SEOUL: The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will open in sub-zero temperatures on Friday, with North and South Korea marching together at a gala ceremony to launch what could be the coldest Games on record.
Russia, banned from the Games over a state-sponsored doping conspiracy, will nevertheless be represented by one of the biggest delegations, although Russian athletes will march behind a neutral flag.
Shivering athletes are bracing for one of the coldest Winter Olympics yet, with temperatures plunging well below zero, while a debilitating nor virus bug has already infected more than 100 people working at the Games.
Dubbed the “Peace Olympics” by the South Korean government, the Games have ushered in an apparent thaw in ties with the nuclear-armed North, after months of fiery rhetoric and weapons tests.
The United States government is represented by the hawkish Vice-President Mike Pence, who will be accompanied by Fred Warmbier, father of Otto Warmbier who died aged 22 after being detained in North Korea for a petty offence last year.
Underlining the complexities of the Korean peninsula, just a day before the ceremony the North Koreans issued a timely reminder that peace diplomacy is backed by military might.
On Thursday, fireworks lit up the sky and goose-stepping soldiers and ballistic missiles paraded through the North Korea capital to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the country’s armed forces.
Twenty-two North Korean athletes are taking part, but only pair’s skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik have a real shot at a medal.
North Korea’s glamorous cheerleaders are expected to make a bigger impact than their athletes. More than 200 sharply dressed young women, dubbed the “Army of Beauties”, will be cheering on their competitors from the stands. Some are also expected to attend the opening ceremony.
‘Ice Prince’ and Chloe Kim
Expectations are sky-high for an array of stars at Pyeongchang, including American skiers Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn, while the drama in figure skating centres on whether Japan’s “Ice Prince” Yuzuru Hanyu can recover from injury to retain his crown.
Potential winners also include French flag-bearer Martin Fourcade in biathlon, hoping to add to his two gold medals earned in Sochi in 2014. Alpine giant slalom great Marcel Hirscher of Austria is among the gold medal hunters, alongside women’s downhill legend Lindsey Vonn of the United States.
The sensational 15-year-old Alina Zagitova of Russia will take the spotlight in women’s figure skating, where a showdown is expected with her fellow Russian teen, Evgenia Medvedeva.
Another teenage breakout star could be Chloe Kim, 17, the American whose parents are Korean and who is tipped for gold in snowboard as well as adulation by the host nation.
For the South Koreans, major home hopes rest on the slender shoulder of yet another teenage girl. In short track speedskating, 19-year-old Choi Min-jeong is among the favourites for a gold-medal slam of all four races.
The International Olympic Committee last year issued a blanket ban on Russian athletes taking part in the Olympics following the doping scandal, but also allowed more than 160 “clean” competitors to compete under a neutral flag.
However, legal battles launched by excluded athletes have tarnished the build-up to the Games. Only hours before the opening ceremony, the Court of Arbitration for Sport threw out a bid by 47 more Russians to compete at Pyeongchang.