Some Olympic Controversies Matter, Others Don't

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At an international sporting event where national pride is on the line, disagreements are bound to come up. How to know when the fuss is worth it.

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In theory, the Olympics are apolitical. Athletes and the nations they represent are supposed to set aside any grudges, rivalries, or biases while competing under the Olympic flag. That's the whole point. The Games exist, at least according to the Olympic charter, to help build a more peaceful world through "sport practiced without discrimination of any kind."

In practice, the real world intrudes. Controversies erupt around the games, thrusting conflicts into the international spotlight. These skirmishes fall into three categories: Those that look—and are—meaningless; those that appear meaningless but are in fact serious; and those that seem—and are—serious.

Often they are trivial—and fade from memory before the torch is even out—just one inevitable result of having dozens of countries gather on the biggest of all stages to compete in surrogate warfare tied to national prestige. Like the kerfuffle over Ralph Lauren's Team USA gear being manufactured in China. Whatever the symbolic implications for American industry, the real-world impact of a few hundred Red, White and Blue outfits was virtually nil.

Ditto the odd tiff between Great Britain and Argentina that revisited their 1982 war for the Falkland Islands. Argentinian field hockey made a promotional video with team captain Fernando Zylberberg shown training at sites around the disputed islands—including a shot of Zylberberg doing sit-ups on the memorial to Britain's war dead, followed by the tagline, "To compete on English soil, we train on Argentine soil" That no doubt shocked the roughly 3,000 Falkland residents who hold British citizenship. Great Britain's defense minister called the clip "tasteless." Diplomatic hype ensured, and Zylberberg suddenly developed injuries that kept him from making the trip to London.

On Monday, the two teams met on real English soil, albeit covered by Smurf turf. The match went about like the war—Britain in a rout. So? In the UK, they'll keep asserting sovereignty over the Falklands. In Argentina, they'll keep disputing it, and the chances of an armed conflict arising from are about the same as Winston Churchill coming back from the grave. The only one who really suffered was Zylberberg.

Another controversy marring the Games' first few days—over an opening-round women's soccer match between Colombia and North Korea—might seem even less significant on the surface, but actually represents the intrusion of much darker truths about the world into the fanatsyland of sport.

The North Korean players were mistakenly introduced on a video board displaying the South Korean flag next to their faces. They refused to take the field, and delayed the start of the game about an hour.

That may not seem like much—a monumental gaffe to be sure, especially given that North and South Korea are bitter enemies, technically still at war—but just a gaffe nonetheless. Nothing for reasonable people to get upset about. However, North Korea is a nation where reason doesn't necessarily apply. As the North Korean team's head coach said through a translator afterward—before being taken back to secluded quarters outside the Olympic Village—taking the field under the wrong flag could mean the most dire consequences imaginable for the athletes once they get home.

Finally, there are those Olympic controversies that look serious because they are. They matter to us all, because they don't merely illustrate problems in the wider world, they can have an impact on them, for good or ill. In regards to the geopolitical conflict that's been the loudest in London—the one between Israel and the Muslim world—the effect so far has been decidedly terrifying.

There's been the IOC's refusal, despite all decency and common sense, to honor the Israeli athletes slain at Munich—apparently from fear that some Muslim nations would boycott the Opening Ceremonies. (Fat chance.) Iran has maintained their unacceptable policy of refusing to let their athletes compete with Israelis. The only Iranian entered in the same event as an Israeli, Iranian judo champ Javad Mahjoub, didn't make the trip, citing a stomach problem.

The Lebanese judo team, though, is in London to carry the torch for bad sportsmanship. Friday, at an official training venue, members of the Lebanese team refused to practice on the same mat as Israelis. Olympic organizers were "forced"—as Reuters curiously phrased it—to put up a screen between the two teams.

Whatever one's views may be on the conflict in the Middle East, it's difficult to dream up a more repugnant violation of the Olympic ideal than refusing to practice alongside an athlete from another nation.

Maybe everyone should take a lesson from the two Koreas. At least, come this weekend. That's when the ultra-bitter rivals will renew their unfinished war. This time, though, they won't fight with guns and bombs. This war will express what's best in the Olympic dream—and maybe even help two countries find some common ground. Friday night, North Korea and South Korea will face off in Olympic ping-pong.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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