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Farewell, Korea: First of three straight Asian Olympics ends

February 25, 2018

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — It began with politics. It ends with … politics. In between, humanity’s most extraordinary feats of winter athletic prowess unfolded, revealing the expected triumphs but also stars most unlikely — from favorites like Mikaela Shiffrin, Shaun White and Lindsey Vonn to sudden surprise legends like Czech skier-snowboarder Ester Ledecka and the medal-grabbing “Garlic Girls,” South Korea’s hometown curling favorites.

Pyeongchang closes its chapter of the 122-year-old modern Olympic storybook on Sunday night with countless tales to tell — tales of North Korea and Russia, of detente and competitive grit and volunteerism and verve, of everything from an uncomfortable viral outbreak to an athlete’s boozy joyride.

And above it all: unforgettable experiences for meticulously trained athletes from around the world, all gathered on a mountainous plateau on the eastern Korean Peninsula to test for themselves — and demonstrate to the world — just how excellent they could be.

“We have been through a lot so that we could blaze a trail,” said Kim Eun-jung, skip of the South Korean women’s curling team, which captured global renown as the “Garlic Girls” — all from a garlic-producing Korean hometown. They made a good run for gold before finishing with runner-up silver.

Other trailblazers: Chloe Kim, American snowboarder extraordinaire. The U.S. women’s hockey team and men’s curlers, both of which claimed gold. And the Russian hockey team, with its nail-biting, overtime victory against Germany.

That these games would be circumscribed by politics was a given from the outset because of regional rivalries. North Korea, South Korea, Japan and China are neighbors with deep, sometimes twisted histories that get along uneasily with each other in this particular geographic cul-de-sac.

But there was something more this time around. Hanging over the entire games was the saga — or opportunity, if you prefer — of a delicate diplomatic dance between the Koreas, North and South, riven by war and discord and an armed border for the better part of a century.

The games started with a last-minute flurry of agreements to bring North Koreans to South Korea to compete under one combined Koreas banner. Perish the thought, some said, but Moon Jae-in’s government stayed the course. By the opening ceremony, a march of North and South into the Olympic Stadium was watched by the world — and by dozens of North Korean cheerleaders applauding in calibrated synchronicity.

Also watching was an equally extraordinary, if motley, crew. Deployed in a VIP box together were Moon, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s envoy sister, Kim Yo Jong. The latter two, at loggerheads over North Korea’s nuclear program, didn’t speak, and the world watched the awkwardness.

What followed was a strong dose of athletic diplomacy: two weeks of global exposure for the Korean team, particularly the women’s hockey squad, which trained for weeks with North and South side by side getting along, taking selfies and learning about each other.

On Sunday night, the closing ceremony will bookend those politics with U.S. President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, in attendance as well as Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee and a man suspected of masterminding a lethal 2010 military attack on the South.

There’s no reason to believe that the uneasy VIP-box scene will repeat itself. There’s also no reason to believe it will not. But the outcome could provide a coda to an extraordinary two weeks of Olympic political optics — and offer hints of the Trump administration’s approach in coming weeks as it tries to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and deals with the North-South thaw.

That wasn’t all when it came to these odd games. Let’s not forget Russia — or, we should say, “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” the shame-laced moniker they inherited after a doping brouhaha from the 2014 Sochi Games doomed them to a non-flag-carrying Pyeongchang Games.

But two more Russian athletes tested positive in Pyeongchang in the past two weeks. So on Sunday morning, the IOC refused to reinstate the team in time for the closing but left the door open for near-term redemption from what one exasperated committee member called “this entire Russia drama.”

What’s next for the games? Tokyo in Summer 2022, then Beijing — Summer host in 2008 — staging an encore, this time for a Winter Games. With the completion of the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, that Olympic trinity marks one-third of a noteworthy Olympic run by Asia.

For those keeping score at home: That means four of eight Olympic Games between 2008 and 2022 will have taken place on the Asian continent. Not bad for a region that hosted only four games in the 112 years of modern Olympic history before that — Tokyo in 1964, Sapporo in 1972, Seoul in 1988 and Nagano in 1998. Japan and China will, it’s likely, be highly motivated to outdo South Korea (and each other).

