Predictably, this month in the geopolitics of sports was all about the Pyeongchang Olympics. The Winter Games have just wrapped up, but it's not too early to reflect on some of the key storylines that emerged from South Korea.
Wait and See
With North Korean and South Korean athletes marching in the opening ceremonies under a unified flag and playing together on the joint women's hockey team, the thawing of their countries' relationship was positioned as a key feature of these games. Even the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was on board with the openly political tone that the unity flag set. While the IOC usually pretends that politics and sports are mutually exclusive, associating the Olympics with any tangible diplomatic gains would be quite the public relations coup, especially in the wake of the Russian doping scandal. So, with the Olympic flame now extinguished, can we claim any sort of victory for sports diplomacy? Of course, it's too soon to tell, especially as the largely symbolic effects of such soft power efforts are so difficult to quantify in the short term. The reaction from the mainstream media and the viewing public in the West over the Olympics detente has been predictably positive, especially when celebrating the fighting spirit that the Korean women's hockey squad displayed, despite failing to tally a win during the tournament.
Meanwhile, policy commentators' evaluations range from the extremely cynical to the only somewhat cynical. For the former group, soft power is a nonstarter, with little reason to believe that either side has much at stake beyond some public relations gloss. After all, if this unity was about sending a message to the citizens of the two Koreas, it would have helped if the average North Korean could have actually watched the Olympics (very few could). It’s also unclear whether either side will come out much ahead from the public relations perspective. Given that the United States and South Korea have made it clear that their joint military drills will resume and North Korea inevitably will continue its ballistic missile tests, both sides will continue pointing fingers at each other, but now they also will be able to accuse one another of violating the spirit of Olympic unity.
The United States has — of course — been a semi-silent partner in this milieu, with the White House grumbling a bit about the apparent softening of the South Korean position as far as North Korea goes. Vice President Mike Pence embodied these feelings with his well-publicized aloof presence during the opening ceremonies, where he appeared to deliberately ignore Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong, in the dignitary's box. In the past few days, reports have emerged that Pence and Kim Yo Jong had been scheduled to meet secretly on Feb. 10 in Seoul but that the North Korean delegation canceled the meeting at the last minute. Pyongyang allegedly was offended by Pence's comments to reporters about standing strong against North Korea's Olympic propaganda effort.
For those slightly more optimistic analysts who hold out some hope for the potential of sports and other soft power initiatives, there is at least some history to cling to. Even the vaunted "Ping-Pong diplomacy" that invigorated U.S.-Chinese relations in the early 1970s didn't seem like much more than friendly symbolism at the outset, but the table tennis competitions led to a variety of real-world outcomes, including President Richard Nixon's state visit to Beijing. Almost a year elapsed between the first table tennis match and Nixon's 1972 trip, so it is certainly too early to evaluate the success or failure of this most recent sporting effort.
The Digital Threat
In the buildup to the Pyeongchang Olympics, safety and security concerns centered on the potential actions of North Korea. While game theorists smarter than myself found a move by Pyongyang unlikely, the aforementioned diplomatic effort seemed to curb the public's fears of an attack by the North. The games not only were free of major incidents, but there also were hardly any reports of even minor issues of safety and security. With the exception of some drunken and rowdy fans, the biggest hiccup in the events appears to have been the Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un impersonators who had to be removed from the opening ceremonies.
In what is surely the new normal when it comes to such mega-events, there apparently was a massive onslaught of cyberattacks on the games and those responsible for their production.
However, in what is surely the new normal when it comes to such mega-events, there apparently was a massive onslaught of cyberattacks on the games and those responsible for their production. According to South Korean authorities, thousands of such attacks were attempted, although it is unclear how many succeeded. One that did succeed targeted the opening ceremonies, bringing down the official website, preventing many fans from using digital tickets for entry and leading to the cancellation of a live drone display.
In January, cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike reported heightened intrusions targeting South Korean and Olympic servers, noting that the majority of the activity pointed to North Korean and Russian hackers. Around the same time, the Russian hacking collective "Fancy Bears" (assumed to be the former "Fancy Bear") released a trove of emails stolen from the IOC, U.S. Olympic Committee and related organizations, ostensibly in retaliation for the IOC ban of Russia from the Winter Games. The opening ceremony attack came in the form of a malware program called Olympic Destroyer, a program that both CrowdStrike and Cisco’s Talos intelligence unit say points to Russian involvement. Although it is unclear whether Fancy Bears is specifically implicated, sports appear to be an increasingly popular target for the group, which released medical information about tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams and U.S. gymnast Simone Biles last year. Of course, it is also important to note that Fancy Bears appears to enjoy some amount of support or involvement with Russian military intelligence.
Empty seats and the associated loss of prestige appear to be the biggest damage caused by Olympic Destroyer, but it’s clear that the cyberthreat to these types of events has arrived. In our interconnected era, the real fear is that such threats can easily go beyond the digital domain. I can’t help but think of last month’s false missile warning sent out through Hawaii’s emergency notification system and the public panic that such a system could produce if hacked, especially in the tense and tightly packed environs of an international sporting event.
And, of Course, Russian Doping
In what feels like a bleak joke from the annals of Russian literature, two of the "unaffiliated" Olympic Athletes from Russia came under investigation for doping. Bobsledder Nadezhda Sergeeva tested positive for trimetazidine, a medication used to treat angina that is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency because it affects metabolism. Earlier, Alexander Krushelnitsky, a curler who was part of a bronze medal-winning team, tested positive for traces of meldonium, a heart medication banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency for its ability to increase blood flow. Krushelnitsky and Sergeeva were two of only four athletes to be flagged on a doping test during the games. On Feb. 22, the Court of Arbitration for Sport formally disqualified Krushelnitsky, and he returned his medal. On Feb. 24, the court disqualified Sergeeva's 12th-place finish in the women's bobsled competition after she admitted the anti-doping violation. For Russia, the timing was unfortunate, as the IOC had been considering allowing its athletes to march under the Russian flag during the closing ceremonies. For those critics who chafed at that IOC compromise to allow the "Olympic Athletes from Russia" to compete at all, there is a smug sense of satisfaction that the positive tests confirm their worst suspicions about the Russian sports system.
Some Russian officials were quick to claim tampering or sabotage in Krushelnitsky's case, claims that we might not want to write off as quickly as usual. Why give Krushelnitsky the benefit of the doubt? First, as many have joked online, it's unclear what sort of advantage a curler could reasonably expect from doping. Second, as one of the Russian curling coaches noted, meldonium seems like a particularly stupid substance to risk a positive test on. Not only are its supplementary effects dubious, but the drug has been under widely publicized scrutiny since it was banned in 2016. In other words, an athlete could be all but sure he would be tested for the substance. If we are to connect this current case to the remnants of the elaborate state-sponsored doping machine, it does seem like a clumsy, amateurish way to cheat. Of course, this hasn’t stopped people in the past. There remains something about the quest for victory that can make a fool of the best of us.