North Korea

Olympics: once more 'a symbol of hope and peace in our troubled times'

Olympics: once more 'a symbol of hope and peace in our troubled times'

On Rodney King’s gravestone at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills, it says, “Can we all get along,” a reference to Mr. King’s plea amid his early 1990s encounter with the Los Angeles Police Department. It’s a very different context but — in just so many words, that is what the Olympic movement, at its best, is all about.

To fulfill the words of the soul poet Rodney King, the movement’s No. 1 mission in our complicated world— its raison d’etre — is not just to be relevant. Or even to remain relevant. It is to assert its relevance.

Over the past many months, the movement has struggled, and mightily, with this notion. A succession of brutal headlines have caused some, if not many, to wonder about the Olympic movement’s place, beset as it has been by Russian doping, sexual abuse and misconduct scandals, skyrocketing cost overruns associated with the Games, diminishing taxpayer interest in staging future editions of the Olympics and more. 

Now, though, comes word of a remarkable breakthrough: North Korea will send athletes to February’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Dennis Rodman and North Korea

The former NBA star Dennis Rodman is not engaging in “sports diplomacy” by going to North Korea and hanging out, or not, with the dictator Kim Jong Un. All he’s doing is creating publicity for Dennis Rodman.

No one is stopping Rodman from going, not even — apparently — the U.S. State Department, as Rodman apparently proceeds with a plan to play a basketball exhibition Jan. 8 in North Korea. It purportedly features ex-NBA players against the North Korean men’s national basketball team, its erstwhile Olympic team. Jan. 8, it should be noted, will be Kim's 31st birthday. How special.

Dennis Rodman in his element -- Fashion Week in Miami in July // photo Getty Images

This ought to be clear: Kim is using Rodman in a bid to deflect attention from the brutal reality of life in North Korea. Rodman, meanwhile, is using Kim to generate attention for the Dennis Rodman brand. As he said in a cover story in Sports Illustrated in July, “I haven’t had a job in years, yet I’m talked about more than ever.”

It can be funny to dye your hair or get a bunch of piercings or show up in public in a wedding dress or show up at the Wife-Carrying World Championships in Finland. It can be cool, maybe, to hang out with Carmen Electra or Madonna.

North Korea is isolated, its people impoverished.

An estimated 1 in every 120 people there is imprisoned in gulags.

On his birthday last year, Kim reportedly handed out copies of "Mein Kampf" as gifts -- allegedly to promote a study of Hitler's economic reforms.

The United States and South Korea have consistently registered serious concerns about North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs as well as its chemical weapons capabilities.

Rodman made his first visit to the North Korea in late February, accompanied by three members of the Harlem Globetrotters. Weeks before, North Korea had conducted a nuclear test, its third in seven years.

Some 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea. Query: did Rodman visit them? Why not?

Kim, educated in Switzerland, reportedly grew up a basketball fan, especially of the Chicago Bulls, for whom Rodman played during their championship run along Michael Jordan in the 1990s. During that February visit, Rodman called Kim a “friend” and said, “I love him — the guy’s awesome.”

That trip was sponsored by Brooklyn-based Vice Media, filming along the way for a documentary. In September, he went back to Pyongyang, underwritten by Paddy Power, the Ireland-based online gambling concern. After that first North Korea trip, Paddy Power sent Rodman to Vatican City in March, where he pushed a black cardinal from Africa as his preferred candidate for the next pope, a company spokesman saying Rodman was there to “spread the gospel of pope betting.”

One of Rodman’s many problems now is that he has been all over the map — so to speak — when it comes to whether going to North Korea is, in fact, all about him or changing the world by effecting peace through sports.

In July, to Sports Illustrated:

"My mission is to break the ice between hostile countries. Why it's been left to me to smooth things over, I don't know. Dennis Rodman, of all people. Keeping us safe is really not my job; it's the black guy's [Obama's] job. But I'll tell you this: If I don't finish in the top three for the next Nobel Peace Prize, something's seriously wrong."

In November, to Associated Press:

"Just think, it's up to Dennis Rodman to break ground with North Korea. I’m the only one in the world who will go talk to this guy and try and find some common ground with these people. I'm hoping that gap between America and North Korea can close. Those guys love a lot about America. They love it. That's why I go over there.

"People don't believe that."

In December, to Reuters, in Beijing, en route to Pyongyang, after the execution of Kim’s uncle and mentor, Jang Song Thaek, who had been considered the regime's second-most powerful man, in response to an open letter in the Washington Post about human-rights abuses in North Korea:

"People have been saying these things here and there. It doesn't really matter to me. I'm not a politician. I'm not an ambassador.

"I'm just going over there to try and do something really cool for a lot of people, play some games and try to get the Korean kids to play.

"Everything else I have nothing to do with. If it happens that [Kim] wants to talk about it, then great. If it doesn't happen, I just can't bring it up because I don't (want) him to think that I'm over here trying to be an ambassador and trying to use him as being his friend and all of a sudden I'm talking about politics. That's not going to be that way.”

One might have thought Rodman would have had more common sense after Jang’s Dec. 12 execution. But no. He went to North Korea, anyway.

This last time, there was no meeting with Kim.

When Rodman got back, Paddy Power abruptly announced it had had enough — it was backing out of the Jan. 8 game. In an email, it cited “changed circumstances.”

The reality is that true sports diplomacy takes time. It takes resource. Almost always, it happens out of the spotlight.