Meantime, the Olympians departing Monday leave behind a Korean Peninsula full of possibility for peace, or at least less hostility. The steps taken by North and South toward each other this month are formidable but fluid. People are cautiously optimistic: the governor of Gangwon, the border province where Pyeongchang is located, suggested Sunday that the 2021 Asian Games could be co-hosted by both Koreas.

It might not happen. But it could. That could be said about pretty much anything at an Olympic Games, inside the rings and out. Corporate and political and regimented though it may be, that’s what makes it still the best game in town for an athletic thrill every other year — and yes, sometimes a political one, too.


Russian curler stripped of Olympic medal, country pays fee

February 22, 2018

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Within hours of curler Alexander Krushelnitsky being stripped of a bronze medal for a doping violation, the Russian Olympic Committee said it had paid a $15 million fee that was part of the criteria to have its team reinstated at the Pyeongchang Games.

Russia’s team was officially banned from the games because of widespread doping at the Sochi Olympics four years ago, but 168 Russians were allowed by the IOC to compete as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” under the Olympic flag.

The IOC is due to decide Saturday whether to formally reinstate the Russian team for the closing ceremony the following day. With the doping case against Krushelnitsky shaping as a potential impediment, the Russians moved to settle the matter quickly.

Krushelnitsky waived his right to a hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, despite denying that he knowingly took a banned substance, and agreed that his doping samples taken at the Pyeongchang Games contained meldonium.

On Thursday, CAS disqualified Krushelnitsky’s results from the Olympics, withdrew his credential and referred his doping case to the international curling federation to determine a suspension from competition.

The Russian Olympic Committee issued a statement saying it had returned the bronze medal which Krushelnitsky and his wife, Anastasia Bryzgalova, won in the mixed doubles. It also confirmed an investigation into how the banned substances got into his system has been launched.

“The results of the doping samples taken at the Olympics are not challenged,” the Russian delegation said in a statement. “The follow-up investigation will be carried out jointly by the law enforcement agencies, the Russian Curling Federation, and the athletes to establish all the circumstances of this case.”

The Russian committee also outlined its push to meet the criteria for reinstatement that were set by the IOC’s executive board last December. “One of (the criteria) is the payment of the amount of $15 million for the development of the global anti-doping system and the facilitation of cooperation in this area between the IOC, the WADA and international sports federations,” the statement said. “As of now, the ROC has paid this amount in full.

“Thus, all the financial covenants toward the Russian Olympic Committee in order to lift its suspension have been fulfilled.” Discussions between Olympic and Russian officials have been going on behind the scenes at the Winter Games, including a meeting between IOC President Thomas Bach and Igor Levitin, a former Russian minister of transport and adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

IOC spokesman Mark Adams confirmed the meeting happened but said it lasted four minutes and the main purpose was for Bach to wish Levitin a happy 66th birthday. Adams said Bach and Levitin “may have talked about something else,” but he declined to speculate what that might have been.

CAS said its decision was based on written evidence and Krushelnitsky accepted a provisional suspension beyond the Olympics, but “reserved his rights to seek the elimination or reduction of any period of ineligibility based on ‘no fault or negligence.'”

Norwegian pair Magnus Nedregotten and Kristin Skaslien, who placed fourth in the mixed doubles after losing 8-4 to the Russians, were expected to be elevated to the bronze. Russian curling officials have said they believe Krushelnitsky’s food or drink could have been spiked with meldonium either by Russia’s political enemies or by jealous Russian rival athletes who had not made the Olympic team.

Dmitry Svishchev, president of Russia’s curling federation, said he hoped the loss of the medal was temporary. “This is by no means an admission of guilt, nor an end to the fight for our guys’ honor,” Svishchev said.

Krushelnitsky and Bryzgalova became the first Russians to participate in the Pyeongchang Games when they competed in a preliminary-round game on Feb. 8, the day before the opening ceremony. A statement in Krushelnitsky’s name published by state news agency Tass said the curler accepted meldonium had been found in his sample but that he had not doped intentionally.

“I accept a formal breach of the current anti-doping rules,” he was quoted as saying. The statement said it would be “useless and senseless” for Krushelnitsky and Bryzgalova to fight the doping case during the Olympics but added that they considered themselves “clean athletes.”

