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Koreas’ combined women’s hockey team debuts in friendly

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INCHEON, South Korea (AP) — Wearing a powder-blue logo of a map symbolizing peace between the Koreas, the most talked-about team at this year’s Olympics finally saw game action Sunday in a friendly that drew thousands of spectators in a country that never previously showed much passion for ice hockey.

The North and South Korean women’s hockey players, who only began practicing together about a week ago as a combined team, showed plenty of fight in their first competitive test, crashing the boards and throwing their bodies to stop pucks and opponents, but never really threatened in a 3-1 loss to world No. 5 Sweden in Incheon, South Korea. The Koreans will play Sweden again on Feb. 12 during the Olympic tournament.

But the outcome didn’t seem to matter to the capacity crowd of 3,000 at the Seonhak International Ice Rink. Fans waved miniature white-and-blue flags showing a unified Korean Peninsula — the same mark on the players’ uniforms — and chanted “We are one” while screaming whenever the Koreans got on the break. The arena thunderously erupted when South Korean forward Park Jong-ah cut the deficit to 2-1 during the first period.

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The Korean players stood to the Korean traditional tune of “Arirang” at the start of the game, instead of their respective national anthems, and received warm applause as they left the arena after the contest.

“I think that the North Korean players played really well — this is one of the biggest crowds they played in front of,” said Sarah Murray, the joint team’s Canadian head coach. “Being added 12 days ago and not getting to practice together all that much, they played our system pretty well, so I am proud of them.”

The team’s North Korean coach, Pak Chol Ho, said the Koreas “can do anything if they do things as one.” He left the postgame news conference without taking questions.

The joint Koreas team highlights a series of conciliatory measures the war-separated rivals took for the Pyeongchang games, which South Korea sees as an opportunity to revive meaningful communication with North Korea following an extended period of animosity and diplomatic stalemate over the North’s nuclear program.

The Olympics begin Friday, with Pyeongchang, a relatively small South Korean ski resort town, hosting the skiing, snowboarding and sliding events, and Gangneung, a coastal city about an hour’s drive away, hosting the hockey, skating and curling events.

North Korea plans to send hundreds of people to the games, including athletes, officials, artists and a 230-member cheering group. Skeptics think the country is trying to use the games to weaken U.S.-led sanctions and pressure and buy more time to advance its nuclear weapons and missiles arsenal.

The decision to create the joint hockey team, which wasn’t reached until January, triggered heated debate in South Korea, where many people thought the South Korean players were being unfairly asked to sacrifice playing time to their North Korean teammates, who are seen as less skilled and experienced.

Murray, who coached South Korea before taking over the combined team, had also expressed concerns over team chemistry.

Sunday’s friendly was Murray’s only opportunity to experiment with potential lineups in game situations before the start of the Olympics. She previously said the North Koreans’ hard-hitting style would be suited for her fourth line, a group of players asked to provide physical play in short bursts while giving their teammates with greater scoring responsibilities a chance to rest.

But after seeing them in practice and now in game action, she sees potentially bigger roles for some of the North Koreans, including Jong Su Hyon, a forward who Murray says has broken onto her second line.

“They are eager to learn and get better,” Murray said about the North Koreans. “We have been having team meetings with them and they ask so many questions. The meeting’s supposed to be 15 minutes, and an hour later we are still talking and we are still watching video.”

The Korean players, at least on the surface, appear to be getting along. They arrived at the arena Sunday relaxed and playful, stretching and jumping in the hallway to get loose before gathering in a scrum and shouting “Team Korea!” Seven of the players later formed a circle and started kicking around a rubber ball, giggling whenever the ball bounced away from them.

Amid a heavy police presence, hundreds of supporters began gathering outside the stadium hours before the game despite the icy weather, including dozens who danced to music in matching white parkas and hoodies with the peninsula logo and shouted “Win, Korea!”

“I don’t even care about the results, I just want to cheer for them and see them work together and help each other out on the ice,” said Kim Hye-ryeon, 42, who brought her two children, 8 and 6, to the game.

Kim Won-jin, a 33-year-old who made a several-hour trip to the game with his wife and 3 1/2-year-old son from the city of Daejeon, hoped the Korean players had overcome any uneasiness they may have had over the distribution of playing time.

“If we ever get unified again, these young players of the South and North will be able to look back and be proud that what they did contributed to a historic change,” he said.

