PYEONGchang, South Korea – The competition at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics gets underway on Thursday with events in alpine skiing, biathlon, luge, curling and ski jumping, ahead of the official opening of the Winter Games on Friday night.
The Pyeongchang Games mark the first Winter Olympics in Asia since the 1998 Nagano Games and the second time South Korea has hosted the Olympics. It staged the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to attend the opening ceremony along with a host of other foreign dignitaries including United States Vice President Mike Pence.
The extravaganza will take place with two significant issues — nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula and the 2014 Sochi doping scandal — still casting a significant shadow over the proceedings.
The nuclear tensions have subsided for the time being, with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un extending an olive branch in a New Year’s Day speech, and South Korea responding through its “Peace Olympics Initiative” by agreeing to have the two nations march together at the opening ceremony and field a combined women’s hockey team.
South Korea is making it clear that the temporary respite in animosity is not an end to a means and that serious work remains ahead on the hot-button issue.
In a carefully crafted newsletter that was published by the Korean Culture and Information Service and placed in the seat jacket of everyone arriving in Pyeongchang by the newly unveiled high-speed KTX train, the government wrote:
“It is more desirable to discuss pending issues between the two Koreas, including the North Korean nuclear issues, and make efforts to improve inter-Korean relations rather than hesitating to talk to the North because of the nuclear problem.
“The South Korean government intends to support North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics to the extent that it does not compromise the framework of the international community’s sanctions against the North.”
The Sochi doping scandal, which caused the International Olympic Committee to prohibit Russia from competing in Pyeongchang under its own flag, is far from resolved. The IOC decided that the eligibility of Russia athletes would be decided on a case-by-case basis and they would be allowed to compete as “Olympic Athletes of Russia.”
This has left many of the other nations competing here outraged. Matters got more convoluted last week when the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland reinstated 21 Russian athletes who had appealed their bans after analysis of their samples from the Sochi Games.
Controversy aside, Japan’s best hopes for medals in Pyeongchang will come in figure skating, speedskating, snowboarding, ski jumping and ice hockey.
The condition of superstar defending Olympic and world men’s figure skating champion Yuzuru Hanyu remains shrouded in mystery, following a serious tendon injury to his ankle at practice before the NHK Trophy in November in Osaka. After an extended period of recovery, Hanyu has been training in seclusion in Toronto.
A positive note did emerge on Monday, however, when Hanyu’s coach Brian Orser told media that “all of his (Hanyu’s quads) look good except for the quad lutz (the jump he was injured attempting in November.)”
In addition to Hanyu, world silver medalist Shoma Uno is a serious contender for a medal here. In the women’s event, four-time national champion Satoko Miyahara and rising star Kaori Sakamoto are both in the running to make the podium.
Nao Kodaira is Japan’s best hope in speedskating. She could possibly win the gold in both the 500 and 1,000 meters. Kodaira is the world record holder in the 1,000 and ranked No. 1 in the world in the 500 this season.
Ayumu Hirano will be gunning for gold in the men’s halfpipe. Hirano was the silver medalist in Sochi.
Sara Takanashi and Yuki Ito will vie for medals in women’s ski jumping. Takanashi was the favorite for gold in Sochi, but finished a disappointing fourth. Ito placed seventh in Russia.
Japan’s women’s hockey team “Smile Japan” is a contender for the bronze medal here behind powerhouses Canada and the U.S., who have won all of the previous golds and silvers in the event.
There is no word yet on who will light the Olympic Flame at the opening ceremony, but skating great Yuna Kim is likely a good bet.