Next Olympics stuck in middle of North Korea uncertainty

Nearly 30 years ago, the Olympics came to South Korea for the first time. Those were the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, held in Seoul, 80 miles west of Pyeongchang. There were serious concerns before those Games that the North Koreans were going to do something terrible. One fear was that they would open their dams and allow their rivers to flood Seoul. It never happened.

As the rhetoric and the fear ratchet up over North Korea, the next Olympic Games loom in the not-too-distant future, now less than six months away.

The 2018 Winter Olympics will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which sits practically on the doorstep of North Korea, just 40 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone separating the north from the south.

As of now, those Games are on schedule to begin Feb. 9 and end Feb. 25. Athletes from around the world are training every day under that assumption. They know, as anyone who has followed the Olympics does, that the only reason the Olympic Games have ever been canceled has been due to world war.

The 1916 Summer Olympics were not held because of World War I, and the 1940 and 1944 Winter and Summer Games were canceled because of World War II.

The Olympics have otherwise carried on during all kinds of other conflicts, including regional wars involving the United States and Russia, and boycotts led by the United States and the then-Soviet Union.

But, as long as there is uncertainty surrounding the alarming developments between North Korea and the U.S., there naturally will be uncertainty about the upcoming Winter Olympics.

For Olympic athletes, there is nothing new about that.

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“Unfortunately there is never a way to avoid the political stressors even in the athlete bubble, especially with our current political climate,” U.S. Olympic bronze medal-winning luger Erin Hamlin told USA TODAY Sports in a text Wednesday afternoon. “It is an uneasy feeling hearing so much animosity going back and forth but the only thing I can do is my job. I can't control what happens on that scope so I'm going to focus on what I can control, which is working hard every day to make the team and represent Team USA as best I can.”

The U.S. Olympic Committee is monitoring developments, as it always does before an upcoming Games.

“Each host city presents a unique challenge from a security perspective,” spokesman Patrick Sandusky said Wednesday morning, “and, as is always the case, we are working with the organizers and the relevant law enforcement agencies, as well as the American State Department, to ensure that our athletes, and our entire delegation, are safe.”

I’ve covered 17 Olympics in a row, winter and summer, and I can’t remember one that didn’t provoke concern, some graver than others.

The 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens were the first Summer Games held after the Sept. 11 attacks. Located in the Mediterranean so close to the Middle East, they could have been a home game for terrorists seeking to disrupt the world’s largest, regularly scheduled peacetime gathering.

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games were held in Sochi, Russia, where concerns about terrorism in the region dominated headlines for months.

Thankfully, there were no incidents in Athens, nor in Sochi. In fact, the last time terrorism struck the Olympics was at the 1996 Atlanta Games, when a homemade bomb in Centennial Olympic Park killed 44-year-old spectator Alice Hawthorne.

The worst incident of terrorism at the Olympics remains the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches in Munich in 1972.

Nearly 30 years ago, the Olympics came to South Korea for the first time. Those were the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, held in Seoul, 80 miles west of Pyeongchang. There were serious concerns before those Games that the North Koreans were going to do something terrible. One fear was that they would open their dams and allow their rivers to flood Seoul. It never happened.

At those Games, journalists were given the option to visit the DMZ and even enter North Korea by walking around a table in a building bisected by the border. As we approached in a bus, our U.S. military guides handed out a waiver to sign. I’ll never forget the wording on that sheet of paper: You are entering a war zone and realize that you could be injured or killed.

I’ll also never forget all the guns pointed at our group by North Koreans perched high and low. Of course, U.S. and South Korean soldiers were returning the favor, pointing north.

Those Olympics are known for many things, including Ben Johnson’s positive drug test, Janet Evans’ swimming prowess and Greg Louganis’ inspiring comeback after hitting his head on the diving board.

They are not known for terrorism or war or carnage, because, thankfully, that never happened.

Now, once again, the Olympic Games are coming to South Korea. Sadly, but not surprisingly, politics and danger are following right along.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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