South, North Korea agree to form joint Olympic team, march together

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea and North Korea agreed Wednesday to form their first unified Olympic team and march together in the Opening Ceremony for the first time since 2006.

The agreements still require approval from the International Olympic Committee.

But they are the most prominent steps toward rapprochement achieved by the Koreas since they recently began exploring cooperation during the Olympics.

During their third day of talks at the border in about a week, senior officials reached a package of agreements including fielding a joint women’s hockey team and marching together under a blue and white “unification flag” depicting their peninsula in the Opening Ceremony, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said.

A joint statement distributed by the ministry said the North Korean Olympic delegation will travel to South Korea across their heavily fortified land border before the Feb. 9-25 PyeongChang Games.

It said the delegation will include a 230-member cheering group, a 30-member taekwondo demonstration team, journalists, athletes and officials.

Ahead of the Olympics, the Koreas will hold a joint cultural event at the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain and have non-Olympic skiers train together at the North’s Masik ski resort, according to the statement.

It said the North also plans to send a 150-strong delegation to the Paralympics in March. The North earlier said it would send a 140-member art troupe.

The agreements are highly symbolic and emotional.

But it’s still not clear how many North Korean athletes will come to PyeongChang because none are currently qualified.

South Korean media have predicted only up to 10 North Korean athletes will end up being covered by an additional quota from the IOC.

A pair of North Korean figure skaters qualified for this year’s Olympics, but North Korea missed a deadline to confirm their participation.

The IOC said recently it has “kept the door open” for North Korea to take part in the Games.

IOC officials are to meet with sports and government officials from the two Koreas and officials from the PyeongChang organizing committee in Switzerland on Saturday.

The IOC said in statement Wednesday that it has “taken note of a number of interesting proposals from different sources.”

“There are many considerations with regard to the impact of these proposals on the other participating NOCs (national Olympic committees) and athletes. After having taken all this into consideration, the IOC will take its final decisions on Saturday in Lausanne,” it said.

The two Koreas sent joint teams to major international sports events twice previously, both in 1991.

One event was the world table tennis championships in Chiba, Japan, where the women’s team won the championship by beating the powerful Chinese, and the other was soccer’s World Youth Championship in Portugal, where the Korean team reached the quarterfinals.

During an era of detente in the 2000s, their athletes marched together in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of nine international sporting events including the 2000, 2004 and 2006 Olympics, but they failed to produce a joint team.

Their last joint march was at the Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China, in 2007.

The current reconciliation mood began after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year’s speech that he was willing to send a delegation to the Games.

South Korea wants the IOC to allow its hockey team’s 23-player Olympic roster to be expanded so that several North Korean players can be added without removing any of the South Korean players.

But there are worries in South Korea that adding new players less than a month before the Olympics will weaken the team and deprive South Korean players of playing time.

Chief South Korean delegate Chun Hae-sung said the government is well aware of such concerns and North Korea has agreed that the South Korean coach Sarah Murray will be given full authority to select North Korean players to compete.

“If South and North Korea form one team and compete in the Games, that will be an everlasting historic event, which I think will move our people and people around the world,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Wednesday.

Murray said a joint team would be a distraction and present challenges, according to Yonhap News Agency.

“I think there is damage to our player,” Murray said Tuesday, according to Yonhap. “It’s hard because the players have earned their spots, and they think they deserve to go to the Olympics. Then you have people being added later. It definitely affects our players.

“This is another distraction, and we have to worry about things we can control. We can’t control this situation.

“Adding somebody so close to the Olympics is a little bit dangerous just for team chemistry because the girls have been together for so long. Teaching systems and different things … I’d have about a month to teach these (new) players the way our team plays. That makes me a little nervous.

“I hope that I am not being pressured to play (North Koreans). I am hoping we can just play the way we play and not have the influence of, ‘I need to play this player.’ I just want the best players to play. If you play your best, then you earn your ice time. Whether you’re South Korean or North Korean, they have to earn their place.”

North Korea boycotted the previous Olympics held in South Korea, the Summer Olympics in Seoul in 1988.

