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[PyeongChang 2018] World gathers for peace, fair play at PyeongChang

The event will usher in 17 days of unrivalled competition and fraternity on snow and ice, temporarily allaying tension on the Korean Peninsula.

The 2018 Winter Olympic Games formally kicks off in the mountainous county of PyeongChang in Gangwon Province on Friday.

The event will usher in 17 days of unrivalled competition and fraternity on snow and ice, temporarily allaying tension on the Korean Peninsula, which has been plagued by North Korean nuclear and missile tests.

The Feb. 9-25 games will be the largest Winter Olympics, featuring nearly 3,000 athletes from 92 countries. The world’s top athletes will compete in 102 events in 15 disciplines: alpine skiing, biathlon, bobsleigh, cross country skiing, curling, figuring skating, freestyle skiing, ice hockey, luge, Nordic combined, short-track speedskating, skeleton, ski jumping, snowboard and speedskating. 

Justine Dufour-Lapointe of Canada jumps during the women's moguls qualifying at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday. (AP-Yonhap)
Justine Dufour-Lapointe of Canada jumps during the women's moguls qualifying at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday. (AP-Yonhap)

Members of the North Korean Olympic team and volunteers pose with mascot Soohorang during a welcoming ceremony inside the PyeongChang Olympic Village prior to the 2018 PyeongChang Games in Gangwon Province, Thursday (Yonhap)
Members of the North Korean Olympic team and volunteers pose with mascot Soohorang during a welcoming ceremony inside the PyeongChang Olympic Village prior to the 2018 PyeongChang Games in Gangwon Province, Thursday (Yonhap)

PyeongChang will be the backdrop for the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as most of the snow sports. Alpine speed events will take place in Jeongseon, Gangwon Province, while all ice sports will be competed in the coastal city of Gangneung, Gangwon Province. Competitions for alpine skiing, biathlon, curling, luge and ski jumping started before the opening ceremony on Friday.

The 2018 PyeongChang Olympics are the second Olympics hosted by Korea, 30 years after the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul that epitomized the country’s rapid economic development following the 1950-1953 Korean War.

But this time around, all eyes are on North Korea, which has not only threatened the South, the United States and the world with its nuclear arsenal, but also sent a contingent of athletes and high-level political figures to PyeongChang.

Analysts say the communist regime’s sudden participation -- preluded by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in his New Year’s Day address -- is designed to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington and create breathing space from mounting international sanctions over its nuclear and missile development programs.

Taking place in Gangwon Province, which is divided between the two Koreas, the Olympics provide an opportune setting for promoting peace for the administration of President Moon Jae-in, as it has sought to denuclearize the North while keeping the door open for dialogue and negotiation.

North Korean cheerleading squad (Yonhap)
North Korean cheerleading squad (Yonhap)

“We athletes and sports experts look at North Korea’s participation and our mutual exchanges in a positive light,” said professor Kim Jin-hae, who coaches skiing at the Korea National Sport University in Seoul, in an interview. He played down concerns that PyeongChang has been politicized and hijacked by North Korea.

“The North Korean athletes’ performance levels are generally far below the world’s top athletes, because they are not exposed to international competitions and lack top-level training. South Korean athletes are not overly concerned by the North Koreans and we are just focusing on our jobs,” he said.

Noting that five North Korean skiers came to PyeongChang -- two alpine skiers and three cross-country skiers -- Kim said the South Korean skiers have not met them yet but watched them practice from afar. The athletes overall welcome the fair and harmonious spirit of the games as promoted by the government for the world at large, he added.

On Wednesday, North Korea dispatched a delegation of Taekwondo demonstrators, musicians, journalists, sports officials, and a 229-strong cheerleading squad. Twenty-two athletes also came to compete in five disciplines: women’s hockey, figure skating, short track speedskating, cross country skiing and alpine skiing.

Kim Yo-jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s younger sister and first vice director of the Central Committee of Pyongyang’s ruling Workers’ Party, is scheduled to arrive here Friday, alongside the North’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong-nam, according to the South’s Ministry of Unification.

President Moon Jae-in will meet the North Korean government delegates to the games on Saturday, his office Cheong Wa Dae said Thursday.

Swiss athletes pose at the Gangneung Athletes Village on Thursday. (Yonhap)
Swiss athletes pose at the Gangneung Athletes Village on Thursday. (Yonhap)

In Gangneung on Thursday afternoon, an 80-member North Korean female marching band dressed in red uniforms and white boots performed North Korean pop songs and the traditional Korean song “Arirang.” In the evening, the 140 member-strong Samjiyon Orchestra led by Hyon Song-wol, head of the all-female Moranbong Band, played popular songs from the two Koreas as well as classical compositions in Gangneung.

In women’s hockey, North and South Korean athletes will form a joint team, a first-ever unified team for the two Koreas at the Olympics.

The competitions in which South Korea is expected to perform well are short-track speedskating, speed skating, cross-country skiing, freestyle skiing, Nordic combined and skeleton, Kim said.

“Thanks to PyeongChang and the associated construction of facilities for competition and training, the level of competency across various winter sports has gone up tremendously over the last few years,” he highlighted.

“In alpine skiing for example, including downhill, super G and alpine combined, we didn’t have the slope for training before the event, which hampered our athletes’ ability to master their skills at the highest level. Now that we have such a facility, it is important to give more training time to our skiers and use the facility for international competitions such as the Alpine Ski World Cup following PyeongChang.”

Medal hopefuls to watch in the snow competitions include ski jumper Park Gyu-rim, cross-country skiers Lee Chae-won and Magnus Kim, Nordic combined skier Park Jae-won, alpine snowboarder Lee Sang-ho, mogul skier Choi Jae-woo, and slalom skier Jung Dong-hyun, Kim conjectured. 
 
US Vice President Mike Pence came to Seoul with an official US delegation on Thursday to attend the opening ceremony of the games. (Yonhap)
US Vice President Mike Pence came to Seoul with an official US delegation on Thursday to attend the opening ceremony of the games. (Yonhap)

A total of 26 heads of state or government from 21 countries, including German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, confirmed their visits to Korea for the Olympics. 

US Vice President Mike Pence came to Seoul with an official US delegation on Thursday to attend the opening ceremony of the games and meet with President Moon. 

Pence said during his visit to Japan on Wednesday that Washington is prepared to slap the “toughest and most aggressive” economic sanctions on North Korea until “it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile programs once and for all.” 

Moon on Thursday met with Han Zheng -- a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China and currently the head of the Chinese delegation to the Olympics -- and called on Beijing to “do more” so that the current inter-Korean dialogue would lead to US-North Korea talks.

Also on Thursday, South Korea’s mixed doubles curling team of Jang Hye-ji and Lee Ki-jeong secured their first victory by defeating Finland’s Oona Kauste and Tomi Rantamaeki 9-4 at Gangneung Curling Centre.

By Joel Lee (joel@heraldcorp.com)
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