American soldiers competing in the Olympics next month will march on the same field as North Koreans, but the athletes say they’ll be focused on the competition, not politics.
Three soldiers will be on the U.S. luge team and four others will be on the bobsled team. North Korea isn’t competing in those events, but the Feb. 9 opening ceremony will bring everybody together.
“I don’t think it will be weird at all. We’re used to overcoming adversity through sport,” Sgt. Matt Mortensen said Tuesday in a telephone interview from Latvia where he’s training with his luge teammates.
“If it was a different environment and atmosphere then maybe we would think on the military side of the issue, but for now everybody gets treated as an equal when you’re at the Olympic Games and that’s why it’s such a bonding experience,” he told Stars and Stripes.
North Korea’s agreement to join the Winter Games in Pyeongchang as part of rare talks with the South has eased tensions on the divided peninsula after months of saber rattling over the communist state’s nuclear weapons program.
The United States, which maintains some 28,500 servicemembers ready to “fight tonight” in South Korea, has cautiously welcomed the decision while vowing to keep up pressure aimed at forcing the North to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Sgt. Emily Sweeney pointed to the Olympic truce resolution, which was passed by the United Nations calling for all countries to cease conflict during the games.
“As a soldier, I mean yes you say North Korea and you think big red flag,” Sweeney told Stars and Stripes. But, she said, the Olympics are “about the world coming together and putting their best foot forward so I think that kind of trumps everything else for me.”
Mortensen, Sweeney and Sgt. Taylor Morris will be on the luge team. The bobsled team will include Sgt. Justin Olsen, Capt. Chris Fogt, Sgt. Nick Cunningham and Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Weber.
The seven Olympians are part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, which was established in 1997 to give soldier-athletes a chance to show off their skills in international competitions such as the Olympics and the Paralympics. Soldiers must be nationally ranked in their sport to participate.
Mortensen, who will be competing in his third Olympics, said he faced similar concerns about the U.S. rivalry with Russia during the 2014 games in Sochi.
“As a soldier I feel honored to represent the greatest country in the world at the greatest competition in the world. It is quite a humbling feeling,” Mortensen said. “I also think that the recent agreement made by North and South Korea to march into the opening ceremonies as a unified country speaks volumes about how unifying the Olympic Games as a whole can be.”
The two Koreas agreed to march under a unification flag and to form a combined women’s hockey team.
North Koreans also will compete in figure skating, short-track speed skating, Alpine skiing and cross-country skiing after being given exceptional late entries by the International Olympic Committee for the two-week games.
The fast-paced agreements unfolded after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in his New Year’s speech that his country was willing to participate in the Olympics.
Critics believe Pyongyang is trying to use the games as a public relations gambit as it attempts to counter a U.S. campaign of increased economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure meant to punish the regime for its nuclear program.
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