For decades, the Olympics have been plagued by harsh boycotts by other countries, usually because of human rights or perceived conflicts, but for the past 45 years, the summer and winter games were free from any unrest. This year, at least three nations are considering skipping the 2018 games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, because of worries over its controversial President, Kim Jong Un. Russia, which is hosting next year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang as well, is threatening to boycott the games over years of alleged doping violations.
Historically, boycotts are ineffective because they tend to have the opposite effect of their original intentions. Because the games are an event which connects all different countries under the universal tent of peace, any effort to boycott them is unpopular and unlikely to achieve any kind of desired effect.
The last time any North Korean athletes tried to compete at the Olympics was in 1988, when the Asian nation boycotted the Los Angeles games. Several years later, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) barred North Korea from participating in the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia. That ban remains in place, although the IOC has finally decided to issue exemptions for North and South Korea to participate in the 2018 games.
The anti-North Korean pressure comes at a particularly bad time for the Olympics, as tickets to next year’s games are already sold out and publicity is being built to kick off North Korea’s participation.
Despite how poorly the games work to actively promote peace, countries are increasingly taking a harder line against the Communist nation, whose young leader, Kim Jong Un, is seeking to gain legitimacy by staging an official state celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The IOC recently issued its own rules that cut down on the political demonstrations that have typically been permitted at the games. The rules require the activity must be “reflective of the Olympic values.”
According to Western media, the main reason the IOC is cracking down on North Korean political protests is because of Kim Jong Un’s attempts to link his performance at the games to the upcoming so-called “Day of the Sun,” an anniversary celebrated on April 15 of the founding of his nation.
By limiting the political protest and political rallies during the games, the IOC wants to discourage anything that might be seen as a precursor to Kim’s special state holiday. As a result, they are also making it very difficult for North Korean athletes to compete.
This week the IOC barred 21 athletes from participating in the Olympics because they do not have proper permission from their country. They could easily be banned from the games altogether.
Today North Korea also added to the list of 35 athletes banned from the games for the same reason, with four of those banned in athletics and 20 more banned in other sports.
There are about 300 North Korean athletes hoping to compete in Pyeongchang, but with this added retaliation from the IOC it’s unlikely any will actually take part. In the meantime, the athletes’ failure to make it to the games will be another deterrent for North Korea to actually participate in them. In contrast, by shutting down the sports venues that North Korea is dependent on for propaganda purposes, the IOC is actually making the games less credible.
That’s what makes the IOC’s move to place sanctions on North Korea all the more bizarre. If the whole point of the Olympics is to foster peace, the IOC should be promoting people to compete rather than stop them from competing.
Yes, North Korea and Russia have generally been unpopular, but at least the Olympics are about sports, not politics. By imposing sanctions, the IOC appears to be doing the exact opposite.
Rick Salutin is a commentator and host of the Salutin Report.