Our dark political times have infected the Winter Olympics

This article is more than 3 years old

From Russia’s drug-abusing to North Korea’s cheerleaders and way too much Mike Pence, the dystopian Games bode ill

North Korea cheerleaders
‘North Korea’s cheerleaders are straight out of a mediocre ripoff of Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters
‘North Korea’s cheerleaders are straight out of a mediocre ripoff of Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

Last modified on Fri 8 Jun 2018 11.19 EDT

I think I could watch any live sport in the world for hours on end and still be entertained. If the BBC broadcast the Annual Over 50s Poohsticks tournament, not only would I watch the whole thing, but by the end I would be screaming “Spin the stick in midair on the drop, Clive!” at the television.

That’s why I’m in love with the Winter Olympics: I love the weird sexy tentacle intro, I love how excited Amy Williams gets about ice, and I love how Clare Balding spends a surprising percentage of the show talking about the Norwegian curling team’s trousers. And yet, despite the smiles and incredibly mild banter of the BBC hosts, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this Olympics is different. Pyeongchang feels like the Olympics to match our times – dark, chaotic, and with way too much Mike Pence in it.

Admittedly the Winter Olympics is already pretty dystopian compared to the summer Games: most of the winter sports seem to have been created by people who were looking for inventive ways to kill themselves. But Pyeongchang has really raised the bar. It’s the coldest Olympics since Lillehammer in 1994, with temperatures plummeting to -15C. It’s the kind of weather that makes me feel cold just watching. It was so cold in the men’s 10km sprint biathlon that the beards of the competitors froze, giving the whole event a surreal “last-10-minutes-of-The-Shining” vibe.

However, that was positively mild compared with the conditions in the women’s slopestyle, where high winds caused every single competitor to crash on at least one of their runs. The decision not to postpone was slammed by pundits and competitors (including bronze medallist Enni Rukajarvi) amid suggestions that the television companies had insisted it go ahead. Forcing young people into life-threatening situations for the amusement of TV audiences on the other side of the world is literally the plot of The Hunger Games.

Of course, all dystopias need a good villain – enter Russia. Or rather, enter the Olympic athletes of Russia, a name that makes it sound like the Olympics forgot to get the licensing rights to Russia so now have to make up a Pro Evolution Soccer-style soundalike. The Russian Olympic federation has been banned from competing for years of systematic doping, but selected athletes are allowed to compete as long as they don’t do so under the Russian flag. It’s a bit like punishing your child for destroying your house by letting them destroy it again, but not allowing them to wear that shirt they like while they do it.

Elise Christie of Great Britain leaves the Ice Rink after competing in the heats of the Women's 1000m
Elise Christie of Great Britain leaves the Ice Rink after competing in the heats of the Women’s 1000m Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

The only people who would actually view flag-banning as a deterrent would be hardcore pennant-fetishists and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party. Usually commentators treat them with awkward neutrality – the ban-not-ban isn’t explicitly mentioned that frequently, but whenever a commentator mentions that a competitor is “from Russia”, the silence that follows weighs heavy, like the drug-abusing elephant in the room.

Russia’s status as the Games villain reflects its status in world politics, in the same way that Britain’s Elise Christie reflects her own country’s fortunes. She went from a position of strength in each of her three races to finish a crumpled heap on the floor, in video footage worthy of a thousand “we now go live to Brexit” memes. Managing to turn several great opportunities to win into calamitous crashes of her own making is the most British thing she could have done – Theresa May is basically her spirit animal.

And this is all before we get to North Korea, everyone’s favourite charming tyrannical dictatorship. The cheerleaders are straight out of a mediocre ripoff of Nineteen Eighty-Four, with a level of robotic synchronicity and plastered-on smiles that even Orwell would have thought a bit on the nose.

Meet North Korea's Winter Olympics cheerleading squad – video
Meet North Korea's Winter Olympics cheerleading squad – video

On the one hand, there is something inspirational about the two Koreas putting their differences aside to lose horribly at ice hockey together. But on the other, the countries are still at war and hostilities have been getting steadily worse over the past year – it’s a bit disingenuous for us all to think that the geopolitical situation can be improved by Kim Yo-jong memes.

We want this performative show of “unity” without tackling the serious issues underlying the situation. It’s a complicated issue that requires a delicate hand to guide it – which is why I’m so relieved tedious demagogue Mike Pence was there representing America. He’s the perfect combination of boring and terrifying, like a killer robot who can only communicate using snippets of Christian radio. This Olympics has been a great display of his only skill as vice-president: turning up at a sporting event and making a big show of how upset it’s made him.

In many ways, Pence is the perfect example of the drudgery of these Olympics. He infects everything, even positive stories such as Adam Rippon becoming the first out iceskater to win a medal, with his point of view. These Olympics feel not like an escape from the current nightmarish political chaos we find ourselves in, but rather a magnification of it.

This is, of course, nothing new – in troubled times, the Olympics becomes a platform for the world’s problems to play out, from the US and Soviet boycotts of the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Games respectively, the horrific terrorism at the 1972 Games in Munich, and all the way back to the infamous Berlin Olympics in 1936. I have always (naively) thought that Olympic Games have been about international collaboration that emphasises our shared humanity – but as the political situation worsens, perhaps I have to reconsider. Major sporting events will be less celebrations and more carefully coordinated shows of strength and politics. So maybe we should think of these dystopian Games as a practice run for the future: we’ll be old hands at it by the time the Qatar 2022 World Cup comes around.

Jack Bernhardt is a comedy writer and occasional performer

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