Preview: the Winter Olympics

After four years, the Winter Olympics is back. Sports editor Seoras Lyall previews the games, including the political context; sports to watch, and British medal prospects.

Winter Olympics by Edward Emery

On Friday 9 February, the Winter Olympics will begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The build-up has unfortunately had little to do with the 15 sports that will take place over the two-and-a-half-week games. Instead, much of the focus has been in the remarkable thawing of relations between the host nation and their belligerent neighbour, North Korea. Yet putting aside the usual political undertones of the Olympics, there are several British medal prospects to look out for, as well as some exciting sports that will make the nine-hour time difference worth enduring.

The Political Context

Without turning this into an international relations paper, it is important to highlight the apparent détente between the two Koreas, as their talks have dominated the leadup to the games. In 2017, the North was particularly hostile, buoyed by the fire and fury rhetoric of President Trump and their apparent success in becoming capable of carrying out a nuclear strike on anywhere in mainland America. Despite this, the North has agreed not to disrupt the games, in return for not discussing at all the prospects of the denuclearisation of the North.

As a statement of unity and in the hopes of stimulating peace talks, North Korea has been allowed to compete in the games. Their ice skating duo Ryom-Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, the country’s only athletes to legitimately qualify, will compete. The nation will also be able to send a skiing team, and can send their cheer squad which are a major propaganda tool for dictator Kim Jong-un. The two Koreas will march under a united flag at the opening ceremony, and they will combine their women’s ice hockey team.

Even North Korea’s pre-eminent girl group Moranbong Band will be a part of two performances during the Olympics. Whilst all this seems promising and has certainly brought excellent publicity for the games, it is difficult to tell if this diplomatic break will have any impact on peace talks. While one can hope that the spirit of the games will jump-start the end of the Korean War, realism would say otherwise.

Sports to Watch

Focusing on the sport itself, Pyeongchang promises to host another thrilling Winter Olympics. With fifteen sports to watch, all seeming complex, there are a few that are certainly worth a glimpse. Of course, ice hockey is likely to be the most popular sport for casual viewers. While the NHL will not be allowing its stars to compete, there is still plenty to look out for. The Canadians will once again be strong favourites to retain their title after victory last time out in Sochi. Not to mention, the great nation of “Olympics Athletes from Russia” will also be competing after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) allowed only certain Russian competitors to travel following doping allegations.

Another sport to look out for is ski/snowboard cross. It is considered part of the wider sport of freestyle skiing/snowboarding. Making its first appearance at the Olympics only eight years ago, it has fast become a fan favourite for its unpredictability, fast pace, and skill. Essentially, four competitors race each other down a carefully constructed course featuring turns and jumps that are either natural or artificial. Given how close together the skiers are and how fast they are going, crashes are common, and bravery is essential. Last time at Sochi the French took all three podium spots in the mens, while the Canadian women took Gold and Silver.

However, no discussion of the Winter Olympics is complete without mentioning the Blue-ribbon event, the men’s downhill. The equivalent of the 100 metre sprint at the summer games, this branch of the alpine skiing scene is the headline event of the Games. Last time out Austrian Matthias Mayer took gold, and the country will expect to do well again, having won a medal in the event in every games bar three. In the women’s, American Mikaela Shiffren will look to defend her slalom title, after winning it in Sochi at the age of just 18. She goes into the Games as also the overall world champion.

British Medal Prospects

From a British perspective, there is much to look forward to. In 2014 Team GB had their most successful Winter Olympics since 1924, winning four medals including a gold in skeleton courtesy of Lizzy Yarnold. However, UK sport has set them the target of five medals. She will certainly be in with a chance this time around, as she looks to become the first ever Briton to defend her title. Skeleton is a sport that Team GB has found to be a reliable source of medals, having won one in every games since it was reintroduced in 2002.

Another athlete from the previous games also stands a serious chance of a medal. Short track speed skater Elise Christie was infamously disqualified in all three of her races at Sochi, but she goes into these games now as a triple-time world champion. Team GB’s best chance of a medal lies with her.

Curling will also fancy their chances of a medal. Having won two last time out, Eve Muirhead’s women’s side will be looking to add to their European gold and World Championship bronze. Keep an eye out also for Slalom skier Dave Ryding. He has been a consistent performer at World Cup events. Most recently, he finished ninth at Kitzbuhel.


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