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Cultural Gaffes At The Olympics — A List You Don't Want To Make

Where cultures collide, misunderstandings and foolhardy assumptions happen. Just about one week in, these Winter Olympics already have showcased some choice cultural gaffes. Here's hoping this post doesn't require multiple updates.

The Japan-Korea "cluelessness"
To this day, Japan's 1910-1945 occupation of Korea strains the relationship between the Japanese and Koreans. So when NBC commentator Joshua Cooper Ramo decided to riff on this history when Japan's athletes were introduced, he sparked a furor and instant online petitions.

He said this: "Every Korean will tell you that Japan is a cultural and technological and economic example that has been so important to their own transformation."

Cue outrage. "The scars of colonialism linger deeply in the collective psyche of Koreans. So it was amazing to me that the NBC commentator decided it was just the right time to remind everybody," said Jeff Kingston, Asia studies director at Tokyo's Temple University. "First of all, it's untrue. And the timing of it, when South Korea is hosting the Olympics, it was just astounding cluelessness."

NBC says Ramo's stint with the Olympics is over, and the apology was swift.

"We apologized quickly both in writing and on television for a remark made by one of our presenters during Friday night's opening ceremony," a spokesman said. "We're very gratified that Pyeongchang's organizing committee has accepted that apology."

Katie Couric versus the Dutch
Katie Couric is sorry for saying that Dutch people are so good at skating because they skate everywhere. Let me back up. At the same opening ceremony where Ramo made his gaffe, Couric said of the Dutch Olympic team: "It's probably not a newsflash to tell you the Dutch are really good at speed skating. All but five of their 110 medals they've won have been on the speed skating oval."

Then, this: "Skating is an important mode of transportation in a city like Amsterdam, which sits at sea-level. As you all know it has lots of canals that can freeze in the winter, so for as long as those canals have existed, the Dutch have skated on them to get from place to place, to race each other and also to have fun."

Dutch diplomats weighed in cheekily, by tweeting at Couric to come and see "all the innovative ways the Dutch get around." Couric apologized with a pun about being on "thin ice." The Netherlands decided to let it slide. (Sorry, couldn't help myself. Once you get going with puns, it's hard to stop.)

Free Samsung phones! Oh, wait
South Korea's most powerful conglomerate, Samsung, started a diplomatic spat over its giveaway "Olympic edition" Galaxy Note 8 devices for athletes. That's because it excluded Iranian and North Korean athletes from the smartphone swag, for fear of running afoul of "luxury goods" sanctions by the United Nations. (Samsung products are available, advertised and sold in Iran, so it's unclear why Iranian athletes were excluded.)

Iran summoned South Korea's ambassador over the incident and demanded an apology, Iranian state media reported. Responding to the furor, the International Olympic Committee said athletes from both countries would receive the phones but that the North Koreans would be asked not to take the devices home.

"The IOC will provide mobile phones to all athletes of all countries participating at the Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018. These phones contain essential logistical and competition information for the athletes," an IOC spokesperson told Reuters.

Se Eun Gong contributed to this post.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.