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Winter Olympics a Mix of Athletics and Politics

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The Winter Olympics are a spectacle of athletes from throughout the world whose breathtaking skills on snow and ice focus attention on sports that, for the most part, are otherwise obscure. The Olympics also are an appropriate stage to focus attention on political and human rights issues.

There are remarkable medal-winning performances by competitors young — 17-year-old Americans Red Gerard and Chloe Kim each won gold in snowboarding at the Pyeongchang Winter Games — and older — Norwegian cross country skier Marit Bjoergen, 37, won the 11th medal of her five-time Olympics career when she took a silver in the 15km event.

Before the competition started, the Pyeongchang Games began with Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, shaking hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during the opening ceremony. Minutes later athletes from both nations marched together with flags showing a unified Korea.

That was a remarkable sight. Whether it leads to a real thawing of the decades-long hostilities on the peninsula — and ultimately eases tensions between the United States and North Korea — remains to be seen. But it is more hopeful than if North Korea had boycotted Pyeongchang.

It took less than a week before the #MeToo movement — which has exposed long-standing sexual assault and harassment in government, the media, Hollywood and other workplaces — to publicly surface at the Olympics.

After superstar snowboarder Shaun White put down his thrilling final run to again win gold in the men’s halfpipe, he was questioned during a press conference about allegations of sexual harassment leveled against him in 2016 lawsuit filed by the former drummer in his rock band. Lena Zawaideh accused White of subjecting her to vulgar sexual remarks and sexually explicit pictures and videos. The lawsuit was settled last year for an undisclosed amount.

White fumbled his first response, saying, “I’m here to talk about the Olympics, not gossip.” Later, he appeared on the “Today” show and apologized. “I’m truly sorry that I used the word ‘gossip.’ It was a poor choice of words to describe such a sensitive subject in the world today.”

White also told The New York Times that he regretted his earlier behavior and said, “I have grown and changed as a person, as we all grow and change, and am proud of who I am today.”

Though it may have been uncomfortable for him to answer questions about harassment after winning a gold medal, White — like other men in positions of power and public stature — should not be immune from being held accountable for past misbehavior.

For other athletes, the Olympics are an opportunity to speak out against intolerance. The first openly gay men to compete for the U.S. at the winter games, freeskier Gus Kenworthy and figure skater Adam Rippon, posed together during the opening ceremonies. Kenworthy posted the photo on Instagram with the caption: “The #OpeningCeremony is a wrap and the 2018 Winter Olympic Gaymes are officially under way! I feel incredibly honored to be here in Korea competing for the US and I’m so proud to be representing the LGBTQ community alongside this amazing guy! Eat your heart out, Pence.”

Kenworthy and Rippon were critical of Vice President Mike Pence leading the American delegation in Pyeongchang. Pence, who has long been a critic of same-sex marriage, as a congressman opposed a law that would have prohibited workplace discrimination against LGBTQ people, and as governor of Indiana signed a religious freedom law that the LGBTQ community believed targeted them.

Kenworthy said, “I think it’s not the person I would have expected, and I think it sends mixed messages because this is the first time we’re seeing out U.S. Olympic athletes competing in the Winter Olympics, and then we have someone leading the delegation that doesn’t support that, and doesn’t support the LGBT community, and has spoken against it. I think it doesn’t send the right message.”

The Olympics should deliver an inspirational message not only for the athletes’ accomplishments, but also as a reminder that human rights transcend sports. (From The Gazette)

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