Abramenko’s aerials win gives Ukraine rare Olympic gold

February 18, 2018

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — Growing up in Ukraine, Oleksandr Abramenko’s father pushed him toward sports. Well, one sport actually. Soccer. The problem? His son wasn’t feeling it. “I felt like extreme sports were my thing,” Abramenko said.

Good call. The 29-year-old made history on Sunday night, becoming the first man to win an individual Winter Olympic medal for Ukraine when he edged China’s Jia Zongyang in a tight aerials final. Abramenko and Jia both attempted the same jump in the last round, a back full, double full. Both of them executed it with precision. Both of them left Abramenko and Jia believing they had won.

Abramenko turned a Ukrainian flag into a cape and raced around when his score of 128.51 was posted. The score stood after Canada’s Olivier Rochon and Stanislau Hladchenko of Belarus both washed out in their last attempts, leaving only Jia.

Jumping last, Jia drilled his attempt and turned toward the landing hill with his arms raised in triumph. Abramenko seemed to cede he’d been beat, scooting over a bit toward the silver-medal position while waiting for Jia’s score to flash.

There was no need. Jia’s score of 128.05 was just short of gold and just enough for Abramenko to celebrate a milestone achievement. “I still can’t believe that I actually earned a gold medal,” Abramenko said. “I was hoping for any medal really.”

The only other gold medals won by the Ukraine at the Winter Games came in 1994, when Oksana Baiul captured the title in women’s figure skating, and in 2014, when the women’s biathlon team earned the top spot in a relay. Ukraine is a force at the Summer Games, capturing 11 medals in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 in sports ranging from fencing to wrestling to canoeing to gymnastics.

Success in the Winter Olympics has been more difficult to come by, which made Abramenko’s breakthrough all the more stunning. Maybe it shouldn’t have been. Sunday night marked a slow, steady climb to the podium. He was 27th in Turin in 2006, 24th in Vancouver in 2010 and sixth in Sochi four years ago.

“This is historic for me and I am actually writing the history of Ukrainian sport and the history of my sport as well,” Abramenko said. Jia initially seemed less than thrilled with silver. He stuck his index finger out while on the medal stand, seeming to signal he was No. 1. He downplayed it afterward, saying the score indicated there’s still a little bit of room for improvement.

“For me myself, I’m quite satisfied but for my country and my team there is still a bit of pity,” Jia said. The silver gave China three medals in aerials in Pyeongchang after Zhang Xin and Kong Fanyu took silver and bronze in the women’s event on Friday night. Still, it also continued a weird trend for the Chinese, one of the strongest aerial teams in the world. The Chinese women have seven Olympic medals but no gold. The men’s program has four Olympic medals, but just one gold, something Jia hopes will change when the Games head to Beijing in 2022.

Ilia Burov, an Olympic athlete from Russia, earned bronze. The Russian contingent remains without a gold in South Korea after winning 13 in Sochi four years ago, though that number has dropped to 11 after two were stripped due to doping.

American Jon Lillis topped qualifying on Saturday and advanced to the second round of elimination but ran into form issues in the semifinals. Belarus, which had won at least one medal in every men’s aerials competition since 1998, failed to reach the podium when Hladchenko’s final jump ended with a spectacular wipeout.

More AP Olympic coverage:

Danish prince visits ailing father after leaving Olympics

February 10, 2018

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik has returned from the Winter Olympics in South Korea to visit his ailing father at a Copenhagen hospital. The royal household said Saturday that Frederik, the heir to Denmark’s throne, was joined by his mother, Queen Margrethe, and his wife during the visit late Friday.

The queen’s French-born husband, 83-year-old Prince Henrik, was hospitalized with a lung infection on Jan. 28. Last year, the palace announced Henrik was suffering from dementia. The palace said Friday that Frederik, an International Olympic Committee member, left the Winter Games in Pyeongchang because his father’s condition had “seriously worsened.”

Kim’s sister ends Olympic visit, leaving South to mull offer

February 11, 2018

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister headed home Sunday night after a whirlwind three days in South Korea, where she sat among world dignitaries at the Olympics and tossed a diplomatic offer to the South aimed at ending seven decades of hostility.