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Chris Froome wins Giro d’Italia, is 3rd cyclist to hold all three Grand Tours

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Chris Froome joined Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault as the only cyclists to hold all three Grand Tour titles at once, wrapping up his first Giro d’Italia on the ceremonial ride into Rome on Sunday.

Froome, a 33-year-old, Kenyan-born, South African-raised Brit, also became the seventh rider to win all three Grand Tours in a career, joining Merckx, Hinault, Jacques Anquetil, Felice Gimondi, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali.

Froome has won four Tours de France (2013, 2015-17) and claimed his first Vuelta a España in September. He also owns two Olympic bronze medals and a world championships bronze medal.

Froome all but clinched the Giro title in Friday’s 19th stage. With an audacious solo attack up the Colle delle Finestre, the three-week stage race’s highest climb, he went from three minutes down to three minutes up in the standings, taking the pink leader’s jersey for the first time in his career.

“I had some very, very tough moments, so to come back and win yesterday and defend the jersey [Saturday] is very, very special,” Froome said Saturday. “This was the biggest battle of my career.”

GIRO: Overall Standings

Froome raced the Giro for the first time since 2010, when he was a relative nobody in the sport and disqualified for holding onto a motorbike, also during stage 19.

Froome could become the first rider to notch the arduous Giro-Tour de France double in the same year since Italian Marco Pantani in 1998. That is, if he even starts the Tour in a little over a month.

In December, Froome was ordered to explain to the International Cycling Union (UCI) why a urine sample he provided at the Vuelta showed a concentration of the asthma drug salbutamol that was twice the permitted level. It remains unclear when the UCI will rule on the case.

“I know inside that I didn’t do anything wrong,” Froome said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Venus Williams upset on first day of French Open

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PARIS (AP) — Venus Williams is out of the French Open on the opening day.

The 2002 runner-up and ninth-seeded American lost 6-4, 7-5 to Wang Qiang of China in the first round on Court Suzanne Lenglen on Sunday.

Wang avenged her loss to Williams in the first round at Roland Garros last year. The 85th-ranked player was also beaten by Williams at Wimbledon a few weeks later and had never beaten Williams before Sunday.

It’s the fourth time Williams exits the French Open in the first round in 21 appearances.

She also lost in the first round at the Australian Open in January.

Reigning U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens needed less than an hour to move into the second round.

The 10th-seeded Stephens advanced with a 6-2, 6-0 victory over Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands. It was Stephens’ first win at a Grand Slam tournament since claiming her first major title in New York last September.

“I tried to do way more than I should have after the U.S. Open, and I should have just shut it down,” Stephens said when asked about her poor recent results. “My heart was there but my body wasn’t. So when the two things aren’t connected, it’s never a good thing.”

The American, who lost in the first round at the Australian Open in January, hit 17 winners and spent just 49 minutes on court on Day 1 in Paris. Rus was in the first round as a “lucky loser.”

On a sunny and warm day, Stephens was joined in the second round by fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina, who defeated Ajla Tomljanovic, 7-5, 6-3 after recovering from a 5-1 deficit in the opening set.

In the men’s draw, fourth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov found out about his opponent around 30 minutes before stepping onto Court Philippe Chatrier but had no problem adapting to the situation.

Dimitrov, a semifinalist at Monte Carlo this season, was slated to play Viktor Troicki but instead faced Mohamed Safwat of Egypt because Troicki withdrew with pain in his back. Dimitrov hit 31 winners and prevailed 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (1).

“I just needed, like, five, ten minutes to disconnect from what I had in mind to play and what I wanted to do and kind of look at the few videos of the way he was playing,” Dimitrov said. “After that, I just had to go out and do the best that I can. I think it was a good start.”

Safwat, the first Egyptian man to compete at a Grand Slam since Tamer El Sawy at the 1996 US Open, was cheered off the court.

Gael Monfils, one of six Frenchmen in action on Sunday, overcame a slow start and an upset stomach and headache to advance by defeating compatriot and wild card Elliot Benchetrit. Monfils won 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-1.

“I was stressed and even sick at the beginning,” Monfils said. “Then experience played in my favor.”

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FRENCH OPEN: TV/Stream Schedule | ScoresMen’s Draw (PDF) | Women’s Draw