Matt Dalton
AP

South Korea’s Olympic ringers sing their way onto the team

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To earn a place on South Korea’s team for next year’s Olympics, you may need to brush up on your singing.

A rendition of the national anthem in front of immigration officials is a daunting but necessary hurdle faced by the many foreign-born athletes seeking to represent the home team at the Pyeongchang Games.

Alexander Gamelin, an ice dancer from Boston, has the anthem memorized and is reading up on Korean culture and history ahead of his immigration interview. The aim is to become a naturalized citizen, then a South Korean Olympian.

“He’s smart. He catches on pretty quick,” said Gamelin’s dance partner, California-born South Korean citizen Yura Min. “Honestly, I think Alex does know more than I do at this point.”

Without much of a winter sports tradition besides speedskating and women’s figure skating, South Korea is eager to use foreign talent to flesh out its Olympic roster.

That means Canadian veterans on the hockey team, a German in luge and Russians in biathlon. Since 2011, 20 athletes have been naturalized, according to the Justice Ministry. Not all will compete at the Olympics and few have hopes of a medal, but they’ll give South Korean fans someone to cheer for in unfamiliar sports.

And when Koreans cheer their own, they really cheer, as Gamelin found when competing in February on the Olympic ice.

“Yura and I were mobbed by all these Korean fans who wanted to take pictures and get autographs,” he said. “It was all a little overwhelming.”

Although Gamelin and Min live and train in the United States, he’s learning Korean at college and hopes to move to the Asian country as a coach in the future.

The last Winter Olympic host country, Russia, also recruited many foreigners ahead of the 2014 Sochi Games. Then the focus was firmly on winning.

Naturalized foreigners had a role in seven of the 13 gold medals which took Russia to the top of the medals table, including team events. One of them, South Korean speedskater Viktor Ahn — formerly Ahn Hyun-Soo — left with three golds.

Biathlete Timofei Lapshin said he’s now known as “the Russian Viktor Ahn” after making the switch in reverse.

Lapshin is a talented athlete, with a smattering of podium finishes on the World Cup circuit, but struggled to make the highly-competitive Russian team. After a super-fast naturalization process — he said the first enquiries were made only in September — he now holds a South Korean passport.

“I only know a few words (of Korean) here and there, but I’ll try to learn it and hope soon I’ll be able to speak,” said Lapshin, who has spent only about two months in his new country because of training and competitions elsewhere.

With Russia mired in doping scandals, including allegations of tampering with Olympic drug tests, there are calls for the country to be banned from next year’s Pyeongchang Games. Lapshin portrays the scandal as politically motivated against Russia.

“I hope that everything will be fine and no one will be suspended,” he said. “Politics shouldn’t be mixed with sport.”

The South Korean Olympic committee said biathlon officials in the country looked into its four new Russian-born biathletes by checking International Biathlon Union records, which showed that none of the four had ever tested positive. However, all four competed at elite level during a time when investigations have found drug use in Russia was rife.

For Lapshin or former world junior luge champion Aileen Frisch, South Korea offers a second chance for stalled careers. For journeyman hockey player Matt Dalton, it’s been an even wilder ride.

Dalton was in Russia during the last Olympics — not in Sochi, but playing for a club in the industrial city of Nizhnekamsk. He was a backup goaltender for the Boston Bruins, but never played a minute in the NHL, so Olympic glory wasn’t even on his radar.

Now, after three seasons in the South Korean league, he’s set to be a starting goaltender at the Olympics. Home fans will know him by the nickname Halla Sung — “protector of the castle.”

“I would have never thought it was possible in a million years,” Dalton said. “(In Russia) I got to see how the country rallies around the Olympics … To be able to be a part of something like that now is pretty special.”

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Tour de France route for 2018 unveiled

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PARIS (AP) — Defending champion Chris Froome can expect a stern challenge from Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin in next year’s Tour de France.

Froome is chasing a record-equaling fifth victory to move level with Belgian great Eddy Merckx, French riders Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, and Spanish great Miguel Indurain.

Froome and Dumoulin won the three Grand Tours last year, with Froome adding the Spanish Vuelta and Dumoulin winning the Giro d’Italia.

The 105th edition of the Tour features a hilly 31-kilometer (19-mile) time trial through the Basque country on the penultimate day.

Froome is a specialist, but Dumoulin is the reigning world time trial champion.

The 32-year-old Froome is still in his prime, while the 26-year-old Dumoulin is approaching his.

“A contest between Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin, two riders with similar qualities, wouldn’t displease me. It would force one of the two to try something different to surprise the other,” Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme said Tuesday. “We’re looking at a new generation that wants to entertain. I think that if Christopher Froome is up against Tom Dumoulin, they will want to do that. They will be more or less equal in the time trials. That’s something very exciting.”

The race starts on July 7 — a week later than usual because of the soccer World Cup in Russia — and opens with a flat 117-mile route for sprinters from Noirmoutier-en-l’ile to Fontenay-le-Comte in the Vendee region, on the Atlantic coast.

With the time trial returning after being omitted the last two years, Froome’s Team Sky will be confident of creating early time gaps on Stage 3 — 21.7-mile route starting and ending in Cholet in Western France.

But Sky faces tough competition, because Dumoulin’s Sunweb team is the reigning TTT world champion.

