Ath­letes ig­nor­ing “ques­tion”

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Ja­son Blevins

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.”

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