The 23rd Winter Olympics open Friday to a sudden thaw in ties between North and South Korea, while athletes shiver in sub-zero temperatures and Russia’s doping scandal causes confusion and irritation on all sides.
Barely a month after rumblings of war on the Korean peninsula, with Pyongyang leader Kim Jong-Un threatening to rain nuclear destruction on the United States, North Korean athletes will march into the opening ceremony alongside South Koreans for what is touted as the “Peace Olympics.”
When the Olympic flame is lit in Pyeongchang, a previously little-known corner of South Korea, around 3,000 athletes from all over the world will compete for a record 102 gold medals in 15 sports until February 25.
Expectations are sky-high for an array of stars including American skiers Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn, while the big question in figure skating centres on whether Japan’s “Ice Prince” Yuzuru Hanyu can recover from injury to retain his crown.
Behind the scenes, Olympic officials are still scrambling to deal with the endless ramifications of Russia’s state-sponsored doping scandal, which has already blighted two Olympic Games.
After banning the entire team over the doping conspiracy, the IOC opened a loophole to allow more than 160 ‘clean’ athletes back in – and now more Russians are trying to force their way in through legal appeals.
But the welcome mat has been laid out for the North Koreans. In a gold-medal diplomatic performance, after months of silence on the issue, Pyongyang said it would be happy to send a delegation to the Games.
North and South have been divided by the Cold War’s last frontier since the 1950-1953 Korean war. Hostilities have never officially ceased, and occasional cross-border incidents punctuate a 70-year ceasefire.
However, a North Korean Olympic charm offensive is underway, spearheaded by its “army of beauties” all-female cheering squad, glamorous young women who stole Southern hearts when they first came over the border for the Busan Asian Games in 1992.
Since then, North Korea has gone nuclear, and sentiment among some South Koreans has hardened against the Pyongyang propaganda drive.
For the Olympics in Pyeongchang, 229 cheerleaders and other North Korean delegates crossed the border Wednesday and are registered to stay at a remote luxury hotel about two hours’ drive from the Olympic Stadium.
Many South Koreans support the thaw with the North, but protesters insist that the South has been too generous, saying North Korea’s Kim has been allowed to hijack the Games.
Demonstrators call them the “Pyongyang Olympics”, in a derisive reference to North Korea’s capital.
“We are at a state of war and we are inviting the prostitutes of our enemy,” one demonstrator at an anti-North Korean rally told AFP.
While Olympic officials are happy to see the North Koreans, they must surely wish the Russian doping controversy would simply vanish.
One of the International Olympic Committee’s senior members, former world anti-doping chief Dick Pound, rounded on his colleagues this week, saying the handling of the Russia crisis had seriously hit the credibility of the Olympic movement.
He said the IOC “has not only failed to protect clean athletes but has made it possible for cheating athletes to prevail against the clean athletes”.
Athletes, meanwhile are wrapping up against the brutal cold with temperatures plunging to minus 20 degrees centigrade in recent days.
Sub-zero conditions are expected for opening ceremony held in the open air stadium late on Friday, and many athletes say they may decide to stay away for health reasons.
The Winter Olympics are being watched for many things: sporting excellence, of course, but also for headway on the US-North Korea nuclear stand-off and even tentative rapprochements between Seoul and Pyongyang.
In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is commemorating the Games with an exhibition of Korean art, much of it displayed for the first time in the United States, and which introduces an acclaimed Korean natural wonder to a new audience.
That site is Mount Kumgang, in today’s North Korea, and renowned throughout the peninsula for its beauty. It’s where Pyongyang last week called off a joint cultural event, underscoring the fragility of the Games-led warming of ties between North and South Korea.
Thousands of South Koreans visited the area from the 1990s to 2008, until Seoul suspended the trips after a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean tourist who strayed into a restricted area.
The exhibition features nearly 30 paintings depicting what are known, in English, as the Diamond Mountains. For a decade largely inaccessible, ironically as the bird flies the site is not too far from where the Olympics will open in Pyeongchang on Friday.
Spanning the 18th century to the present, the delicate ink and colors on silk, scrolls, painted screens and contemporary works evoke a magical, even mystical terrain of jagged peaks, stunning views and steep trails.
“Given the mystery around this site in North Korea I hope that that will pique people’s interest,” said Soyoung Lee, curator in the Department of Asian Art at the museum and organizer of the exhibition.
“And through the art that has been created over the last 200 years or so, that people will come to also love this incredible, natural wonder.”
Called “Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art,” the exhibition opens on Wednesday and runs until May 20.
The highlight is an early 18th century album from the National Museum of Korea by Jeong Seon who revolutionized Korean painting by breaking with conventional generic imagery and depicting native scenery.
Included are two 1920s works by Scottish artist Elizabeth Keith, then one of only a handful of foreign visitors to Korea who wrote of her stay: “I would not have missed the grandeur for all the danger… The beauty of the climb was a revelation.”
The exhibition took three years to put together and most of works are on loan from institutions in South Korea. “Given the geopolitics,” Lee says, there was no contact with the North.
“The topic of the show is about travel and nostalgia,” she said. “We focused on the idea of inaccessibility and nostalgia from the South Koreans’ perspective.”
Bae Kidong, director general of the National Museum of Korea, expressed hope for future overseas collaborations.
“The history and art of Korea is not well known to the Western world,” he told AFP. “Korea has a very special culture, distinctive from Japanese or Chinese.”
Like Lee he hopes, one day, to visit in person. “You can see from the DMZ line the southern reaches of Diamond Mountain,” he said.
Provided by AFP Sport
Russia has been banned from sending a team to February’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
The International Olympic Committee announced the suspension of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) on Tuesday, meaning only invited Russian athletes will be allowed to compete and they will be considered neutral competitors.
The decision was reached after the IOC’s 14-strong executive board received a recommendation from a disciplinary commission set up to investigate claims Russia conducted a state-sponsored doping programme that culminated at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
As well as the immediate suspension of the ROC, the IOC announced a raft of sanctions against senior officials implicated in the scandal, including Russia’s deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko.
It has also fined the ROC 15 million US dollars (£11.16million) to reimburse the costs of the various investigations into Russia’s cheating and help set up the IOC’s new independent testing authority.