Will North Korea compete at PyeongChang Olympics?

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More than 80 nations are expected to send delegations to the PyeongChang Olympics, but it’s not known if North Korea will be one of them.

North Korean participation in sporting events held in South Korea has long been problematic given the relations between the two nations, including a North Korean boycott of the Seoul 1988 Summer Olympics.

North Korea did compete in the two Asian Games hosted by South Korea in the last 30 years, in 2002 and 2014.

The International Olympic Committee was asked last week if it had any indication that North Korea hoped to qualify and send athletes to PyeongChang in one year.

“Invitations don’t get sent until Feb. 9, which is one year to go, so difficult to know which NOCs [National Olympic Committees] will respond affirmatively, and, of course, the athletes/teams still need to qualify,” an IOC spokesperson responded via email.

North Korea’s Olympic Committee did not respond to an email seeking comment on PyeongChang 2018 participation.

It’s not a certainty that North Korea will qualify any athletes for the Winter Games. Despite winning at least four medals at every Summer Games since Seoul, it didn’t have any athletes at the Sochi Olympics and just two at Vancouver 2010.

North Korea has zero top performing international winter sports athletes and few who even appear at major competitions.

North Korean short track speed skater Choe Un Song ranks No. 136 in the world after appearing in one World Cup this season in Beijing. A pairs figure skating team is ranked No. 49. A different North Korean pairs team missed a Sochi berth by 1.5 points at the last qualifying competition.

Nations without qualified athletes are still able to enter one man and one woman in the Summer Olympics in swimming and track and field. But no such exception applies in the Winter Games.

Entry standards were tightened after British ski jumper Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards made folly reels finishing last at Calgary 1988, though lower-ranked athletes can still qualify in events such as slalom in Alpine skiing.

The IOC called the possibility of specially inviting an athlete from a non-qualified nation to the Winter Olympics “a hypothetical question about a possible set of circumstances.” A spokesperson said they didn’t know if there has been a precedent.

And then there is the question of whether North Korea wants to participate in PyeongChang, regardless of if it qualifies any athletes.

“It depends on where the relationship [between the nations] is going to be in the days immediately preceding the Olympics.” said Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, a Korean Peninsula scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California. “At the moment relations aren’t great, but you wouldn’t be able to tell this far out.”

That’s because South Korea’s president is suspended from power due to ongoing impeachment proceedings. Lewis says a new leader could very well emerge in the next several months that impacts that relationship.

North and South Korea have shown solidarity at recent Olympics. The nations marched together under one flag at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Sydney and Athens. In Rio, North and South Korean gymnasts posed for a selfie together.

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Yuzuru Hanyu wins Autumn Classic despite shaky performance

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Yuzuru Hanyu won his third Autumn Classic International crown in Oakville, Ontario on Saturday, but it was a bumpy ride.

The two-time Olympic champion’s debut of his “Origin” free skate, inspired by Yevgeni Plushenko’s famous “Tribute to Njinsky” program, had many fine elements: opening quadruple loop and toe loop jumps, plus two triple axels in the program’s second half; a pair of superb closing spins with fittingly baroque positions; and promising step and choreography sequences that preserved Plushenko’s flair, while adding a touch more refinement and control.

But a face-forward fall on a quad salchow, followed by a popped quad toe, meant Hanyu’s 165.91 points put him second in the free skate to his 16-year-old training partner, Junhwan Cha of South Korea. His total score, including Friday’s short program, was 263.65 points, just under four points higher than Cha’s second-place total.

At this point in the season, many other skaters – not including Plushenko – would have shrugged  off the imperfections in the challenging program and been happy to put a few miles on the choreography. But the 23-year-old Hanyu’s perfectionism runs year-round.

“My first competition of the season is always this level, unfortunately,” he said, as translated from Japanese. “I wanted to skate my short and free without any regrets here, and I was not able to do that.”

Hanyu likely remembers this event last season, when a mistake-riddled free skate put him second to longtime rival Javier Fernandez of Spain. This time around, the Japanese superstar, who trains at Toronto’s Cricket Skating and Curling Club under Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson, was especially disappointed that his jump glitches meant he could not attempt a quad-triple axel sequence, a combination that might have been worth some 20 points.

“I was not strong enough to skate this program yet,” he said. “I feel fine, I am not injured. Another program, maybe (last season’s) ‘Seimei,’ I might have been able to do well, but not this program. I am just not ready.”

Just as he did after Friday’s short program, where a botched spin cost him several points, Hanyu vowed to work harder.

“This is where I am right now, and I need to practice more,” he said.

Hanyu has plenty of time: his first Grand Prix event is in Finland on November 2.

The skating world may best remember this event as the week Cha came into his own. The Korean teen, who landed a quad salchow in his short on Friday, hit a quad toe to start his free to “Romeo and Juliet” – just the second time he has landed the jump in competition. While his quad salchow was judge under rotated, he went on to land two triple-triple combinations and two triple axels, all done with style and maturity beyond his years. The program earned 169.22 points to win the day.

“Last season, I didn’t skate so well. I had some hip and back (injuries) and boot problems,” Cha, who also said he had recently had a growth spurt, said. “Now I feel much stronger, and I have been working hard.”

