Members of the Trump administration surprised the U.S. Olympic Committee by suggesting the nation’s participation at the upcoming Pyeongchang Games in South Korea was “an open question,” and the USOC responded by saying it has no plans on pulling out.
The confusion began when U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, in response to a question in a Fox News interview, said “There’s an open question” about whether the U.S. team would travel to South Korea, where tensions have grown high after a series of missile tests in North Korea and inflammatory rhetoric between its leader, Kim Jong Un, and U.S. President Donald Trump.
The USOC responded with a statement Thursday saying plans to compete in the Olympics, which run Feb. 9-25, hadn’t changed. Shortly after that, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters “no official decision has been made.”
She later clarified in a tweet, saying: “The U.S. looks forward to participating in the Winter Olympics in South Korea. The protection of Americans is our top priority and we are engaged with the South Koreans and other partner nations to secure the venues.”
South Korea’s sports ministry spokesman Hwang Seong-un said Friday in Seoul that the government isn’t too concerned about the possibility of the U.S. not attending. Hwang said that during a phone conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in last week, Trump told the South Korean leader that American athletes and senior government officials would be heading to the Games.
The USOC doesn’t receive federal funding, and technically, the official decision on participating belongs to the committee and the athletes themselves, all of whom would be guided by directives from the State Department, which has not issued any travel restrictions to South Korea.
The USOC is in frequent contact with the State Department, the organizing committee in South Korea and law enforcement about security issues in Korea and other places that members of the U.S. team travel.
“Each host city presents a unique challenge from a security perspective, and that is no different in this regard,” spokesman Mark Jones said. “We will continue to work with (authorities) to ensure that our athletes, and our entire delegation, are safe.”
In September, the USOC’s head of security, Nicole Deal, sent a letter to members of the U.S. delegation saying, “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.”
That same week, USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said, “From our perspective, with the information we currently have, it’s full-steam ahead.”
It’s the same position the USOC held as of Thursday, and athletes who have been faced with the question haven’t wavered on their intention to compete.
“I was in Pyeongchang last February and as far as I’ve been told over the past year by the USOC, everything is basically the same,” figure skater Nathan Chen said last month. “I didn’t feel any security threats while I was there and I feel like everything will be basically the same for this upcoming Games. I trust the USOC 100 percent and I know that they would do the best for all of their athletes.”
Kim Tong-hyung contributed from Seoul.
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