THE 23RD EDITION of the Winter Olympics officially opened in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this morning as nearly 3,000 athletes from 92 countries and territories get set to compete in their respective disciplines.
This month’s Games will be the biggest ever with four new events added to the schedule, and no less than 102 gold medals across 15 sports on the line over the next three weeks.
The opening ceremony took place in freezing sub-zero temperatures earlier while there was a spirit of rapprochement after the arrival of the highest level North Korean delegation ever seen in the South.
Fireworks lit up the sky over the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, as Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was among the VIPs after she became the first member of the ruling Kim dynasty to venture South since the Korean War.
After a sudden thaw in ties — following months of rising tensions and North Korean missile tests — South and North Korean athletes marched together at the ceremony, behind the blue-and-white Korean unification flag.
Russian athletes also marched under a neutral flag after the Russian team was banned from the Games over systemic doping — although 168 Russians deemed to be clean of drug use have been allowed to take part.
Now that the politics and the sideshows have been put to one side, the excitement over the Games can begin with Team Ireland, led by 20-year-old snowboarder Seamus O’Connor, hoping to make an impression on the world stage.
Here’s everything you need to know about the 2018 Winter Olympics.
When do the Games start and finish?
The opening ceremony was staged at the 35,000-seater Olympic Stadium earlier on Friday, but some athletes have already been in action, with a number of provisional events taking place on Thursday.
The Games will be officially closed on Sunday 25 February in the same venue following 102 events across 15 sports.
Where is Pyeongchang and how cold will it be?
The city chosen to stage the games is in north-eastern South Korea, around 80 miles [125 kilometres] east of capital city Seoul and 50 miles from the North Korean border.
Pyeongchang has a population of around 43,000, who may well be more accustomed to the cold than many arriving for the Games. Temperatures can drop to as low as -20 degrees celsius.
What’s new this year?
Snowboard big air, speed skating mass start, curling mixed doubles and the Alpine team event will be contested for the first time. Six nations that have never been represented at the Winter Games will have athletes in action; hailing from Ecuador, Eritrea, Kosovo, Malaysia, Nigeria and Singapore.
Spectacular jumps and spins will be on display in big air, where snowboarders hurtle down a steep 160-foot (48m) ramp and then perform as many tricks as they can while flying through the air.
It is a bit like ski jumping, but with twirls. Athletes’ two top scores will combine for a final total.
Mass-start speed skating
A pack of up to 28 competitors begin at the same time for 16 laps of a 400m oval with no lane lines. Expect a few dramatic tumbles in a race filled with strategy and jostling for position.
Alpine team competition will feature two men and two women from 16 nations in head-to-head giant slalom runs on a course that demands short and rapid turns.
It’s on 24 February, the penultimate day of the Olympics, and is the final Alpine ski event. France captured the world title last year, with Slovakia second and Sweden third.
“It’s fast-paced, it’s high energy, a lot of athleticism, a different dynamic on the ice,” Canada’s Kaitlyn Lawes says.
Mixed-doubles curling is played by two players, one male and one female on each team. Just 22 minutes are available to talk strategy — normally it is 38 minutes.
And with only two players instead of the usual four, more nations could mount a threat.
How many athletes do Ireland have competing?
Team Ireland will be led by snowboarder Seamus O’Connor and consists of four other athletes; Alpine skiers Tess Arbez and Patrick McMillian, cross country skier Thomas Westgard and half pipe skier Brendan ‘Bubba’ Newby.
This will be O’Connor’s second Olympics having represented Ireland in Sochi four years ago as a 16-year-old. Born in America, the snowboarder was also eligible to represent Russia through his mother Elena, and Great Britain through his father Kevin but made the decision to compete for Ireland as his grandparents were born here.
O’Connor, who gets his Games underway on Tuesday 13 February in the Men’s Halfpipe Qualifications, suffered a near career-ending injury in competition in New Zealand in October 2016 and was sidelined for several months.
Despite tearing his anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus in his knee in a snowboarding accident, O’Connor was back on the slopes in time to qualify for the Games.
20-year-old Tess Arbez was born in France, but is eligible to represent Ireland through her mother, who is originally from Dublin. She will first be in action on Monday 12 February in the Women’s Giant Slalom (Run 1).
If things worked out differently, Patrick McMillan could very well be playing for Ireland in the Six Nations at the minute, but an administrative error ultimately ended his promising rugby career having represented Leinster U19s alongside Tadhg Furlong.
The Clare native began skiing at the age of 12 on a family holiday but only took it up competitively at the age of 21, and just five years later, his remarkable journey will continue in the early hours of Sunday morning when he goes in the Men’s Downhill event.
Born in Cork, Brendan ‘Bubba’ Newby took up halfpipe skiing competitively at age 13 after his family moved to Utah in America and he hasn’t looked back since. The 21-year-old isn’t in action until 20 February when the Men’s Halfpipe Qualifications get underway.
Last but not least, Ireland’s fifth athlete is 22-year-old cross-country skier Thomas Westgard, who hits the slopes straight away when he goes in the Men’s 15km & 15km Skiathlon on Sunday morning.
Born and raised in Norway, he switched sporting allegiance to Ireland in 2016 with the goal of representing the country of his mother’s birth at the 2017 World Championships.
Where can I watch all the action?
Both BBC and Eurosport are carrying full live coverage over the 16 days of sporting action, with the former broadcasting from midnight until 8pm every day before a nightly highlights programme will recap everything you might have missed.
BBC’s coverage will be fronted by Clare Balding and Hazel Irvine while RTÉ, who have Darren Frehill and Clare McNamara on the ground in Pyeongchang, will have a nightly highlights programme from 7pm.
What else should I look out for?
While we’ll be keeping a close eye on Team Ireland, the stage is set for superstars such as Lindsey Vonn, Marcel Hirscher and Mikaela Shiffrin to put on a show.
Hirscher will take some stopping when he goes in search of a first Olympic gold medal and all eyes will be on fellow alpine skiing sensation Shiffrin when she graces the slopes.
Vonn missed the 2014 Games in Sochi due to injury, but the legendary American has downhill and/or super-G glory in her sights. She warmed up for Pyeongchang with victory in the World Cup downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen to sound a warning to her rivals.
There will also be no shortage of interest when the first Jamaican women’s bobsleigh team compete 30 years after the men’s team from the Caribbean island inspired the Cool Runnings movie and keep an eye out for speed skater Cheyenne Goh, the Canada-born 18-year-old who will make history by flying the flag for Singapore.
On the speed skating track, there will be big interest in Great Britain’s main medal hope Elise Christie, while the ice hockey rink will showcase a moment of history when a unified Korean women’s team face Switzerland.
Team Ireland schedule
With reporting from AFP, originally published at 13.30
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