How Do You Watch the Olympics in the Shadow of Nuclear Apocalypse?

By
South Korean athlete Ryu Seung-min carries the Olympic torch as he hangs from a wire during the Olympic Torch Relay.
South Korean athlete Ryu Seung-min carries the Olympic torch as he hangs from a wire during the Olympic Torch Relay. Photo: Lee Jin-man/AP

Four years ago, my then-five-months-pregnant wife, in the family room of the new home we had just poured much of our life savings into buying, changed the diaper of a screaming toddler and watched a man on television tell her that her husband, half the planet away, was probably about to get blown up.

The Texas Republican House representative Michael McCaul, merely the Homeland Security Committee chairman, was talking about Sochi, Russia, where I, along with thousands of other journalists, was covering the 2014 Winter Olympics. “I’ve never seen a greater threat, certainly in my lifetime,” he said on Fox News Sunday. “I think there’s a high degree of probability that something will detonate, something will go off, but I do think it’s probably most likely to happen outside of the ring of steel” — the protective perimeter Putin had promised to thwart any terrorism. I remember getting a text from my wife as I was taking a bus home from a ski-jumping event. “Are you in the ring of steel right now?” it said. “Just left!” I texted. She fired back: “Well get back in! You’re gonna blow up!”

Panic about violence at the 2014 Olympics may seem quaint heading into the 2018 version, which will be conducted under the specter of a genuine nuclear showdown — all of South Korea would be devastated, by any account, in the event of a military conflagration between the United States and North Korea. But four years ago, the threat, and the fear, were very real too. Three weeks before those Games, the State Department warned that they were an “attractive target for terrorists.” Stories of “black widow” bombers, inspired by a Chechen-separatist group that promised a “present” for tourists, dominated the airwaves. Former deputy CIA director Mike Morell told CBS This Morning that the Games would be “the most dangerous Olympics” of his adult life, and Maine senator Angus King said, “It would be a stretch, I think, to say I’m going to send my family over.”

As long as the Olympics have been presented as a sort-of-corny-but-also-sort-of-genuinely-heartwarming beacon of global cooperation and understanding — which is to say, since forever — they have also been a security concern, particularly for Americans traveling to parts of the world where they are not particularly beloved. (Though it is worth remembering that the only terrorist attack at an Olympics in the past 45 years happened in Atlanta.) In 2014, the worry was anti-Putin separatists coming from the nearby Caucasus Mountains. In 2004, it was a lack of security forces in Greece. In 2002, it was having the Olympics in America so soon after 9/11. But the Winter Olympics are a particular worry because, well, they’re the Winter Olympics: Most people don’t even realize they’re happening until the year turns and hey, look, here they are. They are a high-profile global target that sneaks up on you in a way that the Summer Olympics don’t. Which brings us to this year, when the world will be watching the spectacle unfold on the very peninsula over which the threat of a nuclear apocalypse looms. And the United States — usually the nominal hall monitor of these pageants of global peace and prosperity — will arrive looking to the rest of the world more like a threat itself. If you thought Putin’s 2014 Games were scary, wait until you put an Olympic Games less than 50 miles from the Korean Demilitarized Zone and, to quote an orange bard of our time, a little man who has a little button at his desk that may or may not work.

How scared anyone heading to Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month should be depends on your perspective. If you’re feeling positive — and everyone’s feeling positive about everything these days, aren’t they? — you may note that the North recently made a rare statement of potential cooperation with the South, saying it wished success for the Olympics and would even consider sending a delegation, though no athletes from North Korea have currently qualified for the Games. It was as wide as Kim Jong-un had opened his arms to the South in years, and a cheerful South Korean governor said his country would be delighted to send a cruise ship to pick up North Korean athletes.

Then again, within hours of Kim’s peace offering, Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted that allowing the North to participate in the Olympics would “give legitimacy to the most illegitimate regime on the planet” and claimed that the U.S. would be forced to boycott the Games if North Korea showed up. (For what it’s worth, Graham does not in fact have the power to boycott the Olympics.) And just hours after that came, of course, the Presidential Tweet of Penis Supremacy: the already infamous “please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” It was the tweet that welcomed us all back from the holidays stricken with that familiar fear of nuclear annihilation. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who in December said U.S. Olympics attendance was an “open question,” dismissed the North Korea–South Korea talks, something few other countries have done. Four years ago, the worry was that we were wading into a regional issue that we’d pay the price for. But this year, we’re the ones stirring the pot.

Perhaps predictably, tourists are not flocking to these Games. USA Today reported that ticket sales are 41 percent lower than organizers had expected and that demand has been lower than it was for the Sochi Winter Olympics. Would you want to go watch a sporting event 50 miles from Kim Jong-un right now? As an American?

It is worth noting that security probably won’t be different at this Olympics than at any other — to a point. Vicki Michaelis, a journalism professor at the University of Georgia and a former Olympics correspondent for USA Today who covered nine different Games (and currently sponsors a fellowship program for college students to cover the Games for TeamUSA.org), says that there is “a knowledge that’s passed from host to host that probably dictates the larger picture,” but that every host country has a different culture of security. “Rio was a relaxed place,” she says, “and so when you’re there, you don’t see the security as tight on that individual, gate-by-gate, entrance-by-entrance basis, because these are not people who are answering to Putin, or these are not people who grew up in China.” In Russia, the security was so tight that some of the journalists I saw there joked that they’d always remember Sochi as the place they got groped every 15 to 20 steps in any direction.

Is that the culture of Pyeongchang? Putin rejected American assistance with security in 2014 because he wanted to show the might of his country, to prove that he could run a safe Games. But the world feels quite a bit different than it did four years ago — and not just because there won’t be an official Russian delegation to play the role of global villain (because of a doping scandal, the country can only be represented by individuals who will be identified as “Olympic Athletes From Russia”). It’s because the world feels like a powder keg waiting to go off at any moment. It is still likely that nothing will happen, just like nothing has happened for more than 20 years. It is still likely that this column will look ridiculous when the Games are over, like all the alarmist pieces about Sochi did. One certainly hopes so.

“I used to tell my family when I would go to an Olympics, whether it was Salt Lake City or Athens or wherever, and they were concerned: ‘Look, I’m probably in the safest place on the planet for the next 17 days,’ ” Michaelis says. “Every country that’s there has an interest in keeping it secure.” But if you were asking whether or not the U.S. is currently working to make it easier for South Korea to keep the Games safer, the overwhelming perception is that it is hurting more than it is helping. Perhaps that is our new reality with everything. Why should the Olympics be any different?

*This article appears in the January 8, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. 

Watching the Olympics in the Shadow of Nuclear Apocalypse