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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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Beatrice Chepkoech crushes steeplechase world record (video)

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Kenyan Beatrice Chepkoech crushed the 3000m steeplechase world record by eight seconds at a Diamond League meet in Monaco on Friday.

Chepkoech clocked 8:44.32, easily beating Olympic champion Ruth Jebet‘s mark of 8:52.78. Coincidentally, the IAAF confirmed Friday that Bahrain’s Jebet, who was born in Kenya, has been suspended the last five months after testing positive for EPO.

Between Jebet and Chepkoech, the steeple world record has come down 14 seconds since the Rio Games. Chepkoech began competition running in 2011 and didn’t concentrate on the steeplechase until 2016.

“I was thinking maybe I can break 8:50, but not at all was I dreaming about 8:44,” Chepkoech said, according to meet organizers.

Chepkoech, 27, was best-known for missing the first water jump in the 2017 World Championships final, retracing her steps and recovering to finish fourth. That helped lead the way to the stunning U.S. one-two finish with Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs.

In Friday’s race, Frerichs broke Coburn’s American record by clocking 9:00.85 for second place.

Full Monaco results are here. The Diamond League moves to London for a two-day meet Saturday and Sunday (broadcast/stream info here).

In other Monaco events, Caster Semenya clocked her second-fastest 800m of all time to extend her near-three-year win streak. The Olympic and world champion clocked 1:54.60. Semenya’s personal best is still .97 shy of the world record.

“Today wanted to break 1:54 but maybe next time,” Semenya said. “I was not thinking about the world record today and actually it is not on my mind.”

A pursuit of the 35-year-old mark will be impacted severely if an IAAF rule limiting testosterone in female middle-distance runners goes into effect next season as scheduled. Semenya is challenging it to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Noah Lyles won the 200m in 19.65 seconds, the world’s fastest time since Usain Bolt‘s last world title in 2015. Lyles, the U.S. 100m champion, remained undefeated in outdoor 200m races since finishing fourth at the Olympic Trials as an 18-year-old.

Lyles did a somersault when introduced before the race and a standing back flip celebrating afterward.

Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo won the 400m in the world’s fastest time in nine years — 49.97 seconds — edging world silver medalist Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain. Naser, 20, ran 49.08, destroying her Asian record of 49.55, but lost for the first time in nearly one year.

Botswana’s Nijel Amos ran the world’s fastest 800m since the epic 2012 Olympic final, clocking 1:42.14 against a field that did not include injured world-record holder David Rudisha.

Marie-Josée Ta Lou of the Ivory Coast won a deep 100m in 10.89 seconds, confirming she is currently the world’s fastest woman. Ta Lou also has the fastest time in the world this year of 10.85 and hasn’t lost over 100m in 2018. The race lacked world champion Tori Bowie, while Olympic champion Elaine Thompson was third in 11.02.

Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot took the 1500m in the fastest time in the world since the 2015 Monaco meet — 3:28.41. Cheruiyot, who came to Monaco with the world’s top three times this year, edged world champion Elijah Manangoi (3:29.64).

Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen, 17, was fourth in 3:31.18, taking 2.54 seconds off the U18 world record and nearly six seconds off his personal best, according to the IAAF. U.S. Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz was seventh in 3:31.77, his fastest time since Monaco 2015.

World silver medalist Soufiane El Bakkali became the first steeplechaser to break eight minutes in three years. The Moroccan won in 7:58.15, while U.S. Olympic silver medalist Evan Jager was second in 8:01.02.

Two-time Olympic champion Christian Taylor beat Cuban-born Portuguese rival Pedro Pablo Pichardo in the triple jump, leaping 17.86 meters.

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Suspect confesses to Denis Ten killing

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MOSCOW (AP) — One of two men detained in Kazakhstan on suspicion of killing Olympic figure skating medalist Denis Ten has confessed, authorities said Friday.

Prosecutor Berik Zhuyrektayev said in a televised statement that Nuraly Kiyasov “confessed his guilt in the presence of an attorney” while being questioned over the 25-year-old skater’s death Thursday in the Kazakh city of Almaty.

The prosecutor didn’t give further details of what exactly Kiyasov had said.

Police have also detained 23-year-old Arman Kudaibergenov in connection with Ten’s death, which has prompted national mourning. Authorities released a picture of the disheveled-looking man being held by masked men wearing body armor and camouflage uniforms.

Ten was stabbed after a dispute with people who allegedly tried to steal a mirror from his car in his home city of Almaty. He died in hospital of massive blood loss from multiple wounds, the Kazinform news agency said.

Prosecutors are treating his death as murder.

Kazinform reported that Kiyasov was taken to the scene of the crime under heavy security Friday as part of the investigation.

Ten’s bronze in Sochi in 2014 made him Kazakhstan’s first Olympic medalist in figure skating. He also won the Four Continents Championships in 2015 and was a world silver medalist in 2013.

He struggled with injuries in recent years and could only finish 27th at the PyeongChang Olympics.

Ten had been working on a script in recent months which the Kazakh-Russian director Timur Bekmambetov said Friday would now be turned into a movie.

“We’re definitely going to try to realize his idea and shoot a film dedicated to this multi-talented person,” Bekmambetov said in comments released by Kazakhstan’s embassy to Russia. “In his 25 years, Ten managed to do very much and had grand plans which he would surely have put into practice because he was a real hard worker.”

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