The message of the 2018 Pyeongchang “Peace Olympics” is clear.
Athletes using performance-enhancing drugs will be exiled, stripped of national colours and shunned. “Olympic Athletes from Russia” participating in the Winter Games are feeling such scorn.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s 500-person Olympic delegation — attending the Olympics under duress, constant surveillance and potential abuse —are venerated. The 22 athletes and some 200 cheerleaders — an Olympic first — bear as much resemblance to the Olympic values of “friendship, respect and excellence” as do the Harlem Globetrotters to the NBA championships.
This sets an alarming precedent. Banning Russia while embracing North Korea reveals the deeper moral value of the Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee opposes performance-enhancing drugs that can carry an athlete to the podium. However, it remains eerily silent on how North Korea pushes their athletes towards that same podium.
“Olympic Truce” dates back to ancient Greece. It allows athletes to travel safely to participate in Olympic events during times of conflict. North Korean athletes are in Pyeongchang under this edict. It is meant to build peaceful resolve to the Korean conflict.
But is diplomacy possible with North Korea? Kim Jong-un’s state of iron-fisted control breaks international agreements with impunity.
North Koreans are not seeing live footage of the 2018 Winter Games. At most, only small snippets through state-controlled media will enter the country. As of today, North Korea has yet to broadcast any footage of the Olympics.
North Korean athletes will not interact with other delegations. They are under 24-hour surveillance by their North Korean minders. Even washroom breaks are closely scrutinized. While worried about potential defections, the North Korean regime is mostly concerned about defamation against it. South Korea even advised anti-North Korean activists to “be quiet” during the Games.
The process of becoming an elite athlete in North Korea is best described as “brutal.” Choi Hyun Mi, a North Korean boxer who defected in 2004, has described how North Korea creates Olympians. The government selected her at the age of 11 to box. Food was used for both control and incentive. Fight harder, and you will eat more. Falter, and you will starve.
Abused and condemned
Demoralizing tasks are doled out to those who perform poorly. Choi recalls how athletes were forced to stand in front of crowds to be publicly abused and condemned if they fail to win.
“Shaming was particularly bad to competitors who lost to rivals from South Korea, Japan or the United States,” she said.
There will be consequences if any of the North Korean delegates err from the script. The regime monitors the families of its athletes, and occasionally holds them as collateral. Speaking off script, or causing shame to the leader or the regime in any way, can result in detention and political re-education.
Three generations can be punished in North Korea if a family member is suspected of defamation of the leader, espionage or contact with foreigners.
To such accounts of human rights abuses, the International Olympic Committee turns a blind eye. But to weed out performance-enhancing dopers, it will scour every last drop of urine.
Sport diplomacy can be an effective means of engagement. The Olympics has in the past shown the communality of sport between Soviet and Western nations. The 1972 Canada/Soviet Union Summit Series was a moment of nationalist fervour and served as a diplomatic gateway to view the other side as human beings passionate about a sport both countries adore.
Great political moment
In 1991, pending the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba hosted the Pan-American games to open up to its neighbours. The 1995 Rugby World Cup is credited as an important diplomatic moment for post-Apartheid South Africa.
But in what sense can there be sport diplomacy with a regime willing to punish family members of athletes, and one that systematically abuses its athletes as part of their Olympic training?
The theme “Peace Olympics” and the Olympic Truce imply that politics are put on hold, but for North Korea, Pyeongchang is a great political moment. It is a chance to capitalize on the world’s fascination about the Hermit Kingdom, while turning a blind eye to the gruesome human rights abuses within the regime.
Make no mistake, sending some 200 female cheerleaders to the Olympics makes for a fantastic diversion from the fact that most North Korean refugees are women, and many are trafficked into the sex trade in China.
The Olympics are also an opportunity to have direct talks free of Donald Trump’s dim-witted Tweets about North Korea. But seeking sport diplomacy with North Korea sets a precedent that overlooks human rights abuses, and even validates them as a means to engagement.
So let it be declared that doping and sport diplomacy do not mix. But as North Korea shows, hunger, abuse and propaganda represent a path to the medal podium.