PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — A group of high school students plan to keep their new flags all their lives, as a souvenir of this historic political and Olympic moment that they traveled across their nation to witness.
They joined thousands of others at a women’s hockey game, waving their unified Korean flags — white rectangles with the light-blue silhouette of the Korean Peninsula, the North and South together.
“This flag means we are all one,” 19-year-old Kim Na Yeon said of this seemingly simple expression hope, of the power of sport to transcend dangerous political friction and bring the world together for two weeks every two years.
Except: The teenagers point to tiny blue dots, no bigger than strawberry seeds, off to the right.
The spots represent a group of islands controlled by South Korea but also claimed by Japan. Their inclusion on this flag delights the Korean teenagers and infuriates the Japanese government.
These barely visible yet controversial specks — erased on the version approved by the International Olympic Committee — embody the delicate dance Olympic organizers must do to manage the political implications of the flags that represent each nation.
They are piece of cloth, yes — rectangular symbols. But embedded in its threads, the cloth carries generations of political baggage and competing interests.
DELICATE OLYMPIC BALANCE
“People try to say, ‘Let’s keep politics out of it, and the flag is just to cheer on our national team.’ And on the face of it, that’s what it is,” says Katharine Gelber, a political science professor at the University of Queensland in Australia.
“But there’s so much more to it than that. Flags are incredibly expressive,” she says. “These things are difficult to negotiate because people hold their view of flags so strongly; it’s very complex, and very political.”
Taiwan has competed in the Games for decades as “Chinese Taipei,” named for its capital city, under a bland flag featuring the Olympic rings. It is forbidden by the IOC from using its own flag or anthem because of a long-running dispute with the Beijing government, which considers Taiwan part of China and, like much of the rest of the world, does not recognize its government.
And the United States, when preparing to send its athletes to the Olympics, provides them a training video on how to handle the stars and stripes to avoid controversy that clings to flag mishaps.
Do: Hold the flag with the stars in your right hand so you don’t accidently hoist it upside down when celebrating victory. Don’t: Wear it like a cape. Don’t: Let it touch the ground.
Yet last week, photos captured snowboarder Shaun White, celebrating in the moment after winning a gold medal, dragging the flag around in the snow behind him, occasionally stepping on the edges. The images ricocheted around the internet, accompanied by outrage. He apologized and said he was caught in a haze of excitement.
The incident reveals all the inescapable political implications of the flag, both at home and abroad.
Gelber says polls consistently show that even people in countries with strong free-speech traditions like the United States support laws that illegalize flag desecration.
“Critics of flag desecration say, ‘Well, this flag is a symbol of national unity and the national flag should never be allowed to lie on the ground or be ripped or torn or stepped on,” she says. “Those are people who would not think twice when people put the flag on all kinds of objects. There are flags on underwear, bikinis, flip-flops, and nobody ever calls that flag desecration.”
Fifty years ago, amid years-long wrangling over Cold War political disputes, one member of the International Olympic Committee tried to avoid the political choreography of flags by doing away with them altogether.
In 1968, Prince George William of Hanover proposed that flags and anthems be eliminated from the games, according to the International Olympics Committee’s Olympic Studies Center.
“One cannot deny,” he said, “that we are facing a serious crisis. Our strength has so far been not to yield to any political pressure. The future will show whether we shall be strong and united enough to stand up against all interferences whilst striving for our ethical aims.”
He proposed victors stand on the podium below the Olympic flag as the Olympic anthem played — a proposition that was rejected by the committee. And today athletes stand on the podium before the flags of their own nations as the anthem from the gold medalist’s country plays.
Unless they’re in trouble.
Russia’s anthem and flag, even its name, are barred from the games this year as punishment for its sweeping state-sponsored doping program. Its athletes are not part of Team Russia; they are called “Olympic Athlete from Russia.”
Fans at a Russian women’s hockey game mocked the designation by waving flags, with “Olympic Fan from Russia” scrawled across its white, blue and red bars.
“The International Olympic Committee cannot stop up from supporting our team,” said Oleg Pak, a 47-year-old from Vladivostok, in eastern Russia not far from the Korean border. “Even if we must call ourselves Olympic fans from Russia. Why not? It doesn’t matter to us. Team Russia, Olympic Athlete from Russia, it’s the same. We are Russians.”
Anastasiia Epifanova, a 20 -year-old student from St. Petersburg, wasn’t sure if fans were allowed to bring in the Russian flag so she came prepared with an excuse. She cut a hole in the flag and wore it like a poncho.
“It’s not a flag. It’s my coat,” she deadpanned, sure that the ticket-takers would not take her coat in the frigid winter.
She guessed there might actually be more Russian flags in the stands because they were banned. Many Russians, like her, were motivated to attend the Olympics by what she described as “a bad attitude toward Russia.”
So Gelber finds it to be a “silly suggestion” that nationalism could somehow be removed from any international event like the Olympics — when fans will always root wildly for home teams, officially sanctioned flags or none.
“The Olympics organization tries to be neutral,” she says. “But politics is embedded in it. These are national contests, so it’s inevitable that nationalism will be intertwined with these athletes.”
But some in the stands at the Olympics say that to them a flag is just a flag, a piece of colorful cloth. They carry it because that’s where they’re from; it’s not who they are.
THE FLAG(S) OF LOVE
One recent day, Eric and Yulia Cobb stopped for a photo at the Gangneung Ice Arena.
He held up an American flag. She held up a Russian one. They kissed.
They met exactly four years ago at the Olympic Park in Sochi, fell in love and married a year later. Now they live in San Diego.
This couple from two of the world’s most cantankerous nations, at each other’s throats over sports and politics, say the flags in their hands don’t have to be so loaded with meaning and geo-political nuance.
“I’m not going to take sides, I just came for the Olympics,” Eric Cobb said.
“The world is supposed to shut down and people come from countries all over the world for one little short time and they’re not all complaining about everything and just enjoying life. Isn’t that a good thing? Can’t we just do that again?”
Claire Galofaro, Appalachia correspondent for The Associated Press, is on assignment in Pyeongchang for the 2018 Winter Games. Follow her on Twitter at clairegalofaro.