What the Winter Olympics Teaches Us about the World

Every four years, the Winter Olympics is a winter experience like no other. Filled with a variety of exciting and death-defying winter sports, this two-week event is actually a thrilling way to immerse yourself in the host country as well as learn about world cultures and satisfy some of that wanderlust without ever having to leave your home.

The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, is no different. Steeped in a storied and fascinating history, the tiny country in East Asia is seeking to put its best foot forward and share with the world how special it really is.

Opening Ceremony

One of the most culturally-rich parts of the Olympics is the Opening Ceremony. This year’s breathtaking display served as an introduction to the culture and history of South Korea. A seamless blend of traditional storytelling, puppetry, dance, music, and more brought the story of their country to life. Cultural symbols filled the entire show, including an early entrance of a white tiger traditional puppet, which is also the official mascot for the PyeongChang games. The white tiger is a symbol of Korea and believed to bring protection and ward off evil spirits. In modern times, the tiger also symbolizes economic strength. The traditional cultural elements gave way at one point of the ceremony to help usher in the future, giving a nod to the technologically-forward and innovative modern culture of South Korea, using hundreds of drones, flying high above the stadium and mountains, to create the images of a snowboarder and the Olympic rings.

And, of course, there was the one part of the event that has never changed: the parade of nations. This element of the Opening Ceremony also offers a glimpse into the cultures of the world through each nation’s uniform and dress. The first nation to march out is always Greece, as the home of the original Olympics. The last nation is the host country. For everyone else, they march out alphabetically based on the names of the countries in the host country’s language—for example, the United States in Korea is called “Mi Guk”, meaning “beautiful country,” and so the U.S. delegation marched out with the “M” nations. One outlier this year is that there was no Russian Federation delegation. Though the country has been banned from these games due to a state-sponsored doping scandal, athletes from the nation who have been judged clean are still allowed to compete. They marched in under the Olympic flag as Olympic Athletes from Russia, though they are not allowed to show affiliation with their country’s flag. Their dress was plain and any medals won will not count toward Russia’s overall total.      

In all, the Opening Ceremony was a gorgeous display and introduction to two weeks of athleticism and culture. Check out some of these links for gorgeous photos from the Opening Ceremony:

If you’re actually at the Olympics (or have a chance to go to one of the future Games), the Olympic Committee makes an effort to introduce the athletes, media, and spectators to the culture of the country with the Cultural Olympiad—arts and culture events organized around the Olympic venues. If you’re at home, you can usually see puff pieces during the Today Show and primetime and late-night coverage as well as on your local news reports from the Games. Some of the cultural events in PyeongChang include a variety of a musical, theatrical, and art programs and classes and much more that represent traditional and modern Korean culture—a wide range that encompasses traditional calligraphy classes to futuristic displays of technological breakthroughs. PyeongChang has also started the Olympic Art project, which invites past Olympians who are artists to showcase their work.

North and South Korea

Each Winter Olympics Games seems to have its own political implications, too. The 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, happened during a time of contentious unrest between the country and its neighbor, Ukraine. Social politics such as the country’s view on homosexuality was also a notable story casting a shadow over the Games. This year, the talk revolves around South Korea and its northern counterpart.

North Korea certainly has an oppressive regime that the United Nations and countries around the world have condemned. It’s a closed country, with very few being allowed to enter or leave freely. In fact, the people of North Korea don’t really have any contact or knowledge of the outside world, only what their leader has told them. But before the Korean War, the two were united as one Korea, and families have been parted for more than sixty years because of the volatile divide.

For these Games, the story has become about unity. These countries that once shied away from constructive talks have met formally. And even more significant, the two countries have come together for these Winter Olympics as one Korea. This is not the first time they have walked into the Opening Ceremony under a combined Korean unification flag—a blue silhouette of the Korean Peninsula on a white background—but it is certainly the most poignant.

In addition to marching in together, some of the teams have combined; most notably, the women’s hockey team included players from both the North and the South. The unified team wasn’t without its troubles—language and cultural barriers were reportedly an issue in the beginning—but they came together as much of the world does over these two weeks.

The Chance to Compete

Of course, the Winter Olympics isn’t only about the host country. Throughout the events, those of us at home learn about athletes from all over the world, gaining an insight into their lives, countries, and cultures. It really is a time for the world to come together and learn about each other, and that’s the biggest step to making the world a more harmonious place. There are hundreds of stories, and though the top athletes get much of the attention, every individual competing has their own story of hard work, struggles, determination, and resilience. We learn, through them, that we’re not so different after all.

