PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) – It began with politics. It ends with … politics.
In between, humanity’s most extraordinary feats of winter athletic prowess unfolded, revealing the expected triumphs but also stars most unlikely – from favorites like Mikaela Shiffrin, Shaun White and Lindsey Vonn to sudden surprise legends like Czech skier-snowboarder Ester Ledecka and the medal-grabbing “Garlic Girls,” South Korea’s hometown curling favorites.
Pyeongchang closes its chapter of the 122-year-old modern Olympic storybook on Sunday night with countless tales to tell – tales of North Korea and Russia, of detente and competitive grit and volunteerism and verve, of everything from an uncomfortable viral outbreak to an athlete’s boozy joyride.
And above it all: unforgettable experiences for meticulously trained athletes from around the world, all gathered on a mountainous plateau on the eastern Korean Peninsula to test for themselves – and demonstrate to the world – just how excellent they could be.
“We have been through a lot so that we could blaze a trail,” said Kim Eun-jung, skip of the South Korean women’s curling team, which captured global renown as the “Garlic Girls” – all from a garlic-producing Korean hometown. They made a good run for gold before finishing with runner-up silver.
Other trailblazers: Chloe Kim, American snowboarder extraordinaire. The U.S. women’s hockey team and men’s curlers, both of which claimed gold. And the Russian hockey team, with its nail-biting, overtime victory against Germany.
That these games would be circumscribed by politics was a given from the outset because of regional rivalries. North Korea, South Korea, Japan and China are neighbors with deep, sometimes twisted histories that get along uneasily with each other in this particular geographic cul-de-sac.
But there was something more this time around. Hanging over the entire games was the saga – or opportunity, if you prefer – of a delicate diplomatic dance between the Koreas, North and South, riven by war and discord and an armed border for the better part of a century.
The games started with a last-minute flurry of agreements to bring North Koreans to South Korea to compete under one combined Koreas banner. Perish the thought, some said, but Moon Jae-in’s government stayed the course. By the opening ceremony, a march of North and South into the Olympic Stadium was watched by the world – and by dozens of North Korean cheerleaders applauding in calibrated synchronicity.
Also watching was an equally extraordinary, if motley, crew. Deployed in a VIP box together were Moon, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s envoy sister, Kim Yo Jong. The latter two, at loggerheads over North Korea’s nuclear program, didn’t speak, and the world watched the awkwardness.
What followed was a strong dose of athletic diplomacy: two weeks of global exposure for the Korean team, particularly the women’s hockey squad, which trained for weeks with North and South side by side getting along, taking selfies and learning about each other.
On Sunday night, the closing ceremony will bookend those politics with U.S. President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, in attendance as well as Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee and a man suspected of masterminding a lethal 2010 military attack on the South.
There’s no reason to believe that the uneasy VIP-box scene will repeat itself. There’s also no reason to believe it will not. But the outcome could provide a coda to an extraordinary two weeks of Olympic political optics – and offer hints of the Trump administration’s approach in coming weeks as it tries to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and deals with the North-South thaw.
That wasn’t all when it came to these odd games. Let’s not forget Russia – or, we should say, “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” the shame-laced moniker they inherited after a doping brouhaha from the 2014 Sochi Games doomed them to a non-flag-carrying Pyeongchang Games.
But two more Russian athletes tested positive in Pyeongchang in the past two weeks. So on Sunday morning, the IOC refused to reinstate the team in time for the closing but left the door open for near-term redemption from what one exasperated committee member called “this entire Russia drama.”
What’s next for the games? Tokyo in Summer 2022, then Beijing – Summer host in 2008 – staging an encore, this time for a Winter Games. With the completion of the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, that Olympic trinity marks one-third of a noteworthy Olympic run by Asia.
For those keeping score at home: That means four of eight Olympic Games between 2008 and 2022 will have taken place on the Asian continent. Not bad for a region that hosted only four games in the 112 years of modern Olympic history before that – Tokyo in 1964, Sapporo in 1972, Seoul in 1988 and Nagano in 1998. Japan and China will, it’s likely, be highly motivated to outdo South Korea (and each other).
Meantime, the Olympians departing Monday leave behind a Korean Peninsula full of possibility for peace, or at least less hostility.
The steps taken by North and South toward each other this month are formidable but fluid. People are cautiously optimistic: the governor of Gangwon, the border province where Pyeongchang is located, suggested Sunday that the 2021 Asian Games could be co-hosted by both Koreas.
It might not happen. But it could. That could be said about pretty much anything at an Olympic Games, inside the rings and out. Corporate and political and regimented though it may be, that’s what makes it still the best game in town for an athletic thrill every other year – and yes, sometimes a political one, too.
Ted Anthony has been the director of Asia-Pacific news for The Associated Press since 2014. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @anthonyted.