Athletes ignoring “question”
COPPER MOUNTAIN» As the best snowboarders and skiers in the world kicked off their quest to reach the South Korea Olympics next year, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, suggested that the United States’ participation in the Winter Olympics is “an open question.”
“What does that mean?” said superstar snowboarder Shaun White, shortly before dropping into the Copper Mountain halfpipe for the first U.S. Olympic qualifier on his push to compete in his fourth Olympics. “There’s always drama. In Brazil, it was Zika, and Russia was all the laws against homosexuality and all the other things. Italy was after 9/11, and people were kind of tripping out. Canada was pretty mellow, though. And now it’s North Korea. I’ve always felt safe.”
In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Haley suggested it was not certain that the U.S.
would send athletes to South Korea in February. She cited escalating tensions in the region with North Korea testing increasingly powerful missiles. She rekindled simmering concerns about safety for the athletes in South Korea’s PyeongChang, which is 50 miles from the North Korean border.
On Thursday afternoon, however, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a briefing that no official decision had been made and then sent an update on Twitter, saying the U.S. “looks forward to participating” in the Winter Olympics.
“The protection of Americans is our top priority and we are engaged with the South Koreans and other partner nations to secure the venues,” she said in the tweet.
U.S. Olympic Committee chief Scott Blackmun in September said security assessments of South Korean Olympic venues assured athlete safety.
“Each Games presents its own set of circumstances, and you have to look at where you are going and the kinds of risks and threats you are going to see,” he said. “We actually feel really good about his one, because the things we do have the ability to control seem to be progressing very, very successfully.”
Haley’s comments dropped the day that American snowboarders and skiers began competing for berths on the U.S. slopestyle, big air and halfpipe teams. It came a day after the International Olympic Committee announced an unprecedented ban on Russia for the upcoming Winter Olympics, citing the country’s institutionalized doping program.
The swirl of political theater hasn’t filtered down to the Olympic hopefuls. These are young athletes with a much different risk assessment. They aren’t necessarily fretting about socio-political drama while spinning and flipping down icy halfpipes and over 80foot jumps.
“I just control what I can control. It doesn’t make sense to worry about that political stuff,” said slopestyle skier Nick Goepper, whose contorting bravado on snow earned a bronze medal at his sport’s debut in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. “My family is going for sure. They are all going.”
Mark Jones, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee, immediately downplayed Haley’s hedge.
“We have not had any discussions, either internally or with our government partners, about the possibility of not taking teams to the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games,” he said via Twitter. “We plan on supporting two full delegations in PyeongChang.”
The Czech Republic’s high-flying superstar, Sarka Pancochova, is aiming for her third Olympics. Growing up in the post-Soviet shadow, she’s somewhat familiar with tense political environments. She avoided the opening ceremony for the Sochi Winter Games in 2014, thinking if bad guys wanted to do something, that would be the place. She wonders why North Korea’s Kim Jong-un would target the world’s beloved Olympians.
“Why would he want to kill athletes? Why make everyone in the world hate them?” she said at Copper Mountain on Thursday. “It would be suicide for North Korea. We had fears at Sochi, too. Really, though, there’s no point in worrying. Us as athletes, we are trying to do our best and this is what we do and it’s what is making us happy.”