PyeongChang Games: A Beacon for Universal Access to Sports

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U.S. Embassy Korea Charge d'Affaires Marc Knapper, dressed in a matching Olympic snow suit and stocking hat, lights the Olympic torch.
Chargé d’Affaires Marc Knapper and his son Alex carried the Olympic flame through renowned UNESCO World Heritage site Hahoe Village as part of the Andong portion of the relay.

PyeongChang Games: A Beacon for Universal Access to Sports

This month, the world turns its gaze toward Gangwon Province as the Republic of Korea (ROK) hosts the 23rd Olympic Winter Games.  I congratulate Korea for its extraordinary efforts in preparing for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

These PyeongChang Games represent an opportunity to show the world the ROK’s remarkable achievements since the Korean War and what the Korean people have accomplished since hosting the historic 1988 Olympic Summer Games.  I had the pleasure of recently traveling on the new KTX route between Seoul and PyeongChang and viewing many of the Olympic and Paralympic venues.  With all venues completed 100 days before the Opening Ceremony, Korea is to be commended.  As a friend and ally, the United States is committed to supporting the ROK, and we are spreading the news that the PyeongChang Olympics and Paralympics promise to be among the best winter games to date.

Sports have an amazing ability to capture the imaginations of people, promote goodwill, and transcend the boundaries of gender, nationality, race, and creed. This is why the Olympics and Paralympics lift us all to a higher level.  These benefits can be fully realized only when we ensure the opportunity to participate in sports is available equally to all people.

I have been inspired by one of the cross-country skiers representing Team USA at the Paralympics, Oksana Masters.  Exposed in-utero to radiation stemming from fallout of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Oksana was born in Ukraine with deformities in her hands and legs.  After spending her early years in an orphanage, she was adopted by an American professor.  With no way to rehabilitate the deformed legs, and to relieve the constant pain Oksana suffered, the difficult decision was made to amputate both her legs.  As she learned to use her new high-tech prosthetic legs, Oksana developed a passion for sports, first taking up rowing, then cycling, and finally, cross-country skiing, winning a Paralympic silver and two bronze medals along the way.  PyeongChang will be Oksana’s fourth Paralympics, not only highlighting her passion, amazing talents, and tireless work ethic, but also demonstrating what is possible when we make sports accessible to all.

Oksana’s story also points to the particular importance of making sports accessible to girls.  During her visit to the Republic of Korea, First Lady Melania Trump shared the spotlight with K-Pop Star Min-ho and short track skater Cho Hye-ri at the launch of the U.S. Embassy’s “Girls Play 2!” initiative.  They spoke about the many benefits our youth derive from playing sports, including developing valuable life skills such as grit, determination, and teamwork – indeed, the same traits that have enabled South Koreans to achieve so much and go so far.  Mrs. Trump encouraged everyone to provide equal access to athletic programs for both boys and girls, reminding the world that “girls play sports, too!”

Last February, we welcomed Team USA’s Chloe Kim as a United States Sports Envoy to the ROK.  Ms. Kim is currently the world’s top-ranked female half-pipe snowboarder and she’s only 17 years-old.  If you ask Chloe about her key to achieving such success at such a young age, she will tell you about the support and sacrifice of her parents, Jong Jin and Bo Ran Kim, who immigrated to the United States from Korea many years ago.  When Chloe was still very young, Jong Jin’s love and support for his daughter inspired him to give up his career and devote himself 100% to Chloe’s future.  Chloe has gone on to defy stereotypes about what girls can accomplish on the half-pipe, becoming the first female athlete to land back-to-back 1080s (an aerial jump which involves rotating a full 360 degrees three times before landing), and score a perfect ‘100’ at the U.S. Grand Prix in 2016.  Before this important moment in snowboarding history, the consensus was only men could land such incredibly tough jumps and receive such high scores.  Whether we look at Chloe Kim or Korean athletes like figure skating champion Kim Yu-na or up-and-coming hearing-impaired tennis sensation Lee Duk-hee, what we see is the undeniably important role families play in supporting and advocating on behalf of the athletic ambitions of our young people.

As we look forward to the 2018 Winter Olympics, when top athletes will gather in PyeongChang and the world will witness the pinnacle of human performance and endurance in various winter sports, the United States applauds the accomplishments of the ROK government and the PyeongChang Organizing Committee in setting the stage for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.  We know these Winter Games will be unforgettable for the Olympians and Paralympians competing, the culmination of years of training and personal sacrifice.  For the millions of spectators watching from around the world, these Games will create indelible images of perseverance and triumph.  Inspired by the Olympians and Paralympians in PyeongChang, I hope we will renew our efforts to make sports accessible to all.

About the Author: Marc Knapper is Chargé d’Affaires ad interim at the U.S. Embassy in Korea.

Editor’s Note: This entry was adapted from an op-ed released in South Korea in December 2017.