Pyeongchang prepares for Winter Paralympics
North Korea sends first ever Paralympic team
Para athletes ready to shine at the Games
The dust has barely settled from the PyeongChang Games, but South Korea is again preparing to welcome athletes from across the globe for the 2018 Winter Paralympics.
About 570 athletes from 48 nations will compete in 80 medal events across six Winter Paralympic sports – alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, ice sledge hockey, snowboarding and wheelchair curling – from March 9-18.
The majority of medals will come on snow, with 30 golds on offer in alpine skiing in disciplines such as downhill, slalom and giant slalom divided into standing, sitting and visually impaired classifications.
On ice, mixed male and female teams will compete in the wheelchair curling and ice sledge hockey for two of the most prestigious titles of the Games.
But just as with the Olympics last month, much of the focus on the Winter Paralympics will be turned away from the sport towards two specific delegations – North Korea and Russia.
North Korea sends first ever team
After the geopolitical waves generated by North Korea’s presence at the Winter Olympics in February, history will be made again in Pyeongchang as the host’s northern neighbor sends its first ever Winter Paralympic team.
The North Korean Paralympic delegation arrived in Pyeongchang Wednesday, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry, just a day after the announcement from Seoul that an historic summit will be held in April between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The unprecedented meeting came as a result of the Olympic-led thawing of diplomatic tension between the neighboring states.
The North’s Paralympic delegation includes two cross-country athletes – Ma Yoo Chul and Kim Jeong Hyun – and four “observing” athletes who will not compete but will watch certain events.
On Thursday, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) announced the two Korean nations will march separately at Friday’s opening ceremony – unlike their appearance under the unified flag at the Olympics’ Parade of Nations.
IPC President Andrew Parsons said: “Although we are disappointed, we respect the decision of the two NPCs who decided that marching separately would be better for both parties.”
The decision was made after “a day of amicable and positive discussions between the two NPCs in the Paralympic village,” he added.
Unlike at the Games last month, there will be no unified team in the ice hockey.
There will be, however, an athlete in South Korea’s para ice hockey team who was born north of the border.
Choi Kwang-hyouk lost his leg after falling from a train as a child. A wheel went over his foot, but doctors, with only rudimentary medical facilities, chose to amputate his leg below the knee – without anaesthesia.
He was eventually smuggled from North Korea by his father in 2001.
In an interview with The Guardian, Choi admitted he is concerned about potentially awkward encounters with his former countrymen.
“I will be happy to see them, but I don’t think they will be happy to see me,” he confessed. “They’ll think I’m a traitor.”
Choi says North Korea’s participation is all the more intriguing for its questionable record on human rights for people with disabilities.
“North Korea is a challenging place for the impaired,” he added.
“It wouldn’t be possible for someone with disabilities to participate in the Paralympic Games unless he or she has power and wealth.”
In 2006, a United Nations report said people with disabilities in North Korea were often sent away from Pyongyang to “collective camps… where they are designated according to their physical deformity or disability.”
Russian athletes ‘neutral’ again
After topping the Paralympic medal table at both Sochi 2014 and Turin 2006, Russia will not have an official team in Pyeongchang.
As at the Olympics, Russian para athletes will compete as neutrals, but this time under the banner of “Neutral Paralympic Athletes” (NPA), removing all reference to Russia from the title. At the Olympics, Russian athletes who could prove they were clean were allowed to compete as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”
The IPC suspended the Russian Paralympic Committee ahead of the Rio Paralympics in August 2016 because of its “inability to fulfil its IPC membership obligations, in particular its obligation to comply with the World Anti-Doping Code.”
In January, the IPC reiterated that the ban would be maintained throughout the PyeongChang Games, despite the International Olympic Committee’s announcement last week that Russia’s Olympic membership has been reinstated.
Now just 30 Russian para athletes will compete in Pyeongchang – less than half the size of the team that competed in Sochi, where it won a record 80 medals, including 30 golds.
While their ban was upheld in January, Parsons added Thursday: “With a good degree of confidence, we can say that these [Russian] athletes competing here are as clean as any other athletes competing in these Games.”
However, the IPC ban will remain in place until its full list of criteria is met, including the reinstatement of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency by WADA.
Athletes to look out for in Pyeongchang
With politics and news taking center stage again, it is easy to forget that the Paralympics are held as a celebration of incredible athletic endeavor.
Among the most remarkable stories of the Games is that of US engineer-turned-para-snowboarder Mike Schultz.
A lifelong lover of action sports, Schultz suffered a severe compound fracture of his left leg after crashing his snowmobile in 2008. After multiple surgeries he had his leg amputated from above the knee.
The 36-year-old Minnesota native turned first to motocross racing before taking up snowboarding in 2009. He competes on a prosthetic leg he developed and built himself, now used by hundreds of athletes and amputees across North America.
He told CNN’s Don Riddell: “The first time I wore it, I knew I was onto something good,” adding that it took him just a week to develop the first prototype.
On Wednesday, Schultz was announced as Team USA’s flagbearer for the opening ceremony, and he confessed that while he would be excited to be on the podium, he wants to return home with gold in both his events – the snowboard cross and banked slalom.
Another likely star for the PyeongChang Games is French skier Marie Bochet, who came away from Sochi with four golds at the age of 20. Now, with four years’ more experience under her belt, she will be looking to add to her tally.
Meanwhile, Canada’s Brian McKeever is a hardened Paralympian, competing at every Winter Games since 2002, winning multiple golds at each one. With 13 medals already to his name, there’s nothing to suggest the 38-year-old cross-country skier will show any signs of slowing in Pyeongchang.
Ticket sales making ‘fantastic progress’
In October, ticket sales looked like they were going to be at an all-time low for the Paralympics in Pyeongchang, with South Korean media reporting just 0.2% of available tickets had been sold.
But five months later the picture looks much brighter for the event organizers.
IPC communications and media director Craig Spence told CNN: “Ticket sales are now at 275,000 which is fantastic progress.”
With only 11% of tickets remaining, the Paralympics are ahead of Olympic sales in percentage terms.
Spence added: “I think the rise in sales has been a result of a real push by the organizing committee to engage the Korean public, strong group sales and a consequence of a successful Olympic Games.”
PyeongChang 2018 Organizing Committee President Lee Hee-beom said: “PyeongChang 2018 is ready to inspire, educate and excite the world.
“We have the world’s best athletes, world-class facilities, and thousands of spectators filled with passion who are ready to witness sporting greatness on the snow and ice. It is going to be a wonderful 10 days that we will never forget.”
The curtain is all set to rise on the first Korean Paralympic Games.
And one thing is certain: drama awaits.