Winter Olympics

A scene from the Winter Olympics.

Julian Finney

The nearly 3,000 athletes representing 92 countries have gathered in Pyeongchang, South Korea, for this month’s Winter Olympics do so “to build a peaceful and better world in the Olympic Spirit which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. Olympic Spirit strives to inspire and motivate the youth of the world to be the best they can be through educational and entertaining interactive challenges. Olympic Spirit seeks to instill and develop the values and ideals of Olympism in those who visit and to promote tolerance and understanding in these increasingly troubled times in which we live, to make our world a more peaceful place,” according to one acclaimed definition of the games.

A shorter (though less eloquent) motto would simply be that the competition among some of the world’s greatest athletes at the Olympics points to our better nature and the potential for what a planet with less strife and less division could look like.

Too utopian? Perhaps, but the competition at these Olympic games — like previous ones — at the very least manages for just a few weeks to largely put aside the politics and conflict that destabilize the world.

Of course, the heads of state from nations represented at the 2018 Winter Olympics inject politics into anything they touch. It’s unavoidable. The worst examples came in 1980 when the United States boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow and, in turn, the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Of course, some geopolitical situations are so disgusting that they can’t be ignored; the horrible human-rights record of North Korea, just to the north of the site of this month’s games, is a glaring example. In the same way, the cheating scandal involving scores of Russian Olympic athletes who used banned performance-enhancing drugs can’t be merely swept under the rug under the guise of athletic competition.

Despite all this, when the athletes start their competition — an instance most have trained and dreamed of for their entire lives — then the distractions fall aside. Then the movement, the effort and the athleticism take precedence. Then the words of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, come into play: “The important thing is not to win, but to take part.”