In cold, poor South Korean mountains, Winter Olympics begin

President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach takes, right, and United Nations President of the General Assembly Miroslav Lacjak take part in the Pyeongchang 2018 Torch Relay ahead of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. (AP)
Updated 09 February 2018
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In cold, poor South Korean mountains, Winter Olympics begin

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea: The world starts watching now. At least, when it comes to sports.
After two failed bids, billions of dollars in preparation and a nagging national debate about whether it’s all worth it, the Winter Olympics open Friday in Pyeongchang with a gala ceremony meant to showcase South Korea’s rise from poverty and war into one of Asia’s most modern nations.
The isolated, rugged mountain town of Pyeongchang, one of the poorest, coldest and most disgruntled parts of an otherwise prosperous South Korea, will be a global player for two weeks of winter sports, Olympic spectacle and, just maybe, a bit of inter-Korean reconciliation.
There will be plenty of sporting drama for both die-hard snow and ice junkies and the once-every-four-years enthusiast.
Will the Russians who aren’t Russians — the 168 who have been invited as “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” competing in neutral uniforms under the Olympic flag — bring home gold? Will Patrick Chan of Canada hit his quad jumps and claim figure skating glory?
Can reigning men’s gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan overcome injury and defend his title against Chan? Will the past and present star of American skiing, Lindsey Vonn, be surpassed by the likely future of the sport, Mikaela Shiffrin?
But the athletic aspect of these games has been overshadowed in the buildup to the opening ceremony by a frenzied, increasingly momentous fire-hose spray of political developments. The rival Koreas, flirting with war just weeks ago, are suddenly making overtures toward the no-longer-quite-so-absurd notion of cooperation.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s sister, making an unprecedented visit to South Korean soil, will now likely attend the same opening ceremony as US Vice President Mike Pence, who’s vowing toughest-ever sanctions on the North. Could they meet? That and other theories have engulfed South Korean media.
Pyeongchang was not supposed to share the spotlight with Pyongyang. This was not supposed to be, as some in Seoul grumble, the “Pyongyang Games,” a play on the North Korean capital’s phonetic similarity to Pyeongchang.
After two failed Olympic bids that emphasized the high-sounding notion that the games could help make peace with North Korea, Pyeongchang finally sold its successful try in 2011 on the decidedly capitalistic goal of boosting winter sports tourism in Asia.
But North Korea has a habit of not letting itself be ignored when it comes to its southern rival.
Its agents blew up a South Korean airliner ahead of the 1988 Seoul Olympics in an attempt to dissuade visitors; then it boycotted its rival’s Olympic debut on the world stage. A few years later, the discovery of the huge progress Pyongyang had been surreptitiously making on its nuclear programs plunged the Korean Peninsula into crisis. It has only deepened over the years as the North closes in on the ability to field an arsenal of nukes that can hit US cities.
And so, with a little help from a liberal South Korean president eager to engage Pyongyang, the 2018 Pyeongchang Games open.
They do so with as much focus on the North, which has zero real medal contenders, as the South, which in the three decades since its last Olympics has built a solid winter program as it went from economic backwater and military dictatorship to Asia’s fourth-biggest economy and a bulwark of liberal democracy.
Could Pyeongchang’s initial pitch — that it could contribute to peace on the Korean Peninsula — actually become reality? The opening ceremony will offer at least some hints about that, and maybe more. What’s certain is that these Games, more so than any in recent memory, are about far more than sports.


Saudi Arabia's young athletes return from Youth Olympics with hope and expectation

Updated 19 October 2018
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Saudi Arabia's young athletes return from Youth Olympics with hope and expectation

  • Saudi young guns hopeful for future with glory at Tokyo and Paris Olympics on their minds.
  • Yousif Jalaiden, the Saudi delegation’s chef de mission, tells young stars 'the hard yards start now.'

BUENOS AIRES: With heavier hand-luggage and loftier dreams, the Saudi athletes who competed at this month’s Youth Olympic Games will arrive back in Riyadh on Saturday, their medals suggesting reaching Tokyo 2020 is a target as attainable as it is alluring.
The Kingdom brought nine athletes to Argentina and left with a historic gold in karate and two bronze, one each in weightlifting and the 400m hurdles. Mohammed Al-Assiri’s momentous triumph in the final of the Men’s Kumite -61kg on Wednesday night represented the county’s first Olympic gold at any level. It also ensured Buenos Aires will be remembered as Saudi Arabia’s greatest medal haul, eclipsing the one bronze and one silver secured at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. 
Al-Assiri, 16, was awarded SR1 million riyals by Turki Al-Sheikh, head of Saudi’s General Sports Authority, for his achievement. 
“Of course, we are delighted. We came here hopeful and we leave with our best ever performance,” said Yousif Jalaiden, the Saudi delegation’s chef de mission, before boarding the flight to Riyadh. “We expected two medals but hoped for three, although we did not know which colors they would be. To get the three and a gold, that’s why we are so happy. Thanks to God, it’s been a great success.”
The two-week campaign was somewhat of a slow-burner; the first seven days passing without as much as a glimpse of a medal for the delegation marked “KSA.” Swimming, taekwondo and fencing all failed to produce tangible reward, although the delegation’s youngest athlete, fencer Ali Saeed Al-Bahrani, took much consolation from the experience
“We will benefit a lot from this participation,” said the 15-year-old, who had been invited to contest the Men’s Sabre Individual and progressed through his group before being defeated in the last-16. “God-willing, this here will help us enjoy better success in the future.”
The midway point of the games marked a change in fortune — and provided genuine reasons for positivity ahead of the Olympic Games proper, which takes place in less than two years. Ali Yousef Al-Othman had finished third at the Asian Championships in April, but a dedicated training program and the assistance of Egyptian coach Khaled Qur’any helped him emulate that feat on the world stage. 
Al-Othman was understandably confident after accepting his bronze medal, telling Arab News that Tokyo is now at the forefront of his mind. “My dream was to win a medal at the Youth Olympics,” he said. “Now that dream has changed and I will work harder than ever to make Tokyo 2020 a reality.”
Qur’any, who has coached at the past two Olympics, however, was keen to keep his athlete’s feet on the ground, a feat possibly made trickier by the awarding of SR200,000.
“He is only 16, so I think Tokyo will come too soon for him,” Qur’any said. “Paris in 2024 is different — we would hope to be there. Ali has the potential, but there is a lot of work to be done before we can think of that.”
On the athletics track, Raghad Bu Arish won her heat in the 100m but her time was some distance off the pace. Mohammed Al-Muawi, meanwhile, benefited from the disqualification of South Africa’s Lindukhule Gora in the Men’s 400m hurdles to leap up a place and on to the podium. It was his first competitive event and the culmination of more than five months of training in California with American former World Championships silver medallist Ryan Wilson.  
“This medal is an amazing achievement for me,” said Al-Muawi, who was also awarded SR200,000. “I need to thank my coach. I hope to keep working with him. He always gives me so much support. Next year I have the Asian Championships and some Arab races, but of course I am dreaming about Tokyo. I want to challenge the best in the world, guys like Karsten Warholm from Norway and Abderrahman Samba.” 
The Asian Athletics Championships are scheduled to take place in Qatar next April, before the IAAF World Championships five months later. Jalaiden confirmed Saudi Arabia intends to send a delegation, adding he hopes the results in Buenos Aires can help inspire more victories at this level.
“We hope that we can take this success and build upon it ahead of Tokyo,” said Jalaiden. “And also use the experience here to help the next generation of Saudi athletes who will compete at the 2022 Youth Olympics (in Senegal). The hard work starts all over 
again now.”