COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. — Even as the U.S. Olympic Committee insisted there have been no discussions about skipping the Winter Olympics, twice in less than 24 hours top Trump administration officials cast uncertainty on the prospects of sending U.S. athletes to South Korea, before quickly softening their stance.
A White House spokeswoman said Thursday that “no official decision has been made” about whether the United States would be sending athletes to compete in the Winter Olympics in South Korea, echoing uncertainty expressed one day earlier by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the goal is still to send American athletes to compete in the PyeongChang Games, but a decision won’t come until a later date. She said that decision would involve multiple government agencies, “but I think ultimately the president would certainly weigh in. That’s something he would take into account, probably a number of the stakeholders that would be involved.”
Within minutes, though, Sanders tweeted a clarification of sorts, 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.”
Sanders’s initial comments came during Thursday afternoon’s White House press briefing, one day after Haley suggested in a cable news interview that tensions on the Korean Peninsula could lead the United States to pull out of February’s Winter Games. Despite those concerns, a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee said Thursday morning there have been no discussions about skipping the Olympics.
Athletes around the world are in the midst of qualifying for the Winter Games, and despite Haley’s remarks, Mark Jones, a USOC spokesman, said the American contingent is not having second thoughts about participating.
“We have not had any discussions, either internally or with our government partners, about the possibility of not taking teams to the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games,” he said. “We plan on supporting two full delegations in PyeongChang.”
The USOC is not a government agency and receives no direct government funding, but it works closely with several federal departments in its Olympic preparations, including the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.
The State Department had no official response to Haley’s remarks, referring questions instead to Homeland Security. A spokesman there, Tyler Houlton, offered only a brief statement indicating the agency is “working with our federal partners, South Korea, and other allied nations to assist where appropriate with securing the Olympic Games and to ensure the safety of U.S. athletes and visitors.”
The PyeongChang Olympics are schedule to begin Feb. 9, in a mountainous region about 50 miles from the demilitarized zone between the two Korean states. While Olympic organizers have downplayed the threat posed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile last week that demonstrated a potential, at least theoretically, to deliver a nuclear warhead to Washington, D.C.
Shortly after that missile test, Haley said at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council that “continued acts of aggression” from North Korea could lead to war, and that “if war comes, make no mistake — the North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed.”
It was against that backdrop that Haley appeared on Fox News on Wednesday. The host, Martha MacCallum, asked her, “Is that a done deal — is the United States recommending that our team goes, or is that still an open question, in this environment?”
"There's an open question," Haley responded. "I have not heard anything about that, but I do know in the talks that we have — whether it's Jerusalem, whether it's North Korea — it's always about, how do we protect the U.S. citizens in the area?"
On Thursday, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations expanded on the ambassador’s remarks, saying: “The United States looks forward to participating in the Winter Olympics in South Korea next year. As always, the protection of American citizens overseas is our most important priority. We remain closely engaged with the South Koreans and other partner nations to secure the venues as we do every Olympics.”
But her concerns and stated uncertainty had already bounced around the Olympic world as officials from the United States to PyeongChang offered reassurances.
“We haven’t heard anyone saying they aren’t coming,” said Nancy Park, spokeswoman for the PyeongChang Organizing Committee. “We have regular communication with the USOC, and they always express their commitment of the athletes coming over to PyeongChang.”
A spokesman for NBC, which will broadcast the Games in the United States, said the network is monitoring the situation and has “no plans to change our preparation for the Games, which are in full swing.”
“As with every Games, the safety of our employees is always our number one consideration,” he said. “As a result, we are in close contact with numerous security agencies, including the U.S. State Department, which continues to advise us that it is safe for Americans to travel to South Korea.”
There are more than 28,000 American troops stationed in South Korea, and the Pentagon says it has no plans to evacuate their families anytime soon.
In PyeongChang, ticket sales have been lagging but Olympic preparations continue unabated. Local businesses are accustomed to the threats from the north and are not overtly concerned. Cho Hyun-sub opened a dumpling store right across from the main Olympic Stadium three months ago.
“The U.S. team hasn’t made a clear decision yet, so I’m not too worried about it at this moment,” Cho said. “Maybe I’ve become desensitized to the North Korean threat, but I’m not worried about it much because I have full confidence in the military capability of my country and the U.S.”
Cindy Boren, Philip Rucker, Des Bieler, Nick Miroff and Carol Morello in Washington and Yoonjung Seo in PyeongChang contributed to this report.