Kim Yo Jong and the rest of the North Korean delegation departed for Pyongyang on her brother’s private jet, a day after they delivered his hopes for a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during a lunch at Seoul’s presidential palace. It was a sharp, but possibly fleeting, contrast with many months of rising tensions connected to the North’s continued development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

They capped their final day in South Korea by joining Moon at a Seoul concert given by a visiting North Korean art troupe led by the head of the immensely popular Moranbong band, whose young female members are hand-picked by Kim Jong Un.

Accepting North Korea’s demand to transport more than 100 members of the art troupe by sea, South Korea treated the Mangyongbong-92 ferry as an exemption to the maritime sanctions it imposed on the North, a controversial move amid concerns that the North is trying to use the Olympics to poke holes in international sanctions.

South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon hosted the North Koreans for lunch Sunday before Moon’s chief of staff, Im Jong-seok, hosted them for dinner ahead of the concert. Kim Yo Jong, 30, is an increasingly prominent figure in her brother’s government and the first member of the North’s ruling family to visit the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The North Korean delegation also included the country’s 90-year-old head of state, Kim Yong Nam.

In dispatching the highest level of government officials the North has ever sent to the South, Kim Jong Un revealed a sense of urgency to break out of deep diplomatic isolation in the face of toughening sanctions over his nuclear program, analysts say.

“Honestly, I didn’t know I would come here so suddenly. I thought things would be strange and very different, but I found a lot of things being similar,” Kim said while proposing a toast at Sunday’s dinner, according to Moon’s office. “Here’s to hoping that we could see the pleasant people (of the South) again in Pyeongchang and bring closer the future where we are one again.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Sunday rejected any suggestion that even a temporary warming of relations between the North and South could drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. It’s too early to say, Mattis said, “if using the Olympics in a way to reduce tension – if that’s going to have any traction once the Olympics are over. We can’t say right now.”

South Korea accommodated both the North Korean government officials and members of the art troupe at the Walkerhill hotel in Seoul. The riverside facility is named after late U.S. Army commander Walton Walker, who’s considered a war hero in the South for his battles against the North during the Korean War. It was built in the 1960s under the government of late anti-communist dictator Park Chung-hee as a luxury facility for U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

The North Koreans went through a busy schedule in South Korea as the world watched their every move. They were whisked back and forth between Seoul and the Olympic towns of Pyeongchang and Gangneung. They shared the VIP box with world leaders at the opening ceremony and joined Moon in cheering for the first-ever inter-Korean Olympic team as it debuted in the women’s ice hockey tournament. Saturday’s game ended in a crushing 8-0 loss to Switzerland.

The most important part of the visit, however, came during one of the quieter moments. Invited by Moon for lunch at Seoul’s presidential palace, Kim Yo Jong verbally delivered her brother’s hope for a summit with Moon in Pyongyang, a meeting that she said would help significantly improve ties after an extended period of animosity.

“We hope that President (Moon) could leave a legacy that would last over generations by leading the way in opening a new era of unification,” she said, according to Moon’s office. Though Moon has used the Olympics to resurrect meaningful communication with North Korea after a diplomatic stalemate over its nuclear program, he didn’t immediately jump on the North Korean offer for a summit.

He said the Koreas should create an environment so that a summit could take place. He also called for the need of a quick resumption of dialogue between North Korea and the United States. After arriving in Seoul on Friday, the North Koreans attended a chilly opening ceremony at Pyeongchang’s Olympic Stadium, taking their place among world dignitaries, including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who seemed to go out of their way to not acknowledge the North Koreans despite sitting just few feet (meters) away.

Analysts say Kim Jong Un’s decision to send his sister to the South reflected an eagerness to break out of diplomatic isolation by improving ties with the South, which the country could eventually use as a bridge to approach the United States. The U.S.-led international community has been tightening the screws on North Korea with sanctions designed to punish its economy and rein in its efforts to expand its nuclear weapons and missile program, which now includes developmental long-range missiles targeting the U.S. mainland.

By also sending a youthful, photogenic individual who would surely draw international attention at the Olympics, Kim might have also been trying to construct a fresher image of the country, particularly in face of U.S. efforts to use the Olympics as an occasion to highlight the North’s brutal human rights record.

