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.

Alpine skiing to test new format for combined race

Alpine Skiing Combined
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Alpine skiing officials will test a new format for the combined event, a race that is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

French newspaper L’Equipe reported that the International Ski Federation (FIS) will test a new team format for the combined, which has been an individual event on the Olympic program since 1988. L’Equipe reported that a nation can use a different skier for the downhill and slalom in the new setup, quoting FIS secretary general Michel Vion.

For example, the U.S. could use Breezy Johnson in the downhill run and sub her out for Mikaela Shiffrin in the slalom run, should the format be adopted into senior competition.

The format will be tested at the world junior championships in January in St. Anton, Austria, according to the report.

In response to the report, a FIS spokesperson said, “Regarding the new format of the combined is correct, and our directors are working on the rules so for the moment the only thing we can confirm is that there will be this new format for the Alpine combined that has been proposed by the athletes’ commission.”

Some version of the combined event has been provisionally included on the 2026 Olympic program, with a final IOC decision on its place coming by April.

This will be the third consecutive World Cup season with no combined events. Instead, FIS has included more parallel races in recent years. The individual combined remains on the biennial world championships program.

L’Equipe also reported that the mixed team parallel event, which is being dropped from the Olympics, will also be dropped from the biennial world championships after this season.

“There is nothing definitive about that yet, but it is a project in the making,” a FIS spokesperson said in commenting on the report.

Vion said the mixed team event, which debuted at the Olympics in 2018, was not a hit at the Beijing Games and did not draw a strong audience, according to L’Equipe.

The World Cup season starts in two weeks with the traditional opening giant slaloms in Soelden, Austria.

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Ironman Kona World Championships return, live on Peacock

Ironman Kona World Championship
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The Ironman Kona World Championships return after a three-year hiatus with a new format, live on Peacock on Thursday and Saturday at 12 p.m. ET.

The Ironman, held annually in Hawaii since 1978, and in Kailua-Kona since 1981, was not held in 2020 or 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The world championships made a one-time-only stop in St. George, Utah, on May 7 to make up for the 2021 cancellation. The winners were Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt, the Tokyo Olympic triathlon champion, and Swiss Daniela Ryf, who bagged her fifth Ironman world title.

WATCH LIVE: Ironman Kona men’s pro race, Saturday, 12 p.m. ET — STREAM LINK

Both entered Kailua-Kona, where the races were now split between two days — Thursday for the women and Saturday for the men. Chelsea Sodaro won the women’s race, ending a 20-year American victory drought.

An Ironman includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a marathon — totaling 140.6 miles of racing. It takes top triathletes eight hours to complete. Very arguably, it crowns the world’s fittest man and woman.

Blummenfelt, 28 and in his Kona debut, will try to become the youngest male champion in Kona since German Normann Stadler in 2005. His top challengers include countryman Gustav Iden, the two-time reigning Half Ironman world champion, and German Patrick Lange, the 2017 and 2018 Ironman Kona winner.

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