Korean Olympics: sports shine, politics stink
So the Korean "Peace" Olympics are over. Pity no information of them at all in North. For the rest of us, once the sports got going, they were exciting. Japan team returned with record number of medals, Finland with a little bit less and our Norwegian friends with a full planeload of them. They must have had extra arrangements with Finnair for their return flight as all that gold, silver and bronze in their baggage sure exceeded weight limits on normal tickets.
North Korean cheerleaders didn’t have much baggage for their way back to Kim Il Yong University for "re-education" - the usual procedure for those from North who are allowed a glimpse of life beyond 38th parallel. They left behind the free Samsung phones and fashionable uniforms paid by South tax payers together with super tight security,
upkeep and special accomodation far away from the Olympic Village.
Wonder if their university teachers can make them forget the outrageous impersonator of their holy Leader, who suddenly appeared to cheer together with his unification flag? The reaction on their robotic faces was the funniest moment of the Games. It didn't last long as stern looking security guys removed the comedian swiftly – no space for fun in the North-South political spectacle.
Whether President Moon will follow through his early acceptance of the invitation to meet the real Kim Jong-Un from the dictator's sister is the next step in the inter-Korean political game. Maybe he wants his name engraved in history books as the rare third one ever to do it. Yet, my tip is he will wiggle his way out of it as it is highly unlikely he can come back with anything positive: all the cards are in Young Leader's skillful hands and he will only demand for more.
In contrast to this play, the sports were real thing and their long run over two weeks left some lasting memories. For me – and for many Japanese, I guess - the two high points were:
1) Yuzuru Hanyu's incredible skating his ankle benumbed for comeback triumph after injury that prevented him from practice until the very last few weeks: an impressive combination of spectacular technique, artistic creation, original music and strong mental conviction. There's a powerful spirit behind the frail frame and pretty face of this boy fairy! Hundreds of teddy bears, Hanyu's trademark, rained on the ice at the end from thousands of female fans, both Japanese and Korean, who braved wind and cold in long security lines already hours before the door opening.
2) The moving scene after Nao Kodaira’s win in 500 meter skating when she went to console her Korean competitor, who was crying for disappointment after failing to win in front of home crowd. With both wrapped in their national flags it was a triumph of true sporting spirit and individual friendship over all media babble about bad blood between their two nations. In its simple humanity, Kodaira's act made bigger positive impact for Japan in Korea than countless government apologies over the past decades, a point that did not go unnoticed by Mr. Abe himself in his congratulatory phone call to the Nagano lady.
Another top encounter was the men's half-pipe face-off between the long standing king Shaun White (31) and his young challenger Ayumu Hirano (19) from Niigata. White has been Hirano's idol from child as evidenced by the moving photo of little Ayumu (then 8) and his big brother (12) posing together with White (then 19 and newly crowned World Champion). In Sochi, Hirano (then 15) already challenged White but had to do with silver, yet earlier this season he managed to become the first ever man to beat White with unforeseen four consecutive "1440's" so expectations were high for the Olympics. However, the old champion had taught himself the same routine and scored better points from it holding Hirano behind again. Some said he scored better simply because of his champion fame, not unusual in any sport, and, in fact, slow-motion video afterwards showed Hirano's performance was actually better. That's sports and Hirano-kun still has a chance to win three Olympics by the time he turns 31 like White.
It was also pleasure to watch Smile Japan, the women's ice hockey team, who mended its past two poor showings with brave and confident high level play to beat Sweden and close-to Swiss, too, not just the ballyhooed United Korea. The latter played for national pride following two years of well-financed practice in Canada and padded with North Koreans and “new born” Koreans whereas Japanese girls played to just get better support for more time off their daily jobs to practice at home. If they would learn to score better from multiple goal chances they created, they will win more in future - same problem as Japan’s football team has. As it was, we bow instead to Finland's "Female Lions" who managed to win bronze behind the two power houses USA and Canada, another long time dream come true.
"The Legend" Kasai, as they call him now, fell far off his quest for another Olympic medal, but immediately vowed to continue to Beijing 2022. He will be 49 then, ie. approaching the age of football legend Kazu Miura, who just started his 34th season in J-league, but with marked difference that Miura plays in Division 2 of the local league while Kasai vows to get back to world top again. To deny him a place in the Beijing team the other Japanese jumpers must improve remarkably: Japan's level is now far-off from where it was 1998 in Nagano when it dominated the competition with Finland. Even Kasai could not fit into the team then. Unfortunately, Finland has fallen even lower from the height of those days and its best jumper in Korea was another veteran Janne Ahonen, the 1998 Nagano normal hill winner.
Japan's best jumper actually was the combined man Akito Watabe, who reached longer than the specialists and led his two events after the jump phase only to give in the ski part again to his German nemesis just like in Sochi 2014, even to 3 Germans in the large hill event. It's not that Watabe is a bad skier: he would have been Japan's No.1 even in that had he participated in the specialist events. An admirable athlete this Hakuba guy and much too little known behind all the hoopla of other sports.
With perfect time zone, no daily office to bother and excellent NHK live coverage from early morning to late night, I could enjoy these Olympics more than ever. In contrast, friends in Finland had hard time with the timing. Looking forward, it will be same for Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 - Europe has to wait until Paris 2024 to get the time zone right. US broadcasters, who pay the biggest money to IOC will have to wait until 2028 before they get their own games as Sapporo could win the 2026 Winter Games if Japan decided to apply.
Some say it's all too much Asia in row, but the fact is IOC, who's a real money making machine behind all beautiful talk of sport spirit, has hit the sweet tooth with the region. Here's hundreds of millions of growing TV-audiences who are still getting excited about summer games and only now learning about winter sports, central governments who are prepared to spend billions for the prestige and big corporate sponsors who are equally ready to sign in for big money. Five of IOC's top sponsors are from Asia now that Alibaba joined Panasonic, Samsung, Toyota and Bridgestone and it will be no surprise if more big Chinese companies will join in before Beijing. In addition, smaller local sponsors for Tokyo event have committed as big, USD 3 billion or three times more than in Sochi and Rio. Olympics in Asia is Big Money and IOC likes that. All risks are covered by governments and local tax payers are not against their spending as vehemently as they are in West.
The Pyongchang olympics closed with another great show and good feeling. Finland received its only gold medal in front of the big audience: surely the high point of the games back home. Yet, it didn't go unnoticed from political observers that Korean teams marched this time under their own flags. Only North delegation waved the "unification flag" in addition to their own: a symbol of which side wants the unification more and on what terms.
For the VIP box glamour competition, US president's beautiful daughter was much better choice than opening party's VP Pence whose expressionless face and inability for social communication with others made him look like an Indian totem pole. North, instead, made a poor choice sending a general, who not only looked gruffy despite his civilian camouflage next to the tall, shiny blonde, but was the one who gave orders to sink a South warship with 46 sailors back in 2010. For Mr. Moon to accept this blacklisted murderer in stadium and his palace made a bad dent into his peace campaign.
Doubt clever Young Leader would himself make such a bad choice, so it makes you think he hasn't got his army in full control, after all, in contrast to all propaganda news from North. Now, that's a much bigger worry than the man himself as we go forward and return back to cold reality from the Olympic fever.
Tokyo, February 26, 2018
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The columnist is a Japan veteran among Finnish business, our Chamber ex-president and today Member of the Board of Trustees.
After running a major Finnish industry company's Japan business for over 20 years, he is now Senior Associate in a strategic consulting company.