Briefing: What to expect at the Olympics

The Games will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, from Feb. 9-25. South Korea's government has trumpeted the Games as an opportunity to improve relations with its northern neighbor.

Ha Sa-hun/ Yonhap via AP
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, poses while meeting with South Korean national short track skaters during a visit to Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, South Korea, on Jan. 17, 2018.

The Winter Olympics are coming to Asia for only the third time and feature new sports, with the aim of attracting a more diverse global audience.

Where is Pyeongchang?

Pyeongchang is the name of both a city and county in the rugged eastern mountains of the Korean Peninsula, just 50 miles from the demilitarized zone that separates North Korea and South Korea. Olympic organizers are capitalizing the “c” – making it PyeongChang – to avoid confusion with the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. (A Kenyan delegate to a United Nations conference flew to the wrong city by mistake in 2014 and was reportedly interrogated for five hours.)

With these Games, Pyeongchang hopes to put itself on the map as a winter sports destination rivaling those in Japan and China.

Does North Korea pose a threat?

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), Olympic organizers, and US State Department have maintained that there is no undue danger posed to the Games by North Korea and its nuclear program. In fact, following a Jan. 1 overture from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, his country and the South held talks resulting in an agreement for the North to send a delegation of athletes and others to the Games. A North Korean figure skating pair who perform to The Beatles had already qualified for the Olympics, and short-track speedskaters and cross-country skiers could also come. Athletes from both countries will enter the Games together behind a unity flag, and the governments have agreed to field a joint women's ice hockey team – which some South Koreans say is a step too far.

Pyeongchang is a compound of the Korean words for peace and prosperity, and South Korea has trumpeted the Games as an opportunity to improve relations with its northern neighbor.

What Olympic events are debuting this year?

There are four new events: mixed doubles in curling, a mass-start race in speedskating, and big-air competitions in snowboarding and freestyle skiing. The additions are aimed at improving youth appeal and attractiveness for television, the IOC says.

What sports is South Korea good at?

One event sure to be popular with locals is short-track speedskating. South Koreans hold seven of the 11 world records in the discipline, including both the men’s and women’s 3,000-meter relay. And at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, all eight of the Korean medals were won on ice – among them a silver in women’s figure skating.

Although tickets for many events start at 20,000 won (about $19), the tickets for short-track start at 150,000 won ($140), and the best seats cost 550,000 won ($515).

Why is Russia banned?

As host of the 2014 Olympics, Russia spent a record $51 billion and took away more medals than the Russian and Soviet teams had ever won at a Winter Games. But investigators concluded that they did so through a years-long doping program and sophisticated coverup operation – with a former Russian antidoping official-turned-whistle-blower detailing how they passed athletes’ tainted urine samples through a secret hole in the wall of the Olympic drug-testing lab and replaced them with previously collected clean samples.

The IOC ruled in December to ban Russia from competing as a team at the Olympics but to allow individual Russian athletes on a case-by-case basis. The controversial decision aimed to strike a balance between punishing the state sponsorship of doping while not unduly punishing athletes who were not involved.

Who are some top United States athletes to watch for?

Ice dancing’s brother-sister pair Alex and Maia Shibutani, who frequently feature Instagram videos of themselves as toddlers who clearly adored each other, bring a special presence to the ice. Nathan Chen is the only figure skater to have ever landed five quadruple jumps in competition. Mikaela Shiffrin, the world’s top woman alpine skier, is likely to add at least one medal to her 2014 gold in slalom. Kelly Clark, the 2002 Olympic gold medalist and snowboarding’s winningest athlete, is back for her fifth Games – and those she inspired, like 17-year-old phenom Chloe Kim, will be challenging her for another gold. The US women’s hockey team, which has overhauled its team culture, is seeking gold after a silver left the players disappointed in Sochi.

But the funny thing about the Olympics is that sometimes it’s not the favorites who win, but a dark horse who has the performance of a lifetime. That could help US biathletes Lowell Bailey and Susan Dunklee. They’re coming off a gold and silver, respectively, at the 2017 world championships and are looking to win their country’s first Olympic medals in the sport, which combines shooting and cross-country skiing. Speaking of which, no US woman has ever medaled in Olympic cross-country skiing – but this year the US women have a strong shot, especially in the team relays. Watch for them in their red, white, and blue knee socks powering up Pyeongchang’s hilly courses. 

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