The 2018 Winter Olympics are set to commence this week in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Historically, the Olympics have acted as a biannual thermometer for international politics as well as an opportunity to cool tense international relations. Though the Olympics in principle is supposed to represent an unadulterated celebration of athletic achievement, the Games nonetheless have often serve heavily political purposes; we need only look at the controversial 1936 “Nazi Olympics” held in Germany during rise of the Hitler’s regime, or the U.S led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, to see such politics at work during the quadrennial games. These Olympic games are no different, and we would do well to acknowledge the unique political circumstances at play this year in Pyeongchang

The pre-Olympic coverage for Pyeongchang has revolved heavily around North Korea, which has been at the center of tensening political relations with the United States. North Korean athletes, for the first time since the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, will march together with their South Korean compatriots at the opening ceremony. Despite the apparent sign of cooling tensions, North Korea is still planning to hold a parade to flex their military might on the first day of the Olympics. On the American side, Vice President Pence has invited the father of Otto Warmbier, an American student who was jailed in North Korea, as his official guest—a political move that is sure to irk North Korean delegates in Pyeongchang. 

In another developing story, thirty-two Russian athletes are appealing their doping bans from the International Olympic Committee in hopes of competing in Pyeongchang. In 2016, World Anti-doping Agency investigators uncovered a state-sponsored Russian doping program that reached as far back as the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Russia’s punishment has ranged from the official annulment of some of its past Olympics victories to lifetime competition bans for egregious offenders. At this hour, the fate of these thirty-two athletes is unknown, and indeed, even if their appeal succeeds, there remain logistical obstacles to their participation. Nonetheless, beyond this year, the Russian delegation may never recover from the damage to their athletic integrity and international reputation.

And finally, going into the Olympics games, the immense controversy over U.S Gymnastics has catalyzed important discussions and debates within the American athletic community. The nation is still reeling from the trial and emotional sentencing of Dr. Larry Nassar for perpetuating decades of sexual abuse against female athletes. Alongside the wholesale resignation of the entire board of the U.S. Gymnastics organization, these events have highlighted the dangers of sexual abuse and complicity within elite, high-level sports organizations. Doubtless, more revelations are at hand, and while this process is painful and difficult, the protection of the athletes who represent us on a national stage must finally take priority even at the cost of our athletic reputation.

As we all tune into watch our American athletes for the gold in figure skating, ice curling, bobsledding and other winter favorites at the Pyeongchang Olympics, we should appreciate both the athletic showcase and the political tensions that are coming to a head. Sports is inherently political, despite our professed beliefs otherwise, and is be irresponsible of us to represent it as otherwise.