The Olympics have always been a conflict of two trends. The games bring us together. As people across the world watch the opening ceremonies, we celebrate the culture of the host nation. The athletes from all the nations represented parade through the stadium, with the ceremony culminating in a diverse sea of humanity. The spirit of friendly competition is supposed to reign supreme. Over the years, the shadow of international conflict has also been a part of the Olympics.
The games were suspended during World War II, marred by terrorist violence in Munich, and dominated by the Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. Although the world’s superpowers are largely at peace today, the Olympics is not free from tension. This is best exemplified by the North Korean Olympic team. The Olympic games provide a fascinating glimpse into the culture and mindset of the secretive nation. The tensions also mirror Cold War tensions, albeit on a smaller scale. Independent voters can learn from the Olympic Games; not only is world diversity represented, but also the mysterious world of an authoritarian regime.
If there is one thing Americans know about North Korea, it is the personality cult of the nation’s leader. The dictator, currently Kim Jong Un, is credited with near godlike status. According to the North Korean regime, his father, Kim Jong Il, was quite the athlete: he is supposed to have hit 11 holes-in-one in one round. According to News Limited newspapers:“Reports say each of his 17 bodyguards verified the record-breaking feat.”
The first reaction of the rest of the world is amusement. However, the dark side of the personality cult is hiding just beneath the surface. The supposed reaction of the bodyguards symbolizes the spirit of the North Korean people. Whether through fear or propaganda, the people are forced to give lip-service to the dictator who controls their lives. This is especially evident at the Olympic games, where North Korean athletes are giving their leaders credit for their surprising success. Om Yun Chul, a gold medalist in weightlifting, spoke in reverential terms of the recently deceased Kim Jong Il:
“‘How can any man possibly lift 168kg?’ Om was quoted as saying by the Olympic News Service. ‘I believe the great Kim Jong Il looked over me. … I am very happy and give thanks to our Great Leader for giving me the strength to lift this weight. I believe Kim Jong Il gave me the record and all my achievements. It is all because of him.'”
Again, this would be funny if it weren’t sad. When some men are raised to the level of gods, the rest of the people are subject to control and mastery. The Olympics is supposed to celebrate the human spirit, but North Korean athletes are celebrating one human, the “Dear Leader” at the expense of everyone else. Although the Olympic games highlight the cult of the dictator, they are also an opportunity for interaction between the athletes. Despite all the control and handlers, the US soccer team believes the North Korean athletes are beginning to interact with their peers on the other teams. Fox News reports:
“‘Compared to last year, they seem a lot happier,’ U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. ‘It seems like they’re actually enjoying themselves this time, so it’s nice to see. They are smiling more. If you lock onto their stare long enough, they’ll give you one back.'”
This is a chance for North Koreans to see what the rest of the world is like, a world where people may speak freely, dissent, and just have fun competing for their country without the pressure of an authoritarian regime.
The stage of international competition also shows the difference in the attitude of the government toward the athletes themselves. American athletes are celebrated as heroes if they win. They inspire the next generation as they demonstrate what humanity is capable of. The federal government has little to do with the Olympic team. What pressure is on the athletes comes from the citizens of the nation. If they lose, the people are disappointed, and may even turn on the athletes in the heat of the moment. For the most part, athletes are respected by the people.
The North Korean athletes are also heroes if they win, but they are expected to win. The pressure is immense. For North Korea, the Olympics is an opportunity to demonstrate the success of the regime when the world is watching. Much like the Soviet Union’s program, the North Koreans view sport as an opportunity to demonstrate superiority. Woe to the athlete who fails to demonstrate the type of person supposedly produced by the North Korean system! According to Reuters:
“The consequences of sporting failure are far less palatable. The coach of the national soccer team, who lost all three of their 2010 World Cup games, was reportedly expelled from the Worker’s Party and forced to become a builder for his ‘betrayal’. A South Korean newspaper quoted an intelligence source as saying those who performed badly were even sent to prison camps, though that has been disputed by North Korean athletes.”
US athletes are out to distinguish themselves on the world stage, while North Korean athletes declare (at least publicly) that the glory goes to the state. This mentality is the frightening reality of the totalitarian state.
Finally, the tension between governments is reflected by the teams. While this has been the case throughout Olympic history, seldom has it been so one-sided. The US and the USSR were both superpowers, and both believed national pride was at stake. North Korea, while equipped with a powerful military, does not have the economic strength of South Korea nor the West. North Korea has a chip on its shoulder and brings it to the games. Before a soccer game at these Olympics, the South Korean flag was displayed for the North Korean team. Understandably, the North Koreans were not amused. The Associated Press reports:
“‘Winning the game can’t compensate for the mistake,’ North Korea coach Sin Ui Gun said through an interpreter after the game, still angry about such a major gaffe on the first day of Olympic competition. ‘I just want to stress once again that our players’ images and names can’t be shown alongside the South Korea flag.’”
There is a dangerous attitude of “us versus them” in the North Korean delegation. The state media is defensive and defiant, using the sporting results to glorify the regime. The Daily Mail records the nationalistic rhetoric:
“Some evil-minded foreign media asserted that the DPRK would take only one silver medal but our sportspersons refuted such assertions with good results. The hostile forces had better try hard to get a correct understanding of the DPRK.”
The attitude of North Korea toward sporting rivals communicates a lot about North Korea’s feeling toward international rivals.
The Olympic Games can teach three things about North Korea. First, the athletes show the cult of personality that prevails in the DPRK. Second, the pressure put on the athletes represents the crushing pressure of the regime. Finally, the spirit of rivalry exemplifies the chip on the shoulder of North Korea. Why should independent voters care about the Olympics and North Korea? Because the Olympic athletes from North Korea provide a human face to the nation.
Amidst the widespread demonizing of the regime, politicians in the US are ignoring the sad plight of the North Korean people. War rhetoric is in the air, regarding both Iran and North Korea, and independent voters can help keep the human element in the dialogue. In “getting tough” with authoritarian regimes, we must make sure we are not hurting the people of the nation. Finally, North Korea is a reminder of the dangers of media and politician personality cults. While we do not idolize one leader, we still have exalted a class of people to positions of power, and we must never forget they are human beings like us. The glimpse into North Korea must not be a glimpse into our future.