Anticipation for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang has reached an all-time high as people around the world get ready to watch athletes compete. It isn't uncommon for high profile individuals and celebrities to be spotted watching the games, leaving some to wonder if former President Barack Obama will be at the Olympics. Thus far, it is unclear whether the 44th president plans to attend, though his lack of attendance at past Olympics seems to indicate that it is somewhat unlikely.
Celebrities and other famous people, besides presidents and politicians, are often drawn to the Olympics. For example, at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a myriad of celebrities, including Matthew McConaughey and Elizabeth Banks, were spotted in the stands in Rio cheering on the athletes. John Kerry, Obama's Secretary of State, also headed to Brazil with a group of American dignitaries to show support for the American athletes and the international competition.
However, as president, Obama never attended the Olympics. During the Summer Olympics in London in 2012, Obama's wife, Michelle, led the presidential delegation, spending several days meeting with athletes and hosting events. For the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Obama sent a presidential delegation composed of prominent Americans but neither he nor his wife attended (nor did he send any high-level executive officials). At the aforementioned 2016 Games in Brazil, Obama sent Kerry to lead the delegation.
You might be automatically assuming that Obama won't go to these Olympics either. However, it is important to keep in mind that he did not attend former Olympic Games while he was president of the United States. As a private citizen, though, he may be inclined to make different decisions.
Indeed, as president, Obama told Bob Costas in 2014 that he chose not to attend the Olympics in Sochi, Russia in part because he did not want his presence to distract people from the competition or from the accomplishments of the athletes. However, as an article in ThinkProgress explained, some experts believe that Obama chose not to attend the Sochi Olympics (and chose to send a delegation that did not feature any high-level executive government officials) as a means of expressing disapproval of Russia's human rights record, particularly in regards to gay rights. Similarly, some experts also believe that Obama chose not to attend the 2016 Rio Olympics as a way of showing disapproval of Brazil's government.
Thus, Olympic attendance as a president can often carry political and diplomatic weight. In other words, a president's decision to attend or not attend the games is likely not just his own. At least for the 2018 Games, Obama should be able to make an attendance decision without international politics playing a major role.
Interestingly, there is no set protocol per se regarding the attendance of presidents (and former presidents) at the Olympics. According to the Washington Examiner, U.S. presidents actually typically did not attend the Olympic Games until 1984, when Ronald Reagan decided to attend the Opening Ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Since then, presidents have attended the Olympics on an ad-hoc basis. George W. Bush was actually the first-ever U.S. president to attend an Olympics abroad, when he traveled to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Games.
So, U.S. presidents have a complicated history with the Olympic Games. While, as president, Obama chose not to attend any of the international sporting events, it is entirely possible that he could now choose to do so as a private citizen. However, his attendance would certainly mark a deviation from his tendency to avoid the international competition and the attention that his presence would garner.