Ice Hockey match between Switzerland and Korea at the Kwandong Hockey Centre during the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games 2018, in Gangneung, South Korea, 10 February 2018. EPA-EFE/ALEXANDRA WEY


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