Not everyone was happy. Across the street from the arena, dozens of anti-Pyongyang activists glumly waved South Korean and U.S. flags to denounce what they said had become the “Pyongyang Olympics.” They roared as one of the protesters ripped the banner of the peninsula logo atop a van.

Eliud Kipchoge wins London Marathon; no world record (video)

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Eliud Kipchoge won his eighth straight marathon (ninth if you count Nike’s sub-two attempt), but missed the world record at a steamy London Marathon by more than one minute on Sunday.

The Kenyan Olympic champion clocked 2:04:17, pulling away from Ethiopian Tola Kitata by 32 seconds. Mo Farah, the four-time Olympic track champ in his second marathon, finished third in 2:06:21.

Kipchoge and Kitata fell off Dennis Kimetto‘s world-record pace around the 20th mile. Kimetto ran 2:02:57 at the 2014 Berlin Marathon.

Full results are here.

The temperature eclipsed 70 degrees Farenheit during the race, making it one of the hottest London Marathons ever. Perhaps considering that, Kipchoge said he ran “a beautiful race” for his third London title in four years.

“The conditions, I can’t complain, because all of us were running in the same arena,” he told media in London. “No regrets at all.”

Farah was satisfied, too, achieving his primary goal of breaking the 33-year-old British record held by Steve Jones.

“If you looked at the field before the start of that race, you would never have put me third place,” said Farah, who ran nearly two minutes faster than his marathon debut in London in 2014. “You would put ahead of me so many other guys.”

No world record in the women’s race, either. Kenyan Vivian Cheruiyot won in 2:18:31, passing pre-race favorite Mary Keitany in the 23rd mile. Cheruiyot won by 1 minute, 42 seconds over countrywoman Brigid Kosgei. Keitany slowed to fifth in 2:24:27.

Cheruiyot, a 34-year-old mom, made her marathon debut in London last year, finishing fourth. Before that, Cheruiyot earned four Olympic medals on the track, plus four world titles combined in the 5000m and 10,000m.

Paula Radcliffe‘s world record with male pacers — 2:15:25 from 2003 — was a target for Keitany. Last year, Keitany broke Radcliffe’s world record without male pacers by 41 seconds, winning her third London title in 2:17:01.

The other leading contender Sunday, Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba, stopped in the 20th mile.

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2018 London Marathon results

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Top finishers from the 38th London Marathon (full searchable results here) …

Men’s Elite
1. Eliud Kipchoge (KEN) 2:04:17
2. Tola Kitata (ETH) 2:04:49
3. Mo Farah (GBR) 2:06:21
4. Abel Kirui (KEN) 2:07:07
5. Bedan Karoki (KEN) 2:08:34
6. Kenenisa Bekele (ETH) 2:08:53
7. Lawrence Cherono (KEN) 2:09:25
8. Daniel Wanjiru (KEN) 2:10:35
9. Amanuel Mesel (ERI) 2:11:52
10. Yohanes Gebregergish (ER) 2:12:09
17. Guye Adola (ETH) 2:32:35

Women’s Elite
1. Vivian Cheruiyot (KEN) 2:18:31
2. Brigid Kosgei (KEN) 2:20:13
3. Tadelech Bekele (ETH) 2:21:40
4. Gladys Cherono (KEN) 2:24:10
5. Mary Keitany (KEN) 2:24:27
6. Rose Chelimo (BRN) 2:26:03
7. Mare Dibaba (ETH) 2:27:45
8. Lily Partridge (GBR) 2:29:24
9. Tracy Barlow (GBR) 2:32:09
10. Stephanie Bruce (USA) 2:32:28
DNF. Tirunesh Dibaba (ETH)

Men’s Wheelchair
1. David Weir (GBR) 1:31:15
2. Marcel Hug (SUI) 1:31:15
3. Daniel Romanchuk (USA) 1:31:16
4. Josh George (USA) 1:31:24
5. Kurt Fearnley (AUS) 1:31:24

Women’s Wheelchair
1. Madison de Rozario (AUS) 1:42:58
2. Tatyana McFadden (USA) 1:42:58
3. Susannah Scaroni (USA) 1:43:00
4. Manuela Schar (SUI) 1:43:01
5. Amanda McGrory (USA) 1:43:04

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MORE: Shalane Flanagan looks to future after last Boston Marathon