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North Korea captivating media entering Olympics

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — A giant national flag. A smiling angel. The dictator’s pop diva. And a dozen women added to a South Korean hockey team to form the Koreas’ first-ever joint Olympic team.

Yes, North Korea is again stealing the show in pre-Olympic media coverage, although none of its 22 athletes is expected to win a medal at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The athletes hardly speak but still gathered a crowd of journalists and curious South Korean spectators when they arrived at the Gangneung athletes’ village and attended training sessions, the only chance for official access to them before the games start Friday.

The ongoing media frenzy appears even more intense than when North Korea attended previous international sports events. That’s largely because the North Koreans are visiting archrival South Korea after an extended period of nuclear tensions that saw increased fears of war last year.

A look at North Korea’s current and past stars and what the country hopes to get from them.

EMERGING STARS
A pair of North Korean skaters, Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, drew rounds of applause from South Korean spectators during their training at Gangneung Ice Arena in recent days. Many of the spectators are young volunteer workers who had never seen North Koreans in person.

“Their moves are beautiful. I can feel that,” said Jung Ha Kyung, a 22-year-old college student who volunteered for translation work at the venue. “Especially, I like Ryom Tae Ok. I like her facial expressions so much and everyone here is talking about it. You know … her hand gesture mimicking firing a pistol is really awesome.”

Ryom, who turned 19 last Friday, has been dubbed “the smiling angel” by the South Korean media after she waved and smiled broadly when she arrived at the athletes’ village in Gangneung.

Kim was also in the news on Tuesday after South Korean skater Alex Kam posted a selfie on Instagram of them together during training the previous day.

NBCOlympics.com: A history of North Korea, South Korea at international sporting events

Twelve North Korean female hockey players who created the Koreas’ first-ever joint Olympic squad with South Korean players are also a hot news item.

International headlines focused on birthday parties that South Korean players held for two North Korean teammates; a dictionary they created to cope with the linguistic divide between the Koreas; and their emotional match last Sunday with world No. 5 Sweden in which they wore the same uniforms bearing a single “unification flag.”

NON-ATHLETES
North Korea is also sending a 140-member art troupe and a 230-strong cheering group. The troupe’s leader, Hyon Song Wol, created a media frenzy during a preparatory visit last month, with South Korean TV stations following her every move. She also heads the North’s extremely popular Moranbong girl band, whose members were hand-picked by absolute leader Kim Jong Un.

A giant North Korea flag is draped across three floors of the North Korean athletes’ apartment building. The hoisting of North Korean flags is normally banned in South Korea under its tough anti-North security law.

“I’m actually a conservative and don’t like North Korea. But what’s wrong with a North Korean flag? I don’t think our people would be affected by that flag,” said Cho Seon-jeong, a 30-year-old officer worker in Gangneung. “We are divided countries but I think it’s important for us to take part in world festivals like the Olympics together.”

NORTH KOREAN INTENTIONS
The sudden Olympics-inspired mood of detente began after Kim Jong Un said in a New Year’s Day address that he was willing to send a delegation to the Olympics. It was welcome news for South Korea’s liberal President Moon Jae-in, who espouses a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the North Korean nuclear standoff.

The two Koreas have agreed on a package of Olympic cooperation activities such as the joint hockey team and a joint march in the Olympics’ opening ceremony. This has created a temporary thaw in nuclear tensions, but some experts say North Korea probably wants to use its Olympic overture to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington and weaken international sanctions against it. The easing of sanctions is crucial for North Korea because it’s eager to develop nuclear missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

During a previous era of detente from 1998 to 2008, North Korea also sent large delegations to sports events in South Korea and launched many now-dormant cooperation programs. Athletes from the rivals marched together at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics for the first time since their 1945 division and did the same in other sports events.

NBCOlympics.com: What are North Korea’s expectations?

Those events raised hopes of eventual unification. But critics argue that North Korea only wanted improved ties to receive shipments of food and other aid to help revive its economy, which crumbled during a crippling famine in the mid-1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of its people.

PAST STARS
North Korea boycotted the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympics, both in Seoul, during a period of heightened tensions.

During the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, North Korean judo heroine Key Sun Hui, who won gold in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, lit the games’ torch together with South Korean 1984 Olympic judo gold medalist Ha Hyung-joo.

North Korea’s Ham Pong Sil won the women’s marathon in Busan and said in a subsequent interview that then-leader Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father, inspired her to win. “When I was passing the 32-kilometer mark, I was thinking that great leader Kim Jong Il was looking at me and I was able to finish the race well,” she said.

North Korea sent cheering groups, comprised mainly of young women, to Busan and two other sporting events. They earned the nickname “army of beauties” in South Korea, receiving more attention than their athletes. Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, was among a 2005 group before their marriage.

A month before the Busan Games, North Korean dancer Cho Myong Ae rose to stardom after she performed and served as a flag bearer for the North Korean delegation during a joint festival. Cho, of North Korea’s Mansudae Art Troupe, gained a huge following in South Korea and appeared in a commercial for Samsung cellphones with South Korean singer Lee Hyo-ri, the hottest South Korean entertainer at the time, in 2005.