Asked if he had a skating idol – perhaps his training partner, Hanyu – Cha demurred.

“I don’t have just one idol,” he said. “I like many different skaters, for different reasons. I will like one skater for his jumps; another skater for his spins.”

MORE: Tennell upsets Medvedeva at Autumn Classic

Canada’s Roman Sadovsky, fourth after the short program, stepped up to win the bronze medal with 233.86 points after landing two quads, a salchow and toe, in his free skate.

Jason Brown may be disappointed in his fourth-place finish here, but it cannot have come as a big surprise: the 2015 U.S. champion has said that since moving to Toronto this spring to train under Orser and Wilson, he has been re-learning his jump technique. He called the move “a four-year project.”

“I cannot speak more highly of Brian, Tracy, Lee (Barkell) and Karen (Preston), the whole team at Cricket Club,” Brown, 23, said. “They have been really been patient with me and worked with me methodically. … We’re starting from the ground up. Each day I’m learning something new, each day they are helping me work through something, whether that me a mental thing, physically getting a jump,  or the pacing of a program.”

The debut of Brown’s free to a medley of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” and “Hazy Days of Winter” was bittersweet: his blades sung during spins, step sequences and transitions, but the jumps weren’t there. An opening quad salchow was doubled; a triple axel, popped into a single. He earned 144.33 points to place fifth in the free and fourth overall with 233.23.

Wilson, though, said they are just getting started.

“Let’s face it, he is a brilliant skater and he’s gotten close to the top of the world,” Wilson said of Brown, who was fourth in the world in 2015. “It’s a fine line trying to find room for improvement, and so that’s what we are trying to do. We are throwing a lot at him. We’re going to pull back a little.”

“What he brings, though, cannot be ignored,” she added. “My husband can be in the rink and know nothing about skating, and be mesmerized by what Jason does. He could teach clinics for every step sequence and position details. He is integral to what the sport needs.”

MORE: Kaitlyn Weaver, Andrew Poje debut free dance tribute to Denis Ten

Kaitlyn Weaver, Andrew Poje debut free dance tribute to Denis Ten

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Sometimes, you have to follow your heart, even if it makes you sad.

That’s what Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje thought when they chose to perform their free dance to “SOS, d’un terrien en detresse” this season. The tender Kazakh ballad was used by their friend, Denis Ten, who trained alongside them in Hackensack, New Jersey for a time. Ten died on July 19 in his home city of Almaty, Kazakhstan, after being stabbed by robbers attempting to vandalize his car.

“He was our dear friend. We found this music when we went to Kazakhstan and (saw) him skate to it this summer,” Weaver said. “We couldn’t get it out of our heads.  We came home and built a program around a different version (by Los Angeles: The Voices).”

The debut of the sensitive, yearning program earned Weaver and Poje 120.74 points and the title here in Oakville.  Canada’s world bronze medalists gained six Level  4 elements, the most valuable in figure skating’s scoring system, and judges also awarded high scores for interpretation and performance.

“When the tragedy struck, we knew our mission in this program was to do it for Denis,” Weaver said. “It’s about a person who is in distress and has a guardian there to care for him, and in the end,  they both understand it’s (the guardian’s) time to go. It’s the tragic sweetness and acceptance of it we’re trying to feel and portray.”

Doesn’t repeatedly training a program with such tragic connections get draining?

“That was the hardest thing,” Poje said. “But all of the memories we have of Denis bring us such joy. We had great laughs, especially the year we trained together. It made us feel at peace with going out there. We know how much he has touched people around the world.”

“This is our medium, our form of expression,” Weaver said. “We felt we needed to use it to pay tribute. We are able to channel our feelings into art, and that’s our way to deal with the tragedy.”

The free dance was choreographed by Pasquale Camerlengo, who coached Weaver and Poje for several years at the Detroit Skating Club. Although Nikolai Morozov, who works in Hackensack, remains the couple’s primary coach, they also work with Camerlengo and Igor Shpilband in Novi, Michigan.

Morozov thinks this arrangement of high-powered ice dance honchos is a trio made in heaven.

“They love to work with Pasquale, and Igor is very excited to work with them,” he said. “We are just happy because to us, it is most important that they are getting better. I don’t think we have egos any more. We are just happy to work with great skaters. It’s been very easy.”

Autumn Classic was Weaver and Poje’s first and only fall competition this season. They next compete at the 2019 Canadian Figure Skating Championships. Tomorrow, they join rehearsals for the upcoming “Thank You Canada Tour” across the nation, along with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir; Patrick Chan; Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford; Kaetlyn Osmond; and other figure skating stars. The couple will alternate performing their competitive rhythm dance, a romantic tango, with their free dance.

“Whatever the feeling is in the morning, short or free, is what we’ll do,” Poje said.

“We will definitely get both programs out there in front of the audiences,” Weaver added.

Two teams training at Gadbois Center in Montreal, Quebec under Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice LauzonAdrian Diaz and Olivia Smart of Spain, and Shiyue Wang and Xinyu Liu of China – placed second and third, respectively.

MORE: Tennell upsets Medvedeva at Autumn Classic