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Why it's too early to worry about Team USA withdrawing from the 2018 Winter Olympics

Everyone is wondering whether Team USA will compete, but there’s no evidence they won’t.

PyeongChang 2018 Torch Relay Continues Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley made waves overnight when she was quoted on FOX News saying that the USA’s participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang is an “open question” due to rising tensions with North Korea. The reality is far from the reaction, and there’s no reason to think Team USA won’t be present in PyeongChang.

The question of U.S. involvement in the games has been a talking point on FOX News for the past several days. As recently as last week, the network asked the same question to United States National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, who had a very different response.

Haley saying that U.S. involvement is an “open question” was part of a larger quote — one that could hint at the topic never being raised in the first place.

“There’s an open question. I have not heard anything about that, but I do know in the talks that we have -- whether it’s Jerusalem or North Korea -- it’s about, how do we protect the US citizens in the area?”

By saying “I have not heard anything about that” Haley’s answer seems to imply that no discussion is taking place on whether the U.S. will skip the games. Her saying it’s an “open question” is making the rounds, however, and that’s what people are picking up on.

Discussion of safety around the Olympics isn’t new, especially given the escalating climate between the United States and North Korea, however Haley’s comments represented the first time a U.S. official spoke about any possibility of missing the 2018 games, even as part of a larger quote. “We have to watch this closely, and it’s changing by the day,” Haley told Fox News.

Concern over U.S. participation isn’t simply relegated to the fact the games are in South Korea, but where they are inside the country. PyeongChang is located just 50 miles from the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and while the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul occurred without incident, tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are much higher today.

In September the chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) Scott Blackmun told The Washington Post:

“Should the unthinkable happen and there’s conflict between nations, that’s not an issue for the U.S. Olympic Committee to get involved in,” USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun said at the time. “Then it becomes an issue for the IOC and our nations to make decisions. So we’re preparing as if we’re going to go.”

Still, people are looking for answers to Haley’s “open question” about whether the U.S. will participate, and there isn’t one at this time. There’s also no evidence anyone is asking the question outside of FOX News as a talking point with their guests. The USOC has not released a statement following Haley’s comments, and even then the federal government doesn’t have the power to pull the USOC from participating in the games. The USOC operates as a private entity, granted a monopoly of amateur international competition by the Amateur Sports Act of 1978. The act states that the federal government does not have control over the USOC, which is mandated to participate in the games and represent the USA unless:

“the governing body determines by clear and convincing evidence that holding or sponsoring such competition would be detrimental to the best interests of the sport.”

This occurred during the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, when the USA along with Canada, China, and dozens of other countries boycott the games over the Soviet Union’s military action in Afghanistan. In that instance the issue was more clear cut, as the USOC would be sending athletes into the Russian capital, but the 2018 games in PyeongChang are simply in proximity to a potential flash point.

As it stands, Haley has the authority to advise the USOC about what they should do, should situations in the region escalate — but she does not have the authority to decide whether the U.S. will compete. That decision is up to the USOC and the USOC alone, so for now being worried about whether Team USA will compete is a non-issue.