• An Olympics Without Joy

    August 21, 2021 // 10 Comments »

     

    I am glad the Olympics are over. There was little joy in them. The closing felt more like a mercy killing than a ceremony.

     

    The absurdity of holding the Games at all when in most countries people suffer under various restrictions was enough. Was this all really, really necessary, now? The silliness of Japan keeping the “2020” on all the signage and the announcers calling them the “2020 Games” was too cynical. Japan barring foreign tourists while allowing in athletes to live like hermits so they could pay off TV contracts (NBC presold over $1.25 billion in advertisements) even more cynical. When athletes celebrated a victory, they by mandate drank alone. Everyone play acting like all this was normal even as only 22 percent of Japanese wanted to games to happen at all was the most cynical thing of all. It was like everything hypocritical about Covid was rolled into one event — how can a wedding in St. Louis be a superspreading event but gathering athletes from around the world, 20 percent of them unvaccinated, not be? Quiet now, and go about your business, Citizens.

     

    The idea of holding events like the opening ceremonies in an empty stadium created new frontiers of absurdity. People waving at empty seats, fireworks shot off with no one to watch them. It would have been better to have done the whole event in a studio in front of a green screen, the way some knuckleheads think the moon landings were faked.
     
    With all the world’s problems, somehow only Team USA had so much political commentary to share. It seems racism is only a thing in America, and only black (American) lives matter much. That they backed it all up with so many dreary performances made them seem like braggarts. It is really telling when the biggest story from the Games was about someone quitting, not someone competing.
    All the self-proclaimed victims along the way, same thing. They might have dropped out with their lifelong issues a few months ago and given someone else the chance to compete instead of waiting to do it on international TV. If it’s really a personal matter don’t announce it on TV then ask to be left alone. No one needs your awareness raising anyway, we all get it by now. Funny, but being a green-haired shot putter does not give you any special insights into society. Your job is literally just to throw a heavy thing, so just do that and be quiet. And a note to all those protesting: black athletes have been protesting against the same things at the Olympics since the 1960s. According to them, not much has changed. That might be a hint to how effective the protests are. 
    It wasn’t any better in the media. ESPN’s William Rhoden said he couldn’t enjoy the opening ceremony because the American flags reminded him of the Capitol riot. “I saw a lot of, you know, U.S. flags.”
     
    Same for all the extra-virtue of winning something while gay. That is soooooo 1980s. Gay people have been winning and losing since the Greeks invented the Olympics, we just didn’t have to have it rubbed into our faces as some sort of extra special achievement that straight medalists can only envy. Same for women and trans people; each victory does not really mean something significant in the advancement of human rights. Everything does not always need to be about social engineering all the time. Same for other forms of suffering; most athlete profiles focused on how hard it was training with a single parent, or a dead aunt, or while being black, or the only ____ on your high school team. Does the U.S. Olympic Committee screen for miserable biographical details as part of the selection process? Do athletes who just work really hard at their sport hire consultants to gin up bad childhood experiences the way rich high school kids suddenly start volunteering at the end of junior year so they can write weepy college entrance essays about giving back?

     

    Media, stop telling us a kid whose family had enough money to move cross-country so he could work with a specific coach (elite training in Olympic gyms can cost $500 a month, plus about $1,000 a month for coaching), or whose parents spent the $100,000 a year needed to train as an Olympic swimmer, overcame adversity to excel. The media might however ask why a parental decision to hyper-train a child without their informed consent from age 3 into a superhuman ubermensch gymnast, messing with her growth along the road to sacrificing her childhood to Mommy and Daddy’s show pony dreams, is not a form of child abuse. And what happens to these children, bred to excel at an obscure sport? Is there some island they are sent to to live out their days because except for the tiny handful who endorse something most are never heard from again. This bizarro-world running Matrix-like just below the surface of our own is enough reason to shut down the Olympic forever.
     
    And enough with the representation thing. As a kid the athlete I looked to for representation was Jesse Owens, the black runner who called out real Nazis and their myth of racial superiority simply by running faster. He and I did not look alike, but I did not care because what mattered was his courage and heart, not his skin color.

     

    But as much as any of that, the Olympic were… boring. With the time difference the TV coverage ended up focusing on sports like kayaking that few follow. Endless heats repeat and repeat, tiny heads in kayaks moving from the right side of the screen to the left for a few seconds, repeat. Other junk sports like surfing and skateboarding simply fill time. A whole catechism of points and ratings was invented to allow judging simply to shoehorn these pastimes into the Games, presumably to attract an audience of “young people” unlikely to be watching network television anyway. To get karate into the Games, the fighters were punished for fighting too well. Pull your punches to win, kids, that’s the new Olympic spirit.
    There is little joy in any “sport” that depends as much on technology as athletic skill. The fastest (i.e., most expensive) Olympic bicycles cost $80,000, suggesting a rider can buy his way into a higher place finish. But that’s nothing compared to shooting. Professional shooters in training run through 500-1,000 specially made rounds a day. That comes to $5,000-7,000 a day for targets and ammunition in full training. A gun can cost anywhere between $6,000 to $300,000. Sailboats run $500k, a jumping horse like Springsteen’s $100k.

