AP

PyeongChang Olympics icy path to warmer Korean relations

Leave a comment

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Tears and hugs after North and South Korean women won the 1991 Team Table Tennis World Championships. A standing ovation when athletes from the two Koreas marched together to open the 2000 Sydney Olympics. A selfie taken by a South Korean gymnast with her North Korean opponent that went viral at last year’s Rio de Janeiro Games.

Seven months ahead of the PyeongChang Olympics, South Korea’s new liberal President Moon Jae-in hopes the first Winter Games on Korean soil could produce more of these feel-good sparks of seeming reconciliation and pave the way for deep engagement to ease the rivals’ 72-year standoff.

In a good development for Moon, IOC President Thomas Bach on Monday expressed his support for Moon’s overture while North Korea recently allowed its taekwondo demonstration team to perform in the South in the Koreas’ first sports exchanges since Moon’s May 10 inauguration.

But there is also plenty of skepticism about Moon’s efforts because of a serious escalation in North Korean nuclear and missile arsenals — North Korea on Tuesday test-fired a missile likely capable of striking Alaska — and a weak North Korean winter sports program that sent only two athletes to the 2010 Vancouver Games and none to the 2014 Sochi Games. Sydney and Rio were both Summer Olympics.

North Korea’s only IOC member, Chang Ung, said last week that cooperation on the PyeongChang Games could prove hard considering the shortage of time and difficult politics.

What follows is an examination of South Korea’s attempt to make North Korea a key part of the Olympics set for Feb. 9-25.

___

MOON’S PLAN

During a speech at the world taekwondo championship in the South that drew Chang and North Korean athletes, Moon appealed for North Korea’s Olympic participation while talking about the power of sports and citing the historic “pingpong diplomacy” between the United States and China in the 1970s.

“I think (North Korea’s Olympic attendance) would greatly contribute in realizing Olympic values, which are about bringing humanity together and promoting world peace,” Moon said during the event’s opening ceremony on June 24.

Moon has previously said he wants North Korean athletes to visit the South by crossing over the heavily fortified land border between the Koreas — a deeply symbolic event that would excite frenzied media coverage. He has also proposed holding a pre-Olympic celebratory event at the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain, where the two Koreas once ran a tourism program.

Moon’s sports minister, Do Jong-hwan, told lawmakers recently that South Korea was also studying a joint women’s ice hockey team with North Korea for the PyeongChang Games. Other ideas: using a recently built North Korean ski resort as a training site and adding North Korea to the Olympic torch relay route.

During their meeting at Moon’s presidential palace in Seoul on Monday, Bach said he actively supports Moon’s push for Korean peace and said it’s in accordance with the Olympic spirit, according to Moon’s office. But some of the measures floated by the Moon government require formal IOC approvals, and PyeongChang organizers say nothing has been officially determined yet.

Chang suggested it may be too late to try to field a single Olympic team, saying it took five to six months or 22 rounds of inter-Korean talks before fielding a single women’s table tennis team in 1991. He also questioned how much sports could impact relations between the Koreas.

“Did table tennis improve relations between the United States and China? Pingpong was able to work as a catalyst because a political foundation had already been created. The world was saying pingpong made things work, but that wasn’t the case,” Chang told South Korean reporters last week. “Politics are always above sports.”

___

THE SPORTS OBSTACLES

North Korea is not strong in winter sports.

The only North Korean athletes who are thought to have a realistic shot at making the 2018 Olympics are a North Korean pairs figure skating team. Even if they qualify, it will mean less than 10 North Koreans — two athletes plus coaches and officials — would come to PyeongChang.

This small squad — or no athletes at all — could make it difficult to create a mood of reconciliation. Still, South Korean officials are looking at other ways to get North Korea involved.

PyeongChang’s organizing committee said it’s discussing with South Korean government officials whether to ask the IOC and other international sports bodies to give North Korea special entries if no North Korean athletes qualify for the Olympics.

South Korea is also reviewing whether to hold out-of-competition matches during the Olympics that would allow North Korean athletes to compete, according to Moon’s Unification Ministry.

The South’s organizing committee said special entries and extra games have not been allowed at past Winter Games.

___

THE NUCLEAR OBSTACLES

Relations between the Koreas are dismal as the North pursues its nuclear ambitions.

Since taking power in late 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has conducted three atomic test explosions and ordered a raft of ballistic-missile launches as part of his stated goal of building nuclear missiles capable of reaching the continental United States. Moon’s conservative predecessors responded by suspending major aid shipments and cross-border cooperation projects.

Moon has pledged to improve ties and promised to use the PyeongChang Games to ease cross-border animosities. But any big North Korean weapon test close to the PyeongChang Games could trigger strong anti-North sentiments both at home and abroad and make it hard for Moon to press ahead with his overtures.

“What’s most important is that North Korea not act in a way that earns President Moon criticism when he makes a gesture of reconciliation,” said Jung Moon-hyun, a sports science professor at Chungnam National University in South Korea.

___

SPORTS DIPLOMACY

At the height of the Cold War, sports were another battlefield between the Koreas. North Korea boycotted the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympics, both held in Seoul.

