The Olympic Games: Sometimes a Setting For Showcasing U.S. Foreign Policy

Yesterday, Disney-Pixar revealed plans to promote The Incredibles 2 (2018) on NBC during the first week of the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The animated motion picture presents a story revolving around a family of superhero characters. The effort to advertise the cartoon fantasy to audiences watching the international sports event highlights the prestige of the Olympic Games. During the history of the United States, the Olympic Games have sometimes carried strong yet subtle foreign policy undercurrents.

Many observers commented this year upon geopolitical issues in evidence at the Olympic Games. Both Vice President Pence and Kim Yo Jong (the sister of the North Korean leader) observed the games in person, sitting just feet apart from one another. The Vice President directed the world’s attention to the ongoing detention of three Americans in North Korea by rather pointedly inviting Fred Warmbier to attend as his guest. (Mr. Warmbier’s 22-year old son, Otto, returned from his stint in a North Korean labor camp in a coma and died just six days later.)

Yet some previous Olympic Games have also revealed profound foreign policy and ideological differences. Probably the most famous occurred during the 1936 Olympic Games. International media attention focused on the American track star Jesse Owens, a Black athlete raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He won four gold medals at the Berlin Games, just a few years before the outbreak of WWII. His record-setting performances received acclaim from audiences, even while they embarrassed the racist Nazi leadership. Although Jesse Owens would fall into obscurity for many years upon his return to the still-segregated United States, his athletic prowess upstaged Nazi propaganda in a powerful way. American history suggests Olympic Games often bare governmental differences in stark colors.