     

    And that’s before we get into the real money of developing performance enhancing substances that can slide under current testing. Like in bodybuilding pre-Schwarzenegger, look at some old black and white photos of the Olympics, where all the very best athletes had rounded, in-scale muscles. Where did the over-broad shoulders in women’s swimming and the blocky square heads of juiced up champions come from anyway? The idea of pure amateur athletes went out of fashion years ago, but now the Olympics is now a financial sport.
    And a note to the Olympics: the Cold War ended three decades ago. Enough with national medal counts. Our current state of the planet needs more nationalism to promote harmony and world peace?

     

    Many of us are tired of all this. At this point, waiting four years isn’t long enough. What? You say it’s actually only three more years until the next summer games, Paris 2024? Oh joy.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Other Ideas

    Olympic Optimism from the North Korean Spy I Met

    February 12, 2018 // 17 Comments »



    Secretary of State Tillerson left open the possibility of Vice President Mike Pence meeting with North Korean officials alongside the Winter Olympic games. He would be the highest ranking American official ever, since North Korea was founded, to do so. At the same time, North Korea is to send its highest ranking official ever to the South, Kim Yong Nam, the North’s ceremonial head of state and president of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Is this a long shot at an opening?

     

    It’s easy to be cynical, but I look at this from a unique position. See, I’ve stared down the barrel of a gun with a fanatical, patriotic North Korean spy and watched her choose to blink, and you haven’t. It’s why watching the run-up to the Olympics, with levels of cooperation and kinship unseen for years between the two Koreas, I find myself allowing optimism to peek in between the shades.

    The details must remain a bit sketchy but at one point during my years working for the State Department at the American Embassy in Seoul I found myself inside a cell of a foreign intelligence organization alone with a North Korean spy. I’ll call her Ms. Park here, but I have no idea if even her “real” name was real (other identity details altered below.) She’d been arrested for espionage. She was on a hunger strike.

    I was there because Ms. Park may have acquired American citizenship along her complex life journey and one of my jobs at the embassy was to look after the welfare of incarcerated American citizens. Ms. Park was trying to starve herself to death to avoid cooperating and it was my task to provide her the same assistance I would any other American in jail. It was a long shot, but my job was to convince Ms. Park not to die.

    Over a handful of visits, with a nurse employed by the embassy now with me, I watched Ms. Park starve herself to death. She was trained to do so. She took small sips of water, she explained, to keep her higher brain functions active enough to allow her version of logic to push back against the survival instinct. She was unshakable in her loyalty to her cause. She told me she would eventually begin to give up secrets if she lived long enough, and everything she devoted her life to said she should indeed starve herself to death to prevent that.

    I did not speak about politics, and Ms. Park came not to trust me, but to at least understand my role was not to pry information from her. So we spoke of family, mine at first to fill the air, then at one point, hers. Her son liked the elites’ amusement park he once had access to. There was a day when Ms. Park bought him shaved ice, some sweet flavor that reminded her of the fruits she ate in the west but which her son never tasted in real life. Even as the embassy nurse whispered to me Ms. Park’s vital signs were reaching a critical point and that we should schedule a second visit even that afternoon “in case,” I saw Ms. Park stare down the barrel of a rifle she held herself, and understand her duty. She asked for rice.

    Ms. Park is just one person, but she is exactly the kind of person you would least expect to change. She is one of the reasons I continue to believe there is a path that will not lead to war on the Korean Peninsula.

     

    The essence of North Korea is written into the national philosophy of juche, which above all emphasizes survival. The Kim family has been remarkably good at that since 1948. They endured total war, the collapse of their patron the Soviet Union, famine, natural disasters, and decades of sanctions. North Korea exists under a survivalist philosophy, not an apocalyptic one. A senior Central Intelligence Agency official confirmed Kim Jong Un’s actions are those of a “rational actor” motivated to ensure regime survival. “Waking up one morning and deciding he wants to nuke Los Angeles is not something Kim is likely to do. He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”

    The path to some form of peaceful co-existence on the Korean Peninsula lies in understanding survival, and that means North Korea can never denuclearize, a precondition the United States has insisted on negotiating forward from. If denuclearization was ever possible, perhaps through some form of security guarantee, the chance was lessened in March 2003 when a Saddam Hussein who had lost his weapons of mass destruction found his country invaded by the United States, and then lost in December 2003 when Muammar Qaddafi agreed to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program, only to find himself in 2011 deposed under American bombs.

    One Korea University professor argued Pyongyang’s leaders felt “deeply satisfied with themselves” after Qaddafi’s fall. In Pyongyang’s view, the Libyans “took the economic bait, foolishly disarmed themselves, and once they were defenseless, were mercilessly punished by the West.” Only a national leader bent on suicide would negotiate away his nukes in 2018 after that.

