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.

Snowboarders sue coach, USOPC in assault, harassment case

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Olympic bronze medalist Rosey Fletcher has filed a lawsuit accusing former snowboard coach Peter Foley of sexually assaulting, harassing and intimidating members of his team for years, while the organizations overseeing the team did nothing to stop it.

Fletcher is a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Thursday. One names Foley, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team and its former CEO, Tiger Shaw, as defendants. Another, filed by a former employee of USSS, names Foley, Shaw and the ski federation as defendants.

One of the lawsuits, which also accuse the defendants of sex trafficking, harassment, and covering up repeated acts of sexual assault and misconduct, allege Foley snuck into bed and sexually assaulted Fletcher, then shortly after she won her bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics, approached her “and said he still remembered ‘how she was breathing,’ referring to the first time he assaulted her.”

The lawsuits describe Foley as fostering a depraved travel squad of snowboarders, in which male coaches shared beds with female athletes, crude jokes about sexual conquests were frequently shared and coaches frequently commented to the female athletes about their weight and body types.

“Male coaches, including Foley, would slap female athletes’ butts when they finished their races, even though the coaches would not similarly slap the butts of male athletes,” the lawsuit said. “Physical assault did not stop with slapping butts. Notably, a female athlete once spilled barbeque sauce on her chest while eating and a male coach approached her and licked it off her chest without warning or her consent.”

The USOPC and USSS knew of Foley’s behavior but did nothing to stop it, the lawsuit said. It depicted Foley as an all-powerful coach who could make and break athletes’ careers on the basis of how they got along off the mountain.

Foley’s attorney, Howard Jacobs, did not immediately return requests for comment from The Associated Press. Jacobs has previously said allegations of sexual misconduct against Foley are false.

In a statement, the USOPC said it had not seen the complaint and couldn’t comment on specific details but that “we take every allegation of abuse very seriously.”

“The USOPC is committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of Team USA athletes, and we are taking every step to identify, report, and eliminate abuse in our community,” the statement said.

It wasn’t until the Olympics in Beijing last year that allegations about Foley’s behavior and the culture on the snowboarding team started to emerge.

Allegations posted on Instagram by former team member Callan Chythlook-Sifsof — who, along with former team member Erin O’Malley, is a plaintiff along with Fletcher — led to Foley’s removal from the team, which he was still coaching when the games began.

That posting triggered more allegations in reporting by ESPN and spawned an AP report about how the case was handled between USSS and the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is ultimately responsible for investigating cases involving sex abuse in Olympic sports. The center has had Foley on temporary suspension since March 18, 2022.

The AP typically does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault unless they have granted permission or spoken publicly, as Fletcher, Chythlook-Sifsof and O’Malley have done through a lawyer.

USSS said it was made aware of the allegations against Foley on Feb 6, 2022, and reported them to the SafeSport center.

“We are aware of the lawsuits that were filed,” USSS said in a statement. “U.S. Ski & Snowboard has not yet been served with the complaint nor has had an opportunity to fully review it. U.S. Ski & Snowboard is and will remain an organization that prioritizes the safety, health and well-being of its athletes and staff.”

The lawsuits seek unspecified damages to be determined in a jury trial.

Oleksandr Abramenko, Ukraine’s top Winter Olympian, tears knee, career in question

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Aerials skier Oleksandr Abramenko, who won both of Ukraine’s medals over the last two Winter Olympics, is out for the season after a knee ligament tear and said he might not return to competition at all, according to Ukrainian media.

Abramenko, 34, won gold at the 2018 Olympics — Ukraine’s second-ever individual Winter Olympic title after figure skater Oksana Baiul in 1994 — and silver last year.

He competed once this season, placing 10th at a World Cup in Finland on Dec. 4, and then flew with the Ukrainian national team to stay in Utah ahead of World Cups in Canada in January and at the 2002 Olympic venue in Park City this weekend. The area also hosted many Ukraine winter sports athletes this past summer.

Abramenko missed the competition in Canada two weeks ago due to injury and then wasn’t on the start list for today’s aerials event in Park City. He is set to miss the world championships later this month in Georgia (the country, not the state).

Abramenko said he needs surgery, followed by a nine-month rehabilitation process, similar to an operation on his other knee six years ago, according to Ukraine’s public broadcaster. He said he will see how the recovery goes and determine whether to return to the sport at age 35, according to the report.

Abramenko is already the oldest Olympic men’s aerials medalist and come the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games will be older than all but one male aerialist in Olympic history, according to Olympedia.org.

At last year’s Olympics, Abramenko, Ukraine’s flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony, was hugged after the aerials final by Russian Ilya Burov, who finished one spot behind Abramenko for a bronze medal. A week later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

A week after that, Abramenko posed for a photo sitting on a mattress in a Kyiv parking garage with his wife and 2-year-old son published by The New York Times.

“We spend the night in the underground parking in the car, because the air attack siren is constantly on,” Abramenko texted, according to the newspaper. “It’s scary to sleep in the apartment, I myself saw from the window how the air defense systems worked on enemy missiles, and strong explosions were heard.”

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