Israel sends largest ever winter games team to'Peace Olympics' in South Korea
Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV (AFP/File)
The South Korea edition of the Winter Olympics, which first made the news when Seoul decided to form a common team with rival North Korea, is set to kick off on Friday.
Alexi Bychenko, an Israeli skater who has been representing his country of birth Ukraine until 2009, is considered to be Israel's best hope to secure what would be its first ever medal in Winter Olympics games, thugh slim.
Bychenko has previously won a silver medal in the 2016 European Figure Skating Champions and a bronze at the 2016 Rostelecom cup.
The Israel team, which is made up by ten athletes, includes a number of double nationals who could find easier placement in the Israel team than in their second citizenship nations's.
Aimee Buchanan, who is forming a skating team with Bychenko, came to Israel for the first time at 20 and is now 24. She decided to join the Israel team, instead of trying the more competitive American squad, hoping to gain better recognition in a smaller team.
"She headed to Israel at age 20 with a letter from her rabbi confirming both maternal grandparents were Jewish, and within six weeks Buchanan was an Israeli citizen, and by 2016 its national ladies champion," wrote the news-agency JTA in a piece about the athlete.
Paige Conners, who will also compete in skating alongside her team partner Evgeni Krasnopolski, also ended up choosing the Israel squad over the American based on team access considerations. Still 17, she already won a medal at the 2017 CS Minsk-Arena Ice Star competition.
Itamar Biran, a top alpine skier, grew up in the U.K.but ultimately chose to compete for Israel instead of Britain, just like Daniel Samohin chose Israel three years ago over the US.
The Olympics are full of political significance for North Korea and South Korea, whose relationship has seemed to have taken a turn for the better since they announced they would run a common squad in January. The process is however not bereft of complexities.
North Korean athletes at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics refused to accept smartphones offered on condition they returned them after the Games, news reports said, as the organizing committee (IOC) backed down over a similar demand for Iranians.
The IOC is providing Galaxy Note 8 devices from Olympic sponsor Samsung to all athletes and officials at the Games, loaded with essential logistical and competition information.
Organisers initially said the North Koreans and Iranians would be denied the devices due to UN sanctions on their countries.
Then the IOC said they would be provided for the Games, but the two countries' representatives would be asked to return them afterwards rather than keep them.
It was not clear how the IOC would ensure compliance with the request.
But Yonhap news agency said the North Koreans at the Games had refused the phones. No reason was given, but Internet access is strictly limited in the North.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister landed in the South Friday, the first member of Pyongyang's ruling dynasty to set foot in its rival since the Korean War.
Their white Ilyushin-62 jet, marked in Korean script "Democratic People's Republic of Korea", the North's official name, and its tailfin emblazoned with a Northern emblem, touched down at Incheon airport near Seoul.
The last member of the Kim family to set foot in Seoul was Yo Jong's grandfather Kim Il Sung, the North's founder, after his forces invaded in 1950 and the capital fell.
Three years later the conflict ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula divided by the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone, and the two sides technically in a state of war.
Now the North is subject to multiple rounds of UN Security Council sanctions over its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, while the democratic South has risen to become the world's 11th-largest economy.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has pushed the Games as a "peace Olympics" that will open a door for dialogue to alleviate tensions on the peninsula and seek to persuade Pyongyang to give up its atomic ambitions.
The delegation was due to take a high-speed train to Pyeongchang, where the Olympics opening ceremony would be held later Friday, and attended by US Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Tensions have been high on the peninsula since last year when the North staged its sixth and most powerful nuclear test and test-fired multiple long-range missiles, some of them capable of reaching the US mainland.
Leader Kim and US President Donald Trump exchanged threats of war and personal insults, sparking global alarm and fears of another conflict on the peninsula.
But Kim abruptly announced a plan to send athletes and high-level delegates to the Pyeongchang Winter Games in his new year speech, setting in motion a flurry of cross-border talks and activities.
The announcement -- following months of cajoling by Seoul -- is seen as a bid to defuse tensions and try to seek a loosening of the sanctions against it.
Hundreds of athletes, cheerleaders and artistes have already arrived in the South and the North's state orchestra gave one of two planned concerts in the South on Thursday night to a packed audience.
But the latest rapprochement has met a backlash in the South with many accusing Seoul of making too many concessions to the wayward neighbour that even pushed ahead with a military parade on Thursday in Pyongyang in a showcase of its military might.
Conservative activists also accused Pyongyang of "hijacking" the South's Winter Olympics and have held angry protests by burning the images of the leader Kim or the North's national flag near venues where North Koreans made public appearances.
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