Always flanked by thick groups of bodyguards, Kim Yo Jong commanded attention wherever she went, walking among throngs of journalists with a quiet poise and occasionally shooting an enigmatic smile at cameras.

The Koreas previously held summits in 2000 and 2007, both hosted in Pyongyang by Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s late father. The previous meetings came after rounds of international talks aimed at eliminating the North’s nuclear program, which eventually failed.

Moon has always expressed a desire to reach out to North Korea. Reviving inter-Korean dialogue is critical for the policies of Moon, who insists that Seoul should be in control in international efforts to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue.

“The fate of our nation must be determined by our own selves — we must not allow the repeat of unfortunate past history where our fate was determined with no regard to our opinions,” Moon said in a speech to South Korean lawmakers in November.

But analysts say it may be more difficult for the South to arrange a summit with the North coming off a year in which Pyongyang test-fired dozens of missiles, including three ICBMs, and conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date.

South Korea may also need to persuade traditional allies the United States and Japan, which have raised concerns that the North is attempting to use its outreach as a release valve for international pressure.

Medvedeva dominates, but Canada leads team competition

February 11, 2018

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Not even a record performance by Russian figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva could put much of a crimp in Team Canada’s pursuit of Olympic gold. Medvedeva’s mesmerizing short program Sunday almost made everything else seem ordinary. Her 81.06 score broke her previous world mark as she virtually floated along the ice, nailing every element with a combination of technical skill and artistry that only she has perfected in recent years.

The 18-year-old two-time world champion smiled broadly as a group of her countrymen chanted “well done” in the stands. Her marks actually seemed a bit low for such an overwhelming routine. “I wasn’t nervous. I was focused, maybe too much,” Medvedeva said. “I have to relax a little bit, maybe.”

Imagine what she might do then. Still, the team gold doesn’t appear in reach for the Russians — officially competing as the “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” The team has 39 points heading into Monday’s free skates in the other three disciplines. Canada’s deep and powerful team has 45 points, and will be favored in free dance after two-time Olympic medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir laid down a superb short dance.

Canada also won the pairs free skate Sunday with Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, while Kaetlyn Osmond was third in the women’s short. “That was kind of what we were looking to do in the team competition, to nail a solid, season-best performance, but to have room to do it better next time,” Duhamel said. “If this was absolutely perfect it would be hard to know what to strive for next week (in the individual event).

“But I think we had a great short and a great long where we have room for improvement in both programs.” While Canada, which has stressed the importance of taking home the team gold for nearly four years after finishing second to host Russia in Sochi, the United States has been hopeful of replicating its third-place finish in 2014. That became more difficult Sunday when Italy surged within a single point, 36-35.

The difference between the two nations could come in the men’s event, where the United States appears stronger with Adam Rippon against Matteo Rizzo. “I think we have some really strong performances to come,” said Rippon, who replaced two-time U.S. champion Nathan Chen in the free skate. “For me, I just love being out here on the Olympic ice.”

Mirai Nagasu will step in for Bradie Tennell in the women’s event. Tennell was fifth in the short program, which cost the Americans some points because Italy’s Carolina Kostner, the 2014 women’s bronze winner, came in second.

Kostner’s graceful performance was highlighted by a series of exquisite spins. Her artistry can be spellbinding — sort of how figure skating used to be before the current focus on technical elements. She would be considered a favorite to finish ahead of Nagasu in the free skate, although Nagasu has a weapon none of the other skaters carries: a triple axel.

“What is going to happen is just going to add to the love I feel for the sport and the love I want to share with the audience,” said Kostner, 30 and in her fourth games. Her teammates, Valentina Marchei and Ondrej Hotarek, were sensational in the pairs free skate to place second, two spots in front of American champs Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim. That really tightened up the bronze race.

Marchei was so thrilled at the end of their routine she let out a scream heard over the cheering crowd. When their 138.44 was posted, Marchei screamed again in delight. Even with those Viva Italia moments, though, the day belonged to Canada. And, of course, to Medvedeva, who will step aside Monday for European champion Alina Zagitova — her training partner who snapped Medvedeva’s two-year winning streak at Euros.

