USOC tries to quell fears about Winter Olympics as tensions escalate with North Korea

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

PARK CITY, Utah – Within minutes of United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun offering the oral version of the “This is fine” meme Monday regarding safety and security for American athletes headed to the PyeongChang Games in February, news broke that the North Korean foreign minister accused the U.S. of declaring war on his country.

The timing was stark: As American and South Korean Olympic officials sought to quell fears over the back-and-forth sniping that threatens the Korean Peninsula, North Korea escalated its already sharp rhetoric. U.S. officials denied President Trump was seeking war when he tweeted North Korea “won’t be around much longer” if the foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, reiterated the message of North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-Un.

The words of Blackmun, who said, “Things we have an opportunity to control are going very well,” echoed those of a memo sent to athletes by the USOC on Friday. In the memo obtained by Yahoo Sports, USOC chief security officer Nicole Deal wrote: “Despite current political tensions with North Korea, there is no specific information to suggest there are imminent threats to U.S. citizens or facilities in South Korea.”

North Korea’s nuclear capability and construction of an intercontinental ballistic missile have sparked fears, with PyeongChang located about 50 miles from the Korean border. The PyeongChang Games would mark the third consecutive Olympics with security concerns, after the Sochi Games four years ago and the Rio Games in 2016. The United States expects to send more than 200 athletes to the Winter Games, which take place from Feb. 9-25.

South Korean athletes pose for the media with the silver, gold and bronze medals for the 2018 Winter Olympics. (AP)

Jaeyoul Kim, the spokesman for PyeongChang’s organizing committee, used recent women’s ice hockey and men’s soccer games between North and South Korea as examples of how sports can unite even enemies. While North Korea has yet to qualify an athlete for the Winter Games, it is expected to be allowed to participate if it does.

“We are a strong believer that sport has a unique power,” Kim said, “that sport transcends politics and political differences.”

The USOC, Blackmun said, is working with the State Department to devise the safest plan for U.S. Olympians. In the memo, Deal continued: “Tensions on the Korean Peninsula, including threats and provocations, are likely to persist for the foreseeable future. These should not be dismissed as insignificant nor feared as precursors of an inevitable conflict. Instead, we are taking a more measured approach by monitoring the situation, engaging with our security counterparts at the State Department and the PyeongChang Organizing Committee, and reviewing communication, accountability and crisis management plans that address a range of potential scenarios to ensure that our athletes, and our entire delegation, are safe.”

Deal said the U.S. Embassy in South Korea “has not changed its security posture and has not recommended that U.S. citizens who reside in, or plan to visit, South Korea take special security precautions at this time.” And Kim, the South Korean spokesperson, is convinced PyeongChang will be safe enough that he expects to bring his children.

“My family plans to come to PyeongChang to enjoy the Olympic Games,” he said. “And I don’t have any concerns. I hope you feel as comfortable as I do.”

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