Welcome to the Olympics, as Complicated and Controversial as Ever

The stories of the athletes who aren't in PyeongChang say as much about this Winter Olympics as the stories of the ones who are.
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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Welcome to the Olympic Games, where we put our political differences aside and welcome everybody, unless we caught the bastards cheating or they decided the Olympics were not in their business interests.

A few folks are missing. NHL players are not here. Some Russians are here, but some are not and the nation of Russia officially is not. North Korea was not supposed to be here, but is, after a decision to march together with South Korea under a unified flag, play a little hockey with the South Koreans, compete in other sports separately, and then resume the threat of nuclear annihilation at the proper time.

To understand the bizarre state of these Olympics, consider: The face of the Games should be Ahn-Hyun Soo. He is a South Korean and one of the great short-track speed-skaters in history. Koreans are obsessed with short track. Every Ahn-Hyun Soo race here should be a mini-Super Bowl, a Mardi Gras on ice. Every Ahn-Hyun Soo race should give Koreans the same euphoric feeling that Americans get when they realize the breakfast buffet is still open.

But since Ahn made his Olympic debut, at the 2006 Turin games, he:

1. Had a falling-out with the South Korean skating federation.

2. Went shopping for a new country.

3. Picked Russia.

4. Started competing under the name Viktor Ahn.

5. Watched as Russia got nailed for a massive doping campaign, sidelining Ahn.

So now Ahn is banned from his home games, which are no longer his home games. Strangest of all, perhaps: Even though he ditched South Korea for Russia, it is generally accepted that South Koreans blame the federation, not Ahn. It does stink for South Koreans that they can’t watch their favorite athlete in their favorite sport.

Ahn found out officially Friday that his appeal to compete in these Games failed. The announcement came from Matthieu Reeb of the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Reeb is CAS’s Secretary-General, which, one presumes, means he gets to invade countries but must take notes while he does it. Reeb read his announcement at a press conference, but did not take any questions. Tragically, this meant Reeb left without speaking to the unbiased reporter in the front row wearing a shirt that read:



(Man, I love the Olympics.)

Some background: Russia was banned from the Olympics for a blatant and rampant system of doping. Now some Russians are allowed to compete, but in the grand tradition of inane sports penalties, they are not allowed to compete for Russia, but merely as people from Russia; their official designation is “Olympic athletes from Russia.” The official Russian positions: We did not cheat; everybody is out to get Russia; if we DID cheat, then come on, everybody does it; but we did not cheat; vodka; once again, we did not cheat. It is unclear how this will affect Russia’s application to the Southeastern Conference.

In a wildly amusing twist, despite being banned, Russia may win the one event it cares about most: men’s hockey. You may remember that four years ago the Russians had wild and intense dreams of winning the gold in Sochi, Russia, only to realize that while they were dreaming so wildly and intensely, they apparently forgot to hire a coach. They did not win a medal. But look now: the NHL decided to pull out of the Olympics, citing the league’s longstanding “What’s In It For Us?” policy, which means Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and their peers are home. Meanwhile, Russia has some NHL-quality stars who have chosen to play in Russia, including Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk. If Russia wins the men’s hockey gold medal, it will be one of the great achievements of these Olympics—second only to me getting out of this paragraph without making a joke about the 2016 election.

Speaking of grumbling Americans: speedskater Shani Davis tweeted his anger at not being chosen as the U.S. flag bearer, stunning those Americans who did not know Davis is still competing. Well, it wouldn’t be a winter Olympics if Shani Davis didn’t complain about something. And since these Olympics have just begun, he may have another rant or two left in him. Come on, Shani. Don’t disappoint us.

In that way, and in a few others, these Olympics do feel normal. There is a palpable excitement, a few potential stars in the making, and the bathroom doorway in my room in the media village is equipped with the latest toe-stubbing technology. These should be a wonderful Olympics, because all Olympics are wonderful, and if they are an utter catastrophe, don’t blame me. It’s not my fault. After all, I am za sport.