    The last serious attempt at finding a path forward with North Korea was in October 2000, when then Secretary of State Madeline Albright went to Pyongyang without preconditions. A flurry of quiet diplomatic activity followed (I was in the embassy in Seoul and saw it first-hand) as both sides began building the connective tissue, the working-level personal and bureaucratic ties essential to getting down to business; progress is hard to make when even small details have to rise to the national leadership. One outcome was a series of extraordinary family reunions between North and South, among relatives who had not seen each other since the 1950s. The reunions were major media events in the South.

    Enthusiasm from the American side dipped sharply after the election of George W. Bush, and the process collapsed completely in 2002 after Bush chucked North Korea into his “Axis of Evil” alongside Iraq and Iran. The last attempt to restart talks took place in February 2012, soon after Kim Jong Il passed away and Kim Jong Un, his son, took over North Korea. Washington and Pyongyang held limited discussions resulting in a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and other activities. The agreement fell apart following a (failed) North Korean satellite launch, and a later successful nuclear test in February 2013. Diplomacy has otherwise not seen much trying for the last five years.

     

    Why might there be hope now? Since 2013, North Korea’s ability to deliver more powerful weapons via more accurate missiles has grown. Through one lens, that increases the threat to the United States (Seoul, within range of overwhelming numbers of conventional weapons, is nonplussed; their destruction has been assured even prior to the North going nuclear.) Looking at the weapons development from Pyongyang’s perspective, however, offers a different picture: the more powerful weapons create a more realistic deterrent. To a regime that values survival at its core, that creates a very different starting point for negotiations than in 2000.

    The second factor is a long shot – Trump. Trump seems unworried about maintaining a consistent policy position. He favors showmanship, the Big Play. His conservative flank is covered. One can imagine Trump being convinced his legacy could be that of Nixon opening China; the tarnished president who nonetheless is remembered for changing history.

    The key lies in removing the precondition any talks be aimed at the denuclearization of North Korea, and in understanding diplomacy with North Korea is never going to be a straight line. That setbacks will occur cannot be a predetermined definition of failure. Among other complications, Kim Jong Un will need to work any progress with America past the hardliners in his government.

    Kim Jong Un is indeed the supreme ruler, but to imagine he rules without consultation from, at minimum, his generals, is simplistic. Sending the 90-year-old Kim Yong Nam as his representative to the Olympics is a significant choice; Kim has been a Communist Party member since the pre-WWII Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula, has served all three North Korean rulers, was formerly Minister of Foreign Affairs, has extensive overseas experience, and as a veteran of the 1950 war, has unimpeachable credibility inside the government. The U.S. has also carefully and quietly kept Kim Yong Nam off any sanctions list, ostensibly because he is not directly involved in nuclear development.

    Despite that level of bureaucratic protection, Kim Jong Un will still need to balance conciliatory steps forward with bellicose gestures directed at a limited but important domestic hardline audience. Perhaps not unlike Trump, who may be covering his own hand by sending Fred Warmbier, the father of student Otto Warmbier, who died after being incarcerated by Pyongyang and returning to the U.S. in a coma, to attend the Olympics alongside Pence.

     

    North Korea is a nuclear state. That is the starting point to any deconfliction on the Korean Peninsula, not the end goal. Finding peace under those conditions is a long shot, but sometimes those pay off.




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    Posted in Other Ideas

    US Embassy Kabul Cheers for Afghan Olympic Team

    August 3, 2012 // 3 Comments »



    Since we US taxpayers more than likely paid for the Afghan Olympic team, we might as well cheer for them. And, oh yes, “like” the Facebook page so as to inspire Afghan girls who no doubt are viewing Facebook in between drone strikes on their non-existent computers in their without-Internet homes without electricity.

    Since we do have computers and Internet and electricity for now, Americans, let’s see some of those Facebook comments that are meant to encourage the Afghan girls:

    Qais Esmaty starts us off by saying “Good luck Afghan loin, Good luck Afghan Girl.”

    Bahman Behroz says “No result will have this chicken.”

    Najia Shehidi responds with “Iranian Dog Bahman Behroz you better stop barking bloody jowish, you must know by now that Afghans are unbeatable.”

    Mansoor Zazai misses his chance for some American reconstruction money with “No need for afghani girl to compete they should stay in their culture limit.”

    Sawelai Batoor kinda sees through the crude US propaganda by asking “Btw which sport is she participating in and what time will it start?” as if any of that matters to the US tools.

    Ghulam Abbas echoes “Which time tomorrow, she is going to be on the screen of TV?”

    Bahman Behroz, a second time, with “No result will have this chicken.”

    Everybody else just says good luck, which is nice.


    Important Note: These important Facebook diplomatic interactions are what your State Department is actually doing. This is someone’s job. Someone is being paid with your tax dollars to do this in some frakish, twisted belief that it must be somehow helping the United States. Now, who again was saying the State Department is slouching into irrelevancy?



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Other Ideas