North Korea can qualify for Olympics this week

AP
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North Korea’s first bona fide chance to qualify athletes for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics is this week.

Pairs figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik compete at Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the final Olympic qualifying event for the sport.

Ryom and Kim must finish in the top five among pairs from nations not already qualified for the Olympics. Based on scores from the last year, they are favored to do so.

Their choreographer, Canadian Julie Marcotte, agrees.

“That’s all that matters to them right now is to qualify for the Olympics,” she said. “That’s all they want.”

Last season, the North Koreans asked Marcotte’s brother, Bruno, who coaches pairs, if they could train under him in Montreal in the summer. And if Julie could choreograph one of their programs.

There was no hesitation in accepting them. The North Koreans had previously trained in Toronto.

Ryom, 18, and Kim, 25, were expected in Quebec in June but due to a travel delay arrived in July. They shared the ice with the likes of two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford.

“They were already very good, but they improved at the speed of light,” Marcotte said. “They were very receptive, very hard-working, and not the attitude people would expect, actually. It was mind-blowing. The story is actually that they were extremely joyful, extremely generous with their thankfulness, with their appreciation.”

The North Koreans speak no English, so most of the communication with Marcotte was non-verbal. They came with two North Korean coaches, one of whom spoke some English.

“[Ryom and Kim] are the sweetest people you’ve ever met,” said Marcotte, whose time spent with all of her skaters is wholly at practices. “It was so uplifting to have the chance to get to know them and work with them. I didn’t know what to expect. It was a great surprise.”

Ryom and Kim competed at the Quebec Summer Championships in August and scored 12 points higher than their personal best.

“They were out-of-this-world fabulous,” Marcotte said. “They’ve really come a long way. … I know they were crying, they were so excited. I think with their skating this summer it gave them hope they could qualify for the Olympics.”

This week’s event also includes pairs from Canada, Germany, Russia and the U.S., but they already clinched Olympic spots last season.

The North Koreans’ competition for Olympic spots on Thursday and Friday comes from the Czech Republic, Austria, Israel, Japan and Australia.

Ryom and Kim placed 15th at last season’s world championships, where they spoke briefly to The Associated Press through a translator.

They’re seeded second in the field of pairs eyeing Olympic qualification, granted these point totals won’t help them this week:

  1. Duskova/Bidar (CZE) — 189.09
  2. Ryom/Kim (PRK) — 169.65
  3. Ziegler/Kiefer (AUT) — 165.63
  4. Conners/Krasnopolski (ISR) — 165.38
  5. Suto/Boudreau-Audet (JPN) — 164.96
  6. Alexandrovskaya/Windsor (AUS) — 164.10

They’re performing to The Beatles in the short program for a second straight season. Their free skate is new, performed to Montreal singer Ginette Reno.

Despite winning at least four medals at every Summer Games since boycotting Seoul 1988, North Korea didn’t have any athletes at the Sochi Olympics and just two at Vancouver 2010.

North and South Korea have shown solidarity at recent Games.

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

Four years ago, a different North Korean pair missed qualifying a Sochi Olympic quota spot by .99 of a point at Nebelhorn Trophy.

If Ryom and Kim do not finish in the top five, North Korea could still qualify Alpine or cross-country skiers closer to the Winter Games.

There have also been reports that North Korean athletes could be granted special invitations without having to qualify.

Ryom and Kim have finished their Montreal training and will spend the lead-up to PyeongChang back in North Korea. Marcotte doesn’t expect to see them again before the Olympics. She has no plans to be in PyeongChang, either.

“They deserve to do well this week,” she said. “I wish it for them just for the people that they are.”

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*Addition: France announced it is giving up one of its two Olympic pairs sports, meaning five spots are available at Nebelhorn instead of four.

NFL star Jared Allen’s team beats Olympic champions at curling nationals

Jared Allen
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Retired NFL star Jared Allen was part of a curling team that beat 2018 Olympic champion John Shuster to open the U.S. Championships in Denver on Sunday night.

Allen, who retired from the NFL in 2016 and picked up curling in 2018, is on 2010 Olympian Jason Smith‘s team, which beat Shuster’s team 10-6 in the first game of round-robin play.