The International Olympic Committee knows this. This is why, among other initiatives, it developed Olympic Solidarity, overseen now by Kuwait’s Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah. Solidarity seeks to identify promising young athletes around the world and get them to the Games.

The State Department knows this, too. Its International Sports Programming Initiative is even now seeking grant proposals — the deadline is Feb. 28 — for one- to three-year projects around the world.

These one-one-one endeavors are hugely more likely to effect change and produce good than Rodman in North Korea.

The conundrum is that he is likely to get more press.

The challenge is that even writing about it — and him — gives him what he wants.

But unless this gets written, this, too, can’t be relayed:

None of the ex-NBA players due to take part in the Jan. 8 project have been identified.

Now is the time for any of those players to themselves develop a strong dose of common sense. And for the league, and the commissioner, to strongly advise any and all of those players: stay home.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the influential Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. In a recent open letter, he put it perfectly:

“… Please: forget Rodman. Don’t give Kim Jong Un an easy PR layup he doesn’t deserve. Instead, join decent people everywhere and become a part of the growing global zone defense trying to help the defenseless people of North Korea.”

Americans 2-for-2 in judo gold

SINGAPORE -- When he was a toddler, Max Schneider was one of those kids who got bullied in pre-school. The normal stuff, he says now. Hey, kid, I want your toy -- and the next thing you'd know, Max would be on the floor. This would not do, Max's mom, Adelina, decided. She was concerned her son would always be on the small side and picked on. So she found a judo program in the neighborhood in Chicago where they lived, and put him in the class.

What do you know -- Max Schneider turned out to be a natural at judo, a sport that many Americans assuredly have heard of but couldn't tell you the first thing about.

A couple days ago here at the first-ever Youth Olympic Games, Max won gold in the boys' 66-kilogram class (that's 146 pounds). That was the first-ever gold medal for the United States in an Olympic-category judo event.

The very next night, Katelyn Bouyssou of Hope, R.I., won gold in the girls' 52-kilo class (114 pounds).

Two golds in two days -- the American team one of only two to win two gold medals in a sport in which nations were allowed here to enter, in total, one boy and one girl. South Korea was the other.

The Americans, though, will leave these Youth Games as the only judo team to hold opponents scoreless. Again: neither Max nor Katelyn gave up even a single point.

In judo!

American performance in judo over the years on the Olympic stage calls to mind the sort of thing a boy who lives on the North Side of Chicago would know a lot about -- the Cubs, and how they pretty much never win the big one.

American men have won nine Summer Games medals, American women one. The men have won three silvers and six bronzes;  Ronda Rousey won bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the women's 70-kilo class (154 pounds).

That's it, and judo has been on the Olympic program now for two generations.

Judo is of course one of the martial arts. It's not taekwondo, where they kick each other. It's not boxing, where they slug each other with gloves. In wrestling, they wear tight-fitting singlets and grunt like forest animals.

In judo, the competitors wear a woven uniform called a gi. The point is to throw your opponent down or otherwise subdue him (or her) or force him (or her) to submit.

There's a bigber-picture ethos to judo. The point is to improve one's self physically, mentally, even emotionally.

It's something of a mystery how in a nation of 300 million people and who knows how many self-improvement gurus the United States holds zero Summer Olympics gold medals in the sport.

Then again, it figures that at these Youth Games the Americans would excel in something like judo.

These are the Games at which nations that traditionally have done well in certain sports haven't (United States, swimming) and nations that typically are extras on the Olympic scene are suddenly starring (girls' soccer final Tuesday: Chile v. Equatorial Guinea, boys' soccer final Wednesday: Bolivia v. Haiti).

The two American medals here perhaps signal something big come London and the 2012 Games.

Katelyn, who is 16, last year became the youngest U.S. athlete ever to compete at the senior world championships; she first won her class at the U.S. nationals as a 14-year-old.

Her father, Serge, is her coach. In the finals, Katelyn fought Anna Dmitrieva, a Russian. "We talked about her killing the Russian's grip, killing her right hand, and then staying on the offense," the father said later.

Max is 17. Along with being a world-class junior judo player, he has become a big-time high school wrestler. Two years ago, as an incoming freshman at Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago, he approached the wrestling coach, whose name is Mark Medona. "And," as Max tells the story, "I said, hey, my name is Max. I won nationals in judo last year. And I would like to join the wrestling team.

"His first response was actually pretty funny," Max said. "He told me to take my cock-and-bull story to someone who believed it.

Then, Max said, coach Medona "went down and researched my name and found out what I said was true. And I kept coming back."

As a freshman, Max made it to the Illinois state high school finals. This past school year, as a sophomore, wrestling at 145 pounds, he enjoyed an undefeated season en route to the state championship.

That, though, was followed by shoulder surgery on April 12, just four months ago. Max didn't get cleared to play judo here until July.

In the final, Max faced Hyon Song-chol of North Korea; the two had never seen or fought each other before.

Serge, the American coach here who also coached the 2009 junior world team, said after Max's victory, "I'm fighting back tears, if that'll tell you anything."

Max said that "ever since I was a little kid" it had "been my dream to be the first to do it," to win an Olympic-event gold for the United States.

He said of his Youth Games gold, "This is as close as I've ever come to a real Olympic medal. On some levels it feels like it.

"On others, I know I still have a lot to overcome."

Not, though, at school. Nobody bullies Max Schneider. "No," he said. "Not anymore."