2020 Tour de France standings

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2020 Tour de France results for the yellow jersey, green jersey, white jersey and polka-dot jersey …

Overall (Yellow Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 87:20:05
2. Primoz Roglic (SLO) — +:59
3. Richie Porte (AUS) — +3:30
4. Mikel Landa (ESP) — +5:58
5. Enric Mas (ESP) — +6:07
6. Miguel Angel Lopez (COL) — +6:47
7. Tom Dumoulin (NED) — +7:48
8. Rigberto Uran (COL) — +8:02
9. Adam Yates (GBR) — +9:25
10. Damiano Caruso (ITA) — +14:03
13. Richard Carapaz (ECU) — +25:53
15. Sepp Kuss (USA) — +42:20
17. Nairo Quintana (COL) — +1:03:07
29. Thibaut Pinot (FRA) — +1:59:54
36. Julian Alaphilippe (FRA) — +2:19:11
DNF. Egan Bernal (COL)

Sprinters (Green Jersey)
1. Sam Bennett (IRL) — 380 points
2. Peter Sagan (SVK) — 284
3. Matteo Trentin (ITA) — 260
4. Bryan Coquard (FRA) — 181
5. Wout van Aert (BEL) — 174

Climbers (Polka-Dot Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 82 points
2. Richard Carapaz (ECU) — 74
3. Primoz Roglic (SLO) — 67
4. Marc Hirschi (SUI) — 62
5. Miguel Angel Lopez (COL) — 51

Young Rider (White Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 87:20:13
2. Enric Mas (ESP) — +6:07
3. Valentin Madouas (FRA) — +1:42:43
4. Dani Martinez (COL) — +1:55:12
5. Lennard Kamna (GER) — +2:15:39

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TOUR DE FRANCE: TV, Stream Schedule | Stage By Stage | Favorites, Predictions

Tadej Pogacar, Slovenia win Tour de France for the ages

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A Tour de France that almost didn’t happen ended up among the most exciting in the race’s 117-year history.

Tadej Pogacar, a 21-year-old Slovenian, rode into Paris on Sunday as the first man in more than 60 years to pedal in the yellow jersey for the first time on the final day of a Tour.

Let’s get the achievements out of the way: Pogacar is the first Slovenian to win the Tour, finishing with the other overall leaders behind stage winner Sam Bennett on the Champs-Elysees.

“Even if I would come second or last, it wouldn’t matter, it would be still nice to be here,” Pogacar said. “This is just the top of the top. I cannot describe this feeling with the words.”

He is the second-youngest winner in race history, after Henri Cornet in 1904. (Cornet won after the first four finishers were disqualified for unspecified cheating. The 19-year-old Frenchman rode 21 miles with a flat tire during the last stage after spectators reportedly threw nails on the road.)

Pogacar is the first man to win a Tour in his debut since Frenchman Laurent Fignon in 1983.

And he’s part of a historic one-two for Slovenia, a nation with the population of Houston.

Countryman Primoz Roglic, who wore the yellow jersey for nearly two weeks before ceding it after Saturday’s epic time trial, embraced Pogacar after a tearful defeat Saturday and again during Sunday’s stage.

Tasmanian Richie Porte, who moved from fourth place to third on Saturday, made his first Tour podium in his 10th start, a record according to ProCyclingStats.com. The age range on the Paris gloaming podium — more than 13 years — is reportedly the largest in Tour history.

TOUR DE FRANCE: Standings | TV, Stream Schedule | Stage By Stage

Three men on a Tour de France podium in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, each for the first time. Hasn’t been done since 2007, arguably the first Tour of a new era.

This Tour feels similarly guard-changing.

It barely got off, delayed two months by the coronavirus pandemic. Two days before the start, France’s prime minister said the virus was “gaining ground” in the nation and announced new “red zones” in the country, including parts of the Tour route.

Testing protocols meant that if any team had two members (cyclists or staff) test positive before the start or on either rest day, the whole team would be thrown out.

It never came to that. Yet the Tour finishes without 2019 champion, Colombian Egan Bernal, who last year became the first South American winner and, at the time, the youngest in more than 100 years.

Bernal abandoned last Wednesday after struggling in the mountains. His standings plummet signaled the end, at least for now, of the Ineos Grenadiers dynasty after five straight Tour titles dating to Chris Froome and the Team Sky days.

Jumbo-Visma became the new dominant team. The leader Roglic was ushered up climbs by several Jumbo men, including Sepp Kuss, the most promising American male cyclist in several years.

What a story Roglic was shaping up to be. A junior champion ski jumper, he was concussed in a training crash on the eve of what would have been his World Cup debut in 2007. Roglic never made it to the World Cup before quitting and taking up cycling years later.

As Roglic recovered from that spill in Planica, Pogacar had his sights on the Rog Ljubljana cycling club about 60 miles east. Little Tadej wanted to follow older brother Tilen into bike racing, but the club didn’t have a bike small enough.

The following spring, they found one. Pogacar was off and pedaling. In 2018, at age 18, he was offered a contract and then signed with UAE Team Emirates, his first World Tour team. The next year, Pogacar finished third at the Vuelta a Espana won by Roglic, becoming the youngest Grand Tour podium finisher since 1974.

Pogacar was initially slated to support another rider, Fabio Aru, for UAE Emirates at this year’s Tour. But his continued ascent propelled him into a team leader role.

Bernal and Roglic entered the Tour as co-favorites. After that, Pogacar was among a group of podium contenders but perhaps with the highest ceiling.

He stayed with the favorites for much of the Tour, save losing 81 seconds on the seventh stage, caught on the wrong end of a split after a crash in front of him.

“I’m not worried,” Pogacar said that day. “We will try another day.”

The next day, actually. He reeled back half of the lost time, putting him within striking distance of Roglic going into Saturday’s 22-mile time trial, the so-called “race of truth.”

Pogacar put in a performance in the time trial that reminded of Greg LeMond‘s epic finale in 1989. Pogacar won the stage by 81 seconds, greater than the margin separating second place from eighth place. Roglic was a disappointing fifth on the day, but he could have finished second and still lost all of his 57-second lead to Pogacar.

Pogacar turns 22 on Monday, but that might not add much to the celebration.

“Sorry,” he said, “but I’m not really a fan of my birthdays.”

MORE: USA Cycling names Olympic team finalists

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