“It’s not like I imagined, much calmer,” Medvedeva said of the Olympic environment, adding she won’t celebrate her record too much because “there’s a lot of work to come.”

Combined Korean hockey team makes historic Olympic debut

February 10, 2018

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — The Korean women’s hockey team, the first in Olympic history to combine players from North and South, took the ice Saturday night for their debut game in front of a raucous, sellout crowd on another historic night mixing sports and politics on an international stage.

The debut against Switzerland came just 24 hours after an extraordinary opening ceremony a few miles away was marked by signs of unity between the two rivals. Like the ceremony, the game included dignitaries from North and South in close proximity.

The powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Kim Yo Jong, was watching with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, according to Moon’s office. They were joined by North Korea’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam.

The two North Koreans are on a landmark visit to the South amid a flurry of abrupt reconciliation steps, and both attended the opening ceremony before having a luncheon with Moon at Moon’s presidential palace earlier Saturday. The North Koreans have invited Moon to visit Pyongyang in what would be the third inter-Korean summit talks since their 1945 division.

Fans roared every time a Korean got the puck on her stick and Han Soojin nearly put the team on the board with a shot from the left circle that hit the crossbar early in the first period. North Korean Jong Su Hyon had one of Korea’s three shots in the first.

Still, the Koreans were playing the world’s sixth-ranked team and trailed the Swiss 4-0 early in the second period, with Alina Muller scoring four times. Coach Sarah Murray played three North Korean forwards as required in the deal creating the team; she had to scratch three of her South Korean players for the game.

Dozens of North Korean cheering group members dressed in red were at the Kwandong Hockey Center to root for the Korean team. Earlier, hundreds of spectators lined the streets outside, chanting and waving small “unification flags” amid gusting, chilly winds. One man held up a sign that read, “The peace of all mankind.”

“We have to be unified (with North Korea). Politicians must let the Korean people meet and get together continuously,” said Park Sung-uk, a 48-year-old office worker who attended the game with his family. “I just want the unified team to do well in these Olympics.”

Fielding the joint hockey team was one of the key agreements the Koreas have struck after several rounds of talks at the border on how to cooperate during the Olympics, which run through Feb. 25. Athletes from North and South paraded together during the ceremony in the same white parkas, marching under a single “unification flag” depicting an undivided peninsula to the tune of their shared traditional folk song “Arirang” instead of their respective anthems. It was their first joint march since 2007.

The Korean hockey team is not expected to win a medal; both Koreas are ranked out of the world’s top 20. But its debut against Switzerland, which won bronze in the 2014 Olympics, had historic significance and symbolized fledgling unity between the rivals split along the world’s most heavily fortified border.

The North initially had no athletes coming to the Olympics, but the International Olympic Committee allowed 22 as special entries. Twelve female hockey players joined the 23-person South Korean team. The players have been the subject of intense scrutiny and the team was thrown together only two weeks ago, with limited time to practice. Two players, one South Korean and the other North Korean, appeared on the opening ceremony and climbed stairs together with the Olympic torch that they handed to Olympic champion figure skater Yuna Kim.

There was early criticism in South Korea that the new players would throw off team chemistry and cost South players time on the ice after working together for months to shine on the sport’s biggest stage. The team’s Canadian coach, Sarah Murray, initially expressed frustration over a team assembled so close to the Olympics, but she has recently said she is happy with her new players on a team she says now feels like family.

“They are awesome. I really enjoy having them here,” Murray told reporters after Friday’s training session. “We are excited for the tournament to get started.” The Koreas often use sports to find a breakthrough in their strained relations. The ongoing rapprochement mood flared after Kim Jong Un said in his New Year’s Day address that he was willing to send an Olympic delegation. Moon, a dove who wants to resolve the nuclear standoff diplomatically and peacefully, quickly responded to Kim’s outreach by offering talks.

Many experts say Kim’s overture is intended to use improved ties with Seoul as a way to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions toughened after its series of big weapons tests last year that include its sixth and largest nuclear test explosion and three intercontinental ballistic missile launches. Warming ties between the Koreas could complicate Seoul’s ties with Washington, which wants to maximize its pressures on Pyongyang.

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