After all eight teams play each other, the top four advance to Friday’s playoffs. The winner of Saturday’s final is national champion and is expected to be the U.S. team for the world championship in Ottawa in April.

Allen, 40, said before nationals that he is eyeing the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Olympics, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

“I thought curling was going to be a lot easier than it was,” Allen, who was on a different team at the last nationals in 2021 that went 0-9, told the newspaper. “But I’m one of those guys who, once I start something, I’m going to see it through. Our goal at nationals is to beat as many teams as we possibly can and see where we land.”

How big of an upset was Sunday’s result? Ken Pomeroy rated Smith’s team fifth in the eight-team field before the tournament, while he had Shuster’s team second behind Korey Dropkin.

Shuster’s team won the last three nationals that they entered, plus the last two Olympic Trials since the bulk of the team formed for the 2015 season. Shuster went 11-0 at his last nationals in 2020, then 11-2 at the 2022 Olympic Trials, where the younger Dropkin beat him twice but ultimately lost in the finals series.

Allen was first linked to serious curling in February 2018 via U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer Lou Nanne on a Minnesota ESPN radio show. Nanne said Allen told him at a dinner.

“[Allen] says, ‘I’m giving myself four years to make the Olympic curling team,’” said Nanne, a 1968 U.S. Olympian.

Allen, along with retired quarterback Marc Bulger, first played on a team with 2010 Olympian John Benton and fellow veteran curler Hunter Clawson.

Allen’s new team includes Smith, who played on the 2010 Olympic team skipped by Shuster, Clawson and Dominik Maerki.

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U.S. Alpine skiers wear climate change-themed race suits at world championships

U.S. Alpine Skiing Team Race Suit
Images via Kappa
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Looking cool is just the tip of the iceberg for Mikaela Shiffrin, Travis Ganong and the rest of the U.S. ski team when they debut new race suits at the world championships.

Even more, they want everyone thinking about climate change.

The team’s predominantly blue-and-white suits depict an image of ice chunks floating in the ocean. It’s a concept based on a satellite photo of icebergs breaking due to high temperatures. The suit was designed in collaboration with Kappa, the team’s technical apparel sponsor, and the nonprofit organization Protect Our Winters (POW).

The Americans will wear the suits throughout the world championships in Courchevel and Meribel, France, which started Monday with a women’s Alpine combined race and end Feb. 19.

“Although a race suit is not solving climate change, it is a move to continue the conversation and show that U.S Ski & Snowboard and its athletes are committed to being a part of the future,” said Sophie Goldschmidt, the president and CEO of U.S. Ski & Snowboard.

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Global warming has become a cold, hard reality in ski racing, with mild temperatures and a lack of snow leading to the postponement of several World Cup events this winter.

“I’m just worried about a future where there’s no more snow. And without snow, there’s no more skiing,” said Ganong, who grew up skiing at Lake Tahoe in California. “So this is very near and dear to me.”

What alarms Ganong is seeing the stark year-to-year changes to some of the World Cup circuit’s most storied venues.

“I mean, it’s just kind of scary, looking at how on the limit (these events) are even to being possible anymore,” said Ganong, who’s been on the U.S. team since 2006. “Places like Kitzbuehel (Austria), there’s so much history and there’s so much money involved with that event that they do whatever they can to host the event.

“But that brings up a whole other question about sustainability as well: Is that what we should be doing? … What kind of message do we need show to the public, to the world, about how our sport is adapting to this new world we live in?”

The suits feature a POW patch on the neck and the organization’s snowflake logo on the leg.

“By coming together, we can educate and mobilize our snowsports community to push for the clean energy technologies and policies that will most swiftly reduce emissions and protect the places we live and the lifestyles we love,” according to a statement from executive director Mario Molina, whose organization includes athletes, business leaders and scientists who are trying to protect places from climate change.

Ganong said a group of ski racers are releasing a letter to the International Ski Federation (FIS), with the hope the governing body will take a stronger stance on sustainability and climate change.

“They should be at the forefront of trying to adapt to this new world, and try to make it better, too,” Ganong said.

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U.S. Alpine Skiing Team Race Suit