PyeongChang Olympics icy path to warmer Korean relations

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Diana Taurasi returns to U.S. national basketball team

Diana Taurasi
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Diana Taurasi is set to return to the U.S. national basketball team next week for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics, signaling a possible bid for a record-breaking sixth Olympic appearance in 2024 at age 42.

Taurasi is on the 15-player roster for next week’s training camp in Minnesota announced Tuesday.

Brittney Griner is not on the list but is expected to return to competitive basketball later this year with her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury (also Taurasi’s longtime team, though she is currently a free agent), after being detained in Russia for 10 months in 2022.

Taurasi said as far back as the 2016 Rio Games that her Olympic career was likely over, but returned to the national team after Dawn Staley succeeded Geno Auriemma as head coach in 2017.

In Tokyo, Taurasi and longtime backcourt partner Sue Bird became the first basketball players to win five Olympic gold medals. Bird has since retired.

After beating Japan in the final, Taurasi said “see you in Paris,” smiling, as she left an NBC interview. That’s now looking less like a joke and more like a prediction.

Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve succeeded Staley as head coach last year. In early fall, she guided the U.S. to arguably the best FIBA World Cup performance ever, despite not having stalwarts Bird, Griner, Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles.

Taurasi was not in contention for the team after suffering a WNBA season-ending quad injury in the summer. Taurasi, who is 38-0 in Olympic games and started every game at the last four Olympics, wasn’t on a U.S. team for an Olympics or worlds for the first time since 2002.

Next year, Taurasi can become the oldest Olympic basketball player in history and the first to play in six Games, according to Olympedia.org. Spain’s Rudy Fernandez could also play in a sixth Olympics in 2024.

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Mo Farah likely to retire this year

Mo Farah
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British track legend Mo Farah will likely retire by the end of this year.

“I’m not going to go to the Olympics, and I think 2023 will probably be my last year,” the 39-year-old Farah said, according to multiple British media reports.

Farah, who swept the 5000m and 10,000m golds at the Olympics in 2012 and 2016, was announced Tuesday as part of the field for the London Marathon on April 23.

Last May, Farah reportedly said he believed his career on the track was over, but not the roads.

London might not be his last marathon. Farah also said that if, toward the end of this year, he was capable of being picked to run for Britain again, he would “never turn that down,” according to Tuesday’s reports.

It’s not clear if Farah was referencing the world track and field championships, which include a marathon and are in Budapest in August. Or selection for the 2024 British Olympic marathon team.

The fastest British male marathoner last year ran 2:10:46, ranking outside the top 300 in the world. Farah broke 2:10 in all five marathons that he’s finished, but he hasn’t run one since October 2019 (aside from pacing the 2020 London Marathon).

Farah withdrew four days before the last London Marathon on Oct. 2, citing a right hip injury.

Farah switched from the track to the marathon after the 2017 World Championships and won the 2018 Chicago Marathon in a then-European record time of 2:05:11. Belgium’s Bashir Abdi now holds the record at 2:03:36.

Farah’s best London Marathon finish in four starts was third place in 2018.

Farah returned to the track in a failed bid to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, then shifted back to the roads.

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