Five Olympic gold medals up for grabs
PYEONGCHANG (AFP)-Five gold medals are up for grabs on the first day of full competition in the Winter Olympics Saturday, which features the debut of a unified Korean ice hockey team.
A day after a gala opening ceremony highlighted rapprochement with the two Koreas marching into the stadium together behind a blue and white unification flag, the joint women’s ice-hockey team backed by North Korea’s vocal cheerleaders takes on Switzerland in a preliminary match.
Elsewhere, gold medals are on offer in cross country skiing, biathlon, speed skating, short track speed skating and ski-jumping.
The unified ice hockey team for the Pyeongchang Olympics is a product of a landmark thaw between the rival Koreas following a year of high tensions over the nuclear-armed North’s weapons ambitions.
The diplomatic breakthrough was highlighted at Friday’s opening ceremony attended by North Korea’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam and the powerful sister of the North’s leader Kim Jong Un.
Of the 22 North Korean athletes taking part in the Games, 12 have joined the unified women’s hockey team who play Switzerland in Gangneung on Saturday evening.
The Koreans are rank outsiders in the tournament for which they only qualified by virtue of being the host nation and are likely to suffer defeat against the Swiss.
The first gold medal of the 2018 Olympics is likely to come in cross country skiing.
Marit Bjoergen of Norway is the favourite to pick up the gold in the women’s cross country skiathlon, for a hat-trick of consecutive Olympic titles.
Bjoergen, world champion in the event, claimed gold in Vancouver in 2010 and again in Sochi four years later.
If successful in Pyeongchang, the 37-year-old will become the first cross-country skier, man or woman, to win three Olympic gold medals in one individual event.
Her strongest challenge comes from another Norwegian, Heidi Weng, who leads the World Cup standings this season.
In speed skating, the racer to watch is Dutch woman Ireen Wust, hoping to repeat her victories in 2006 and 2014 with a win in the women’s 3000m.
Wust could also become only the second Dutch athlete to successfully defend an Olympic title since the legendary Sven Kramer’s back-to-back golds at 5000m in 2010 and 2014.
Short-track speed skating makes its Pyeongchang debut with South Korea’s best hope for a haul of gold medals, Choi Min-jeong, starting her campaign for a 500m qualifiers.
In biathlon, in-form Anastasia Kuzmina of Slovakia, is tipped to take the sprint title for the third time following victories at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.
In ski-jumping, Poland’s Kamil Stoch was second in men’s normal hill qualification and goes into Friday’s final with a strong chance of claiming his first gold of the 2018 Games to add to two from Sochi in 2014.