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Let the Games begin: What to watch for during the Pyeongchang Olympics

Rachel Blount, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Olympics

Three decades ago, South Korea made its debut as an Olympic host when the 1988 Summer Games were held in Seoul. It will show a different side -- one blanketed with snow and ice -- when it welcomes the world again this week. Here are some of the themes that could emerge as the Winter Games come to Asia for the third time:

Two Koreas under one flag

Pyeongchang is only 50 miles from the North Korea border, putting the Olympics at an uncomfortable distance from a nation led by Kim Jong Un. Those worries were calmed last month when North Korea announced it would send a delegation, including 22 athletes, to the Winter Games and march with South Korea in the opening ceremony under a unified flag. The two nations also will field a joint women's hockey team. While some South Koreans are praising the apparent thaw in relations, others are skeptical of Kim's motives. But North Korea's participation has soothed the primary security concern surrounding these Games.

Russian flag, uniform ban

The Russians are coming, but you won't be able to tell by their uniforms. After Russia was determined to have run a systematic, state-sponsored doping program at the 2014 Sochi Games, the International Olympic Committee declared that only Russian athletes who proved themselves to be drug-free could compete in Pyeongchang -- and the country's flag, anthem and uniforms would be banned. That reduced the pool of eligible athletes to about 400 and excluded some gold-medal favorites. But the winners of the medal count in Sochi still will send a sizable delegation, with competitors officially identified as "Olympic Athlete from Russia."

No NHL shifts countries' plans

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The men's hockey tournament in Pyeongchang will take on a whole new level of unpredictability, thanks to the NHL's decision not to participate. The league had sent its players to the Olympics every year since 1998, but it concluded it would not get enough benefit this time around to justify a two-week break in the schedule. That forced the 12 countries in the tournament to find talent elsewhere. The U.S., for example, stocked its roster with men playing professionally in Europe and a few college players. Will these Games be reminiscent of the 1980 "Miracle On Ice," or will it be the most mundane Olympic hockey in years?

Putting winter back in games

For the first time since 2006, winter might be returning to the Winter Olympics. The 2014 Sochi Games were held in a subtropical climate, with palm trees dotting the Olympic Park and skiers overheating in 50-degree mountain temperatures. The 2010 Vancouver Games suffered from a lack of snow, and rain turned outdoor venues to slushy puddles. By contrast, the February average temperature in the Pyeongchang region is 31 degrees, with lows often in the single digits. It's also known for a bitter north wind that can produce below-zero windchills.

Vonn, Shiffrin lead U.S. skiers

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