But sports exchanges briefly flourished in the early 1990s before a nuclear crisis erupted. This cooperation included the North-South women’s table tennis team championship over China in 1991, and a unified world youth boys’ soccer team that reached the quarterfinals later that year.

These were the last unified Korean sports teams, but the rivals found other ways to cooperate.

After the leaders of North and South Korea met for landmark summit talks in Pyongyang in June 2000, athletes from the Koreas walked behind a blue-and-white “unification” flag for the first time at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Summer Games. This happened at other major international sports events, but the practice stopped after the 2007 Asian Winter Games in Chuangchun, China.

Despite terrible political ties amid the nuclear standoff, cross-border sports exchanges between the Koreas did not disappear entirely.

North Korea attended the 2014 Asian Games held in Incheon, South Korea. At the close of the games, three top Pyongyang officials made a surprise visit and held the Koreas’ highest-level face-to-face talks in five years.

This spring, North Korea’s women’s ice hockey team came to the South to take part in the group rounds of the world championships, while the South’s national women’s soccer team traveled to the North for an Asian Cup qualifying match.

One of the feel-good highlights of the Rio Games last year came when a 17-year-old South Korean gymnast named Lee Eun-ju took a selfie with North Korea’s Hong Un Jong as they trained for competition. The photo captured global headlines, and Bach described it as a “great gesture.”

It’s far from certain whether PyeongChang will have any similar gestures.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: South Koreans identify favorite PyeongChang Olympic athletes, sports

Michael Phelps still has ‘no desire’ to come back

AP
Leave a comment

Michael Phelps says he has “no desire” to return to competitive swimming, but he is eager to stay involved with the sport and cheer on those who follow in his enormous wake.

In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press while promoting a healthy pet food campaign, Phelps said he is excited about the birth of his second child and numerous opportunities away from the pool.

It was around this time four years ago when Phelps got serious about ending his first retirement, but he now seems content with his decision to step away again after the Rio Olympics.

His wife, Nicole, is about four months pregnant. The couple already has a 16-month-old son, Boomer.

“I’ve got no desire, no desire to come back,” the 32-year-old Phelps said flatly.

Phelps has attended a handful of swimming meets since the Rio Games, where the winningest athlete in Olympic history added to his already massive career haul by claiming five gold medals plus a silver. A few months ago, he conceded to the AP that he was eager to see how he would feel about a possible comeback after this year’s world championships in Budapest, Hungary.

Turns out, it had no impact.

Phelps said watching others compete “truly didn’t kick anything off or spike any more interest in coming out of retirement again.”

He is eager to follow the development of his heir apparent, Caeleb Dressel, who emerged as the sport’s newest star by winning seven gold medals at Budapest. The 21-year-old Floridian joined Phelps and Mark Spitz as the only swimmers to accomplish that feat at a major international meet.

“I’m happy Caeleb decided to go off this year instead of last year,” Phelps joked. “I’m kind of happy to see him swimming so well when I’m not there.”

With Dressel and Katie Ledecky now leading the American team, the U.S. is expected to remain the world’s dominant swimming country heading into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Even without Phelps.

“It’s time to kind of move on,” he said, “and watch other people come into their own.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Michael Phelps: I’d give Conor McGregor a head start

Dutch cyclist returns from horrific Rio crash to win world title

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Dutch road cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten came back from this dramatic Rio Olympic crash to win her first world title on Tuesday, taking the time trial in Bergen, Norway.

“This one is really beautiful without the crash in Rio, but this makes the story really, really special,” an emotional van Vleuten said. “Actually, I still cannot believe it. … This season I’m surprising myself what I can do. To be world champion in the time trial, I never thought I’d be able of this.”

Van Vleuten, 34, covered the 13-mile course in 28 minutes, 50.35 seconds, topping countrywoman Anna ven der Breggen by 12 seconds.

Australian Katrin Garfoot took bronze, 19.02 seconds ahead of Chloe Dygert, a U.S. Olympic silver medalist in track cycling. American Amber Neben, the defending champion, was 11th.

Full results are here.

In Rio, van Vleuten suffered three small spine fractures and a concussion when her brakes appeared to lock, and she flipped over into a ditch during the road race. Van Vleuten was alone in the lead at the time with about seven miles to go of the 87-mile course.

She was eventually hospitalized in intensive care.

Van der Breggen went on to win the Olympic title.

Van Vleuten wasn’t out long. She raced at last October’s world championships, placing a career-high fifth in the time trial. She then won La Course in France, a two-day race, in July.

“To be an athlete is to have really ups and downs,” van Vleuten said Tuesday. “Sometimes really downs, but the downs make the ups even more beautiful, I think.”

Van Vleuten’s first celebratory act Tuesday was to climb past two barriers and into her mother’s arms.

“Last year my mum watched the Rio race on television, it was her birthday and she was with lots of my family, so it was a really hard day for her,” Van Vleuten said in a news conference, according to Cyclingnews.com. “My father died in 2008, and so it was really special to have her here and celebrate the good things of cycling together. We’ve dealt with bad things together in the past, so it’s important to be really happy and proud to celebrate and to also remember my father.”

The world championships continue Wednesday with the men’s time trial at 7 a.m. ET on the Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBCSports.com/live.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: World Road Cycling Championships broadcast schedule