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Impersonators of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are seein at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium on Feb. 9.

Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

In considering this week the way politics have wedged their way into the conversation about the now officially under way Winter Games, Canadian Olympic Committee president Tricia Smith went as dark as it possible to go.

"People will always use sports for other means," she said. "We saw that in Germany in the thirties."

That's how tumultuous this has become – a variation of Godwin's Law (all arguments eventually result in a Hitler analogy) is in operation at the Olympics.

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We've reached a point where the happiest event on Earth has become the place the world gets together to feel bad about itself.

It is ever the case that the days leading into a Games are a time in which the world lights its own hair on fire and runs around screaming for a while. Something will almost certainly blow up, or fall down, or the mosquitoes will kill you.

I know of someone scared away from attending a Games because they'd read one too many panting news reports about black-widow suicide bombers headed to Sochi.

Usually, it's all nonsense and nothing comes of it. But since we have not yet succumbed to the pleasures of ice dancing, we amuse ourselves instead with the proximity of death. For some North Americans, it may be the closest they ever get to developing a keen interest in international affairs.

This time, that tendency toward catastrophism feels different. People aren't worried about the Olympics being a disaster. They see the Olympics as symbolic of a disaster that's already happened.

Populism is on the march, old alliances are falling apart, everyone's cheating and Mike Pence is here. The North Koreans are hoodwinking us all, the Russians won't take a hint and the Canadians are reminding them in the lunch canteen about the hint they won't take.

The world is becoming a scarier place for the lucky few in it who are not used to feeling afraid, and that angst is infecting the Games.

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What's to celebrate?

This is where we would normally insert some nonsense about the triumph of the human spirit after watching some guy luge one-tenth of a second faster than anyone's ever luged before.

That's all great, of course, but competition is not the real heart of the Olympics. Empathy is. What the Olympics do better than anything else is create a basis for human understanding and mutual sympathy.

The world is very like the internet – we talk about, around and over each other without ever having to go to the trouble of being together in a room.

That's what the Olympics do – force representatives of all the world's fractious nations to interact like actual humans. The result is always better than you'd expected.

Canada won 25 medals in Sochi, all of them remarkable achievements. Our best collective moment in Russia had nothing to do with them.

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It happened during a cross-country ski final in which no Canadian was competing.

After a miserable day for the national team, one of Canada's coaches, Justin Wadsworth, wandered over to the finish line to watch other athletes come across.

He spotted a Russian skier, Anton Gafarov, crawling over a rise. Gafarov had fallen twice, skinning a layer of P-Tex off his ski. It eventually wound around his ankle, hobbling him. He could no longer ski, as such, but he wanted to complete the race anyway.

No one did anything. Not even Gafarov's own coaches, who stood there staring.

Wadsworth did not know Gafarov other than to see him around. But he was the one who did something.

Wadsworth ran out onto the course with one of his own charge's spare skis. He knelt down beside Gafarov. Neither of them said anything. Like a pliant animal, Gafarov allowed Wadsworth to tend to him. Wadsworth switched the broken ski for a new one and Gafarov lept away.

"I wanted him to have dignity as he crossed the finish line," Wadsworth said later. When I called him to ask about it, Wadsworth couldn't figure out why I needed to speak to him. His Canadians hadn't won anything that day.

"Because of the thing with Gafarov," I said.

"Oh," Wadsworth said. "That."

He didn't understand why a journalist would care. It seemed obvious – a stranger needed help, so he helped him.

I've been lucky enough to be there for a lot of big sports moments in my career, but none give me the same chill I get when I recall that one.

Every country in the world has some version of this story, and it probably happened at the Olympics. Few of them are famous moments because they weren't followed by the glow of a podium. They don't get replayed years later. But these are the gestures that matter. They're the ones that result in collective pride.

Because in a world where everyone has a shrieking opinion on what ought to be done, it is a small revelation to see someone wearing your national colours actually doing it. For no other reason than it's the right thing to do.

Something about the Olympics amplifies their meaning. It's one of the rare times everyone is paying attention and primed to be inspired. We very badly want the athletes at these Games to show us all at our best. And that does not only happen on the field of play.

It is difficult for most of us to understand how someone can throw themselves off a ski jump or do a triple Salchow. We can admire the skill, but we can't empathize with the athlete in that instance because we can't do what they do.

But simple kindness? That resonates wholly and completely. It's inspiring because it is an Olympic virtue we are all capable of.

Who are the stars of these Games? Right now, Pence, Kim Yo-jong, North Korea's eerie "Army of Beauties."

Those are the people who represent the ugly creep of politics into the Olympics. This is not a new phenomenon, but since most of us have forgotten what the Cold War felt like, it feels strange and alarming.

The 30 years between then and now have allowed us to forget how corrosive the Us vs. Them narrative is when it involves real consequences rather than hockey rivalries. We've spent a week here bathing ourselves in it and it has not washed a one of us clean.

Who will be the stars be in a week or two week's time? Somebody who's won in some spectacular fashion.

In that, we are generally alone together. Each country celebrates its own achievements on the medal table and no other. Our star is not anyone else's star. Everyone else is the backdrop that allowed "us" to succeed.

A few athletes will push through to generalized global fame – a Usain Bolt type – but that produces in their home country a pride in dominance rather than anything generous. It's the same urge that always underlies those deeply irritating "U-S-A" chants that foul arenas at international events.

You cannot count on the star that really matters being celebrated, because they do things that often escape notice. They are the man or woman who performs a gesture of genuine grace – helping a fallen competitor, showing kindness where none was expected, being a recognizable human being when they thought no one was looking.

All the athletes here can be that star, given the opportunity.

At recent Olympics, the politics have fallen away once the Games start, crowded out by more interesting storylines. It may not work that way this time around.

For many in the West, politics have become a more interesting sport than anything competed at for fun.

The ersatz tribalism of fandom pales when compared to the narcotic hit of the real thing. We've all got hooked on it recently.

So that makes this Olympics a test of sorts. Just for a moment, can we get back to the feeling that we all have something in common, and make a connection with each other? One that has nothing to do with our opinions, but instead with a shared sense of joy in competition? Can we allow the frivolity of the Olympics – riven though it always is with national interest – allow us to temporarily let go of our differences?

That's for the athletes to decide. Their responsibility has not recently been so great. It's hard to say if they're ready for it.

In her remarks, Smith touched the debate at either extreme.

On the topic of why this all matters, she was eloquent.

"[The Olympics] is an expression of who we are as humans, the best expression," she said. "It's about play."

That last bit is an important distinction.

It is easy to hate someone you've beaten, or who's beaten you. Winning and losing are concepts best suited to the real world, the one the Olympics is meant as a respite from. But you will always see a friend in someone with whom you've played.

Two of North Korea's most senior officials were sat directly behind South Korea's president during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Games, which have provided some respite from the tense relations between the two countries. Reuters
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