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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U.S., Great Britain to hold track and field dual meet

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The U.S. and Great Britain go head-to-head in a track and field meet on July 21 at the London Olympic Stadium.

“The Meet” will include nine running, jumping, hurdles and relay events and last two hours. Specific events and athletes will be announced early next year.

The U.S. topped the overall medal standings at every Olympics and world outdoor championships since 2004.

Great Britain is one of three countries to earn at least five medals at every Olympics and worlds since 2007, joining the U.S. and Kenya.

British athletes made six podiums at the just-completed worlds at the London Olympic Stadium, including in all four relays. The other two medals came from Mo Farah, who is moving to road racing and marathons after this season.

“The Meet” is similar to swimming’s “Duel in the Pool,” a biennial head-to-head competition between the U.S. and rival Australia from 2003 through 2007 and between the U.S. and Europe between 2009 and 2015.

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Five women’s gymnasts to watch at P&G Championships

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As Rio gold medalists decide on their futures, this week’s P&G Championships mark the first showcase for a new class of U.S. women’s gymnasts.

For the first time since 2008, nobody in the nationals field in Anaheim has competed at an Olympics. Usually, a gymnast or two carries over into the post-Olympic year, like Bridget Sloan in 2009 and Kyla Ross in 2013.

But this year, the feeling is akin to 2005, when no woman (or man) from the 2004 Athens Games chalked up at nationals.

Back then, a 15-year-old Nastia Liukin, who had already starred in a commercial during the 2004 Olympics, made her senior nationals debut and won the all-around. Three years later, Liukin won the Olympic all-around in Beijing.

There will be talk this week of finding the next Liukin, or Gabby Douglas, or Simone Biles, who, like Liukin, won her senior nationals debut the year after the Olympics.

“Some of them [from Rio], hopefully Simone, will be coming back, but I think this is a great opportunity for some of these girls to go out there and prove that they’re just as ready to compete at a world championships,” said Liukin, now an NBC Olympics analyst. “They have to step up a little bit and kind of become the leaders.”

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Gymnasts this week are vying to impress new U.S. national team coordinator Valeri Liukin (Nastia’s father). The four-woman roster for October’s worlds, where there is no team event, will be named after a selection camp later this summer.

Five gymnasts to watch at the P&G Championships:

Ragan Smith
Rio Olympic alternate
2017 AT&T American Cup champion

The Texan performed admirably in her first senior season in 2016, placing fifth in the all-around at the Olympic Trials. Her best events are balance beam and floor exercise, but the U.S. needed uneven bars help in Rio. So she went to the Games as an alternate at age 15, making headlines for this photo with 6-foot-11 basketball player DeAndre Jordan.

Smith, coached by 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal, emerged this year as the U.S.’ most reliable all-arounder and clear favorite this week. She won the American Cup on March 4 despite a beam fall. A definite all-around medal favorite at October’s worlds.

Ashton Locklear
Rio Olympic alternate
2014 World team champion

Locklear was beaten for the Olympic team bars specialist spot by Madison Kocian after nearly matching Kocian in scores in four routines between last year’s P&G Championships and Olympic Trials. The 19-year-old is not considered an all-around threat this week but is favored to make the world team based on her bars ability. She was fourth in the event at 2014 Worlds.

Riley McCusker
2017 Jesolo Trophy all-around winner

McCusker, who has the same coach as Laurie Hernandez, struggled at the American Cup in her first senior competition, falling on bars and beam. She rebounded to win Jesolo a month later and remain in the mix as the No. 2 U.S. all-arounder (Smith wasn’t at Jesolo).

However, McCusker was on crutches with a cast on her wrist in early July and said she expected to be back to peak form in September, not August.

Morgan Hurd
2017 Stuttgart World Cup bronze medalist

Hurd, a first-year senior who competes in glasses, was adopted from China as a toddler and now lives with her mom in Delaware.

Liukin, asked to name gymnasts to watch this week, started with Hurd, whom she says has the highest floor exercise start value in the world. “She could be capable of winning a world all-around medal and possibly become a world champion on floor,” Liukin said.

Jade Carey
2017 U.S. Classic vault winner

The U.S. has a tradition of sending a vault specialist to worlds, but neither of the top vaulters from the last Olympic cycle — Biles nor MyKayla Skinner — is competing this week. Enter Carey, a 17-year-old who wasn’t an elite gymnast before this season.

Carey performed the difficult Amanar vault at July’s U.S. Classic, where she was the only gymnast to perform two vaults, which is required to compete for medals on the event at worlds.

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