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Peace of the action

February 7 - 13, 2018
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Gulf Weekly Peace of the action

While technically situated at the end of a peninsula, the presence of the most heavily-fortified demilitarised zone in the world to the north effectively renders the stage of the coming Winter Olympics an island.

The end of WWII should have brought peace yet a war between the Soviet Union and Imperial Japan with intervention from the United States determines the borders still present today.

Many refugees fled the Soviet / China coalition in the north and established a base in the American-protected south, establishing what they hoped would be temporary residence awaiting a swift resolution.

More than 60 years later it is still the poorest area of South Korea where cattle roam between barbed wire and guard posts in a region that hosts a third of the country’s military personnel providing peace of mind to residents.

The winter is hardly a time to expect a thawing of frosty relations yet the tiny village of PyeongChang, as hosts to the Olympics, is already starting to deliver what it promised … peace.

North Korea has already sent 22 athletes and agreed to field a combined women’s ice hockey team while all Korean representatives will compete under a unified flag. The joint North and South Korean women’s ice hockey team has lost its first match - a friendly against Sweden - before the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The Swedish women’s team beat their Korean counterparts 3-1 last weekend. The unified Korean team will get a chance to even the score when they face Sweden again during the Games.

Having secured hosting rights at the third attempt PyeongChang (which changed its name in 2000 by adding an ‘e’ and capitalising the ‘C’ to avoid confusion with the capital to the North) is determined to write its name into the history books.

With the easing of tensions, South Korea will be hoping to build on a reputation for hospitality developed when hosting the Summer Olympics in 1988 and is hoping to herald a new dawn for winter sports in Asia.

$13bn has been invested with new roads and a bullet train linking the ski resort with the capital. State-of-the-art technology has already impressed athletes and Olympic officials at the test events staged for each sport.

While not sharing the naming rights, Gangneung has also been transformed as an Olympic venue and can boast one of the hometown favourites!

The girl who took up short-track speed-skating in this coastal town at the age of seven can boast three medals from the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Shim Suk-Hee achieved legendary status when securing gold in the 3,000m relay.  Having exchanged the lead with the Chinese five times Shim stunned onlookers with an outside pass of Li Jianrou on the final lap.

She will be joined in the relay by Choi Min-Jeong who also boasts multiple world titles as the two will aim to get the home crowds cheering on ice.

Another Korean to watch is Lee Sang-Hwa who is the women’s 500m speed skating world record holder and will be aiming to match Bonnie Blair in securing her third consecutive Olympic gold medal.

Staying on the ice keep an eye open for Japanese figure-skater, Yuzuru Hanyu, the first from his nation to claim winter gold. He was also the youngest skater to win for 66 years and did so by becoming the first to pass the magical 100-point mark (scoring 101.45).

On the slopes, the youngest athlete to win the slalom, Mikaela Shiffrin, will be aiming to defend her title. She is in fine form having notched the second highest number of World Cup victories, just behind Lindsey Vonn who is hoping for a successful return.

However, if you are looking for the skier likely to win the most titles then German Laura Dahlmeier looks a safe bet. She is competing in six biathlon events and is currently World Champion in five of them!

Not likely to compete for the podium but sure to raise a smile, with shades of Cool Runnings, comes the first all-African women’s bobsleigh team while Akwasi Frimpong and Anthony Watson will be competing in the skeleton for Ghana and Jamaica respectively.

Eight new medal events at PyeongChang will take the total of golds up for grabs to 102, more than any previous Olympic Winter Games.

The new events will certainly add a new dimension to these Games, with the accent very much on increasing the appeal of the Olympic Winter programme to young audiences around the world.

Certain to give it a youthful vibe is the snowboard Big Air. The other new events all have a strong team ethic and help the Games bridge the gender divide.

For the first time in PyeongChang, a mixed-doubles event in curling will appear alongside the traditional men’s and women’s team events.

Alpine skiing, traditionally an individual sport, will also have its own mixed-team event for the first time. And, finally, the speed skating programme in PyeongChang will be rounded off with men’s and women’s ‘mass start’ events.

Of course, the Koreans will not be the only athletes competing under an unrecognisable flag – so too will the Russians. The world rejoiced when Russia was banned for a nationwide drug-cheating programme yet 169 of its athletes will be in Korea, technically as neutrals, competing under the banner ‘Olympic athletes from Russia’. While it must be appreciated that it is not fair on any individual that did not participate in a government programme that Thomas Bach described as ‘an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympics’ it would be nice to see some consistency. 

Russia, or rather its athletes, will therefore still form the third largest team in PyeongChang, behind America and Canada. Assuming its athletes do not show their patriotism to their homeland then the ban could even be lifted in time for the closing ceremony.

There are still legal proceedings surrounding a number of the athletes with the different court verdicts hinging on the difference between ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ and ‘absolute proof’.

The IOC has had to defend its pre-competition testing after the leaking of a report that suggests that as many as 50 cross-country skiers competing in Korea recorded abnormal blood tests between 2001-2010. However, as the IOC President, Thomas Bach, established: “Sport is about building bridges, bringing people together in the spirit of friendship and respect. In a world of uncertainties, the message that our shared humanity is greater than the forces that divide us is more relevant than ever before.”

While the opening ceremony is on Friday, the ski-jumping, luge and biathlon events start today.

All of this is in the hands of Korea’s two mascots. Soohorang, a white tiger, symbolises protection while the black bear, Bandabi, is there to provide the contestants with strong willpower and courage.

In such a politically charged environment let’s hope that’s the case … and that the world focuses on the sport.

 

 







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