Hopes were high that the 2018 Winter Games would be the “Peace Olympics.”
Cynics soon suggested that they were the go-to-pieces Olympics, as fewer U.S. victories led to fewer viewers than the 2014 Games in Sochi.
But by the time Afton’s Jessie Diggins carries the U.S. flag in Sunday’s Closing Ceremony, realists should see the Olympics for what they are: an improved, if imperfect, version of the world, if only for a fortnight or so.
The optimistic Opening Ceremony was highlighted by North and South Korean athletes marching under a unification flag to the cheers of chilly fans in Pyeongchang and a world watching for a thaw in the peninsula’s political permafrost. But soon the media glare glanced away from the deserving athletes to the undeserving sister of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s ruthless ruler.
Too much was also made of Vice President Mike Pence’s pensive reaction to Kim Yo Jong’s presence at the event, especially since Pence proved to be the authentic envoy, willing to secretly meet with representatives of the reckless, reclusive regime until Pyongyang balked.
Figure skater Adam Rippon also declined to meet the veep due to Pence’s perspective on same-sex marriage and other gay-rights issues. But Rippon did connect with the media and became a household name during the games.
Others becoming overnight (literally, given the time difference) sports sensations were 17-year-old snowboarders Red Gerard and Chloe Kim, who’s pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and soon Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.
Both embodied the mellow intensity innate to their sport, just as Shaun White did after he won his first gold. But the shredder’s image was cut up when the #MeToo movement made its way to Pyeongchang, and White had to apologize after he dismissed serious sexual harassment allegations as “gossip.”
White wasn’t the only athlete with clay feet.
Two South Korean speedskaters, Kim Bo-Reum and Park Ji Woo, left a lagging teammate behind during and after a team pursuit race, prompting thousands of Koreans to petition for their expulsion.
Meanwhile, Russian Alexander Krushelnitsky was stripped of his bronze medal after allegations of doping.
Crucially, Krushelnitsky’s a curler — a wonderful winter sport beloved by Minnesotans, but not one usually associated with performance-enhancing drugs.
The bust reflects the rot that already got Russia banned from the Games.
Well, not really: The International Olympic Committee still allowed 168 athletes — the third-biggest contingent — to compete as “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” or “OAR.”
Those were hardly scarlet letters; rather, red hockey uniforms (and solid play) evoked the era of Soviet hockey prowess.
This year’s Russian team isn’t as good as those Cold War versions, but it will play for the gold medal — against Germany, not Canada or the U.S., in part because the National Hockey League’s narrow-minded leaders wouldn’t let league players compete.
The U.S. and Canadian women’s teams did compete, however. And then some. A roster replete with Minnesotans, including Andover’s newly minted gold-medal goalie Maddie Rooney, beat their fierce rivals from Canada in a dramatic shootout.
A shout-out to several other state athletes is in order, too, and not just from Minnesota, but from the nation, as Diggins, Lindsey Vonn and John Shuster’s “Team of Rejects” curling crew that goes for the gold on Saturday upped the medal count.
Their triumphs transcend the initial image of underperforming U.S. athletes, a perception that may have reduced ratings from Sochi. But the viewership comparison is from four years ago, an eon in terms of audiences atomizing due to technological transformations.
But there’s more than commercial dynamics at play. Culture, and its symbiotic relationship with politics, seemed to matter, too. “THE YEAR OF THE DOG: TEAM USA STRUGGLES,” the conservative Drudge Report website gleefully labeled its story on America’s podium paucity. The headline channeled Chinese New Year, but also amplified an era of sharp partisan divides that even athletes emblazoned with “USA” can’t avoid. Some used social media to rip Rippon for his advocacy, while others taunted Vonn when she failed to strike gold because of her previous comments on President Donald Trump.
Viewers influenced by the negativity missed positive stories not just about U.S. athletes, but those from other countries, too.
Among many other feel-good stories in this feel-bad era was Mexican cross-country skier German Madrazo, a 43-year-old who hadn’t skied until last year. Madroza finished last. But first among fans and fellow skiers, who hoisted him in an Olympian display of sportsmanship.
Such moments are a respite from the monumental challenges facing the Olympic movement.
Politics have always permeated the Games (fascists in Berlin, black-power podium protests in Mexico City, boycotts of Moscow and Los Angeles, just to name a few flash points).
More recently, busted budgets and hostile host-city candidates have narrowed the list of potential sites. And soon, according to a New York Times analysis, climate change may be winnowing winter venues, too — by 2050 nine of 21 cities that hosted Winter Games may be too warm to do so again. (Pyeongchang’s chill was welcome, in a way.)
But the geopolitical, geoeconomic and global-climate challenges are precisely why the Olympic flame must stay lit. No, the Games themselves aren’t a peace panacea to an imperiled peninsula, or other sites of chronic conflict.
But in a world of spiraling crises, they are an athletic aspiration of global unity, and a reminder that national disputes are best fought on the slopes or the rink.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.