The Tour route, which goes clockwise, features 25 mountain climbs — ranging from the relatively difficult Category 2 to Category 1 and the daunting Hors Categorie (beyond classification).

Eleven are in the Alps, four in the Massif central region and 10 in the Pyrenees.

The difficult climbs start on Stage 10, the first of three straight days of grueling Alpine ascents.

But organizers have preceded that with a tricky ninth stage that could shake up the peloton.

It takes riders over 15 treacherous cobblestone sections: the highest number since the 1980 Tour, with nearly 13.6 miles altogether.

The Roubaix cobbles may perhaps trouble Froome, although Prudhomme thinks the British rider can handle anything.

“The leaders of the Tour have the ability to adapt. We’ve seen that Chris Froome has a range of abilities much wider than people said,” Prudhomme said. “He’s intelligent and hard-working. He keeps on winning in a different manner than in previous years.”

Even though Froome will be 33 on next year’s Tour, Prudhomme still thinks he can improve.

“I don’t think we’ve seen everything that Froome has to offer,” Prudhomme said. “He is strong in areas we didn’t think he was.”

The cobbles are followed by a rest day on July 16, and Froome had better make the most of it because the Alps start brutally the day after.

Stage 10 on July 17 has four difficult climbs on a 98.6-mile route from Annecy to Le Grand Bornand. They include a punchy ascent of Montee du plateau de Glieres, featuring for the first time.

“Six kilometers with an 11.2 percent gradient is monumental,” Prudhomme said.

The third day of Alpine climbing begins with Col de la Madeleine, then Croix de Fer (which translates as the ominous-sounding Iron Cross) and ends with an ascent of l’Alpe d’Huez: three of the Tour’s most well-known.

Dumoulin is not in Froome’s class as a climber, but is not so easy to drop. Whether he can hang in with Froome all the way to the Pyrenees, however, will prove crucial to his chances.

The three tough days of climbing in the Pyrenees starts with Stage 16 on July 24: a daunting 135-mile route from Carcassone to Bagneres-de-Luchon that follows the second rest day.

Stage 17 is short at 40 miles but cruel, with three consecutive nasty climbs, ending with an attack up Col de Portet.

Stage 18 is relatively flat but the next day’s third and final day of climbing on Stage 19 has four ascents and then ends with a potentially treacherous 12.4-mile descent that will test the concentration of tired riders.

Whoever is freshest after that will have a better chance of challenging Froome in the time trial.

The 21-stage race ends with its customary processional Sunday finish on the Champs-Elysees.

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Salt Lake City forms committee to weigh Olympic bid

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Salt Lake City has formed an exploratory committee to decide if the city will bid to host the Winter Olympics in either 2026 or 2030 — taking a key step toward trying to become a rare two-time host city.

The group made up of elected officials, business leaders and one key member of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City said Monday that it plans to make a recommendation to state leaders by Feb. 1.

The announcement comes after the U.S. Olympic Committee board said Friday that it was moving forward with discussions about bringing the Winter Games to America for either 2026 or 2030.

Because Los Angeles was recently awarded the 2028 Summer Games, a bid for 2030 would make more sense, chairman Larry Probst said Friday.

The USOC has until next March to pick a city; those expressing interest include Salt Lake City, Denver and Reno, Nevada.

Innsbruck, Austria, said Sunday it wouldn’t bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics, taking one more city out of the running. The hosting rights are set to be awarded in July 2019.

The same country hasn’t hosted back-to-back Olympics since before World War II, though when the International Olympic Committee scrapped its traditional rules and awarded 2024 (Paris) and 2028 (LA) at the same time, it indicated it was certainly open to new ideas.

Since 2012, Salt Lake City has been letting Olympic officials know the city was ready and willing to host again with a plan based on renovating and upgrading venues that have been in use since the Games ended.

The city had previously estimated it could put on a Winter Olympics for about $2 billion, but the committee will come up with a new cost estimate, said Jeff Robbins, the president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission.

Robbins is one of three co-chairs on the committee along with Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and Fraser Bullock, a key player in Salt Lake City’s 2002 Olympics.

Robbins said he thinks the city has a great shot at winning a bid based on the relatively low cost and because it has demonstrated it knows how to maintain venues and keep them in use, putting the city in line with Agenda 2020, the blueprint that IOC President Thomas Bach created for future Olympics calling for less spending on new venues and infrastructure.

There’s an eight-lane interstate running from the Salt Lake airport, which was upgraded for the Olympics, to Park City, which is the home of U.S. Ski and Snowboard. Park City is the host for key U.S. training centers for freestyle skiing, speedskating and cross country skiing.

Overall, the area has hosted about 75 World Cup and world-championship events in winter sports since the Olympic cauldron was extinguished more than 15 years ago.

He said an expanded light rail train line grid around Salt Lake City and a $3 billion airport renovation already underway are two examples of how Salt Lake City is even better prepared now to host than in 2002.

But he and other organizers will also have to answer questions about a bidding scandal that marred the 2002 Games and resulted in several International Olympic Committee members losing their positions for taking bribes.

“You can’t control the past,” Robbins said. “The results of what happened I think would certainly speak volumes. While there was some challenges, we hosted arguably one of the best Olympics ever hosted.”

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