How many of us haven’t thought about competing in the Olympics? How many of us think “if I hadn’t given up this sport or if I had tried that sport when I was a kid maybe I could have made it there”? I’m willing to bet that thought crosses most of our minds at least once as we watch the top athletes compete in their chosen sport. I’ve even considered the fact that my age does not necessarily preclude me from competing in curling one day. It’s something I should check out.

One of those people out there, who at one time was watching the Olympics and thinking, “I could do that,” is the man you may think of as the “Topless Tongan.” Pita Taufatofua, from the small South Pacific island of Tonga, had competed in the past two Olympics, this Winter Olympics in PyeongChang and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. In Rio, he competed in Taekwondo; in PyeongChang, he competed in the 15-kilometer freestyle cross-country ski race—a sport he took up just last year while living in a tropical island nation that sees no snow. In both, he was the flagbearer for his country, walking topless—this time in below-freezing temperatures—while wearing traditional dress. He knew he wouldn’t win (and he didn’t come in last!) but his goal was a more important one: inspire the younger generation of Tonga to see what they can do, encourage them to go for their dreams and compete in future Olympics. Look for the Topless Tongan again in two years in Tokyo. Taufatofua has already said he wants to compete again, maybe next in a sport that involves water.  

Like Taufatofua, there are those athletes who have always dreamed of winning a medal in the Olympics and have refused to give up. This Winter Olympics, there are many stories of athletes at their third, fourth, or even fifth Games. Some of them have won previously and want to keep going; some have never won but still seek that success or just want to continue in the sport they love; some have made it to the podium but are still searching for that elusive gold. The latter was the case for Aliona Savchenko, the female half of the Savchenko/Massot pairs figure skating team from Germany. This was Savchenko’s fifth Olympics, having made her debut in 2002’s Salt Lake City Games. She’s had three partners. With her previous partner, she won two bronze medals, but she wasn’t done. In 2014, she paired with French skater Bruno Massot. He passed the language test last summer in order to become a German citizen so that he could compete with her in PyeongChang. Their short program was shaky but a flawless free skate propelled them into first by less than half a point and won Savchenko her long-awaited gold medal.

Some countries are expected to perform well at the Olympics. When you look at a list of the top 10 countries with the most ever Winter Olympic medals, you can see that they are all countries known for their mountains and snow: Norway, United States, Germany, Austria, Soviet Union, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Russia. Winter sports are a specialty for these countries—known for their skiing and snowboarding as well as their reputation on the ice–and are often a way of life from a very young age for many.  

There are some new entries this year. Traditionally, African and other tropical countries don’t have a lot of competitors in the Winter Olympics. When you look at their climate and landscape, it’s easy to understand why. But there are still those who dream of being part of this exciting experience and are determined to compete. This year, there are a record number of African nations attending the Games in PyeongChang, including Nigeria and Eritrea, who have never been to the Winter Olympics. Three women from Nigeria have worked hard to become their country’s first bobsled team and another Nigerian woman has become the first female skeleton slider for the continent. They are proof that you can do anything with some inspiration and a lot of perseverance.

Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics

After two weeks of breathtaking athletic and artistic display, one point that becomes clear is how alike we all are. We hope, celebrate, cry, and experience disappointment just like everyone else. All of those competing grew up with similar dreams and despite different circumstances and hardships, they made it to the Winter Olympics. We, as an audience, come away with a slightly better understanding of the host country and the people who are so proud to welcome the world to their home.

There are still a couple days of days left for the Winter Olympics. If you haven’t had a chance to explore all that these events can offer to those with wanderlust and a desire to learn more, you still have time. And don’t forget to tune into the Closing Ceremony on Sunday! This event is usually just as spectacular though less focused on the host country as it is looking toward the future. It is here that South Korea will pass the baton to the next Winter Games host, Beijing, China. Because this is an important part of the Closing Ceremony, we will likely see a blend of Korean and Chinese culture throughout that will make us want to take a trip to China in four years.



One thought on “What the Winter Olympics Teaches Us about the World”

  1. I think one of the most inspirational things about the Olympics is how it brings cultures and countries together. I really appreciated the idea of unity this year. Everyone can cheer for these incredibly talented and motivated athletes, and just as you mention, we laugh and cry with them.

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