Pyeongchang (AFP): The 23rd Winter Olympics open on Friday to a sudden thaw in ties between North and South Korea, while athletes shiver in sub-zero temperatures and Russia's doping scandal causes confusion and irritation on all sides. 

Barely a month after rumblings of war on the Korean peninsula, with Pyongyang leader Kim Jong-Un threatening to rain nuclear destruction on the United States, North Korean athletes will march into the opening ceremony alongside South Koreans for what is touted as the "Peace Olympics." North Korean athletes take part in a welcoming ceremony for the team at the Olympic Village in Gangneung on February 8, 2018, ahead of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je North Korean athletes take part in a welcoming ceremony for the team at the Olympic Village. 

AFP When the Olympic flame is lit in Pyeongchang, a previously little-known corner of South Korea, around 3,000 athletes from all over the world will compete for a record 102 gold medals in 15 sports until 25 February. Expectations are sky-high for an array of stars including American skiers Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn, while the big question in figure skating centres on whether Japan's "Ice Prince" Yuzuru Hanyu can recover from injury to retain his crown. Behind the scenes, Olympic officials are still scrambling to deal with the endless ramifications of Russia's state-sponsored doping scandal, which has already blighted two Olympic Games. 

After banning the entire team over the doping conspiracy, the IOC opened a loophole to allow more than 160 'clean' athletes back in — and now more Russians are trying to force their way in through legal appeals. But the welcome mat has been laid out for the North Koreans. In a gold-medal diplomatic performance, after months of silence on the issue, Pyongyang said it would be happy to send a delegation to the Games. North and South have been divided by the Cold War's last frontier since the 1950-1953 Korean war. Hostilities have never officially ceased, and occasional cross-border incidents punctuate a 70-year ceasefire. 

'Pyongyang Olympics' However, a North Korean Olympic charm offensive is underway, spearheaded by its "army of beauties" all-female cheering squad, glamorous young women who stole Southern hearts when they first came over the border for the Busan Asian Games in 1992. Since then, North Korea has gone nuclear, and sentiment among some South Koreans has hardened against the Pyongyang propaganda drive. For the Olympics in Pyeongchang, 229 cheerleaders and other North Korean delegates crossed the border Wednesday and are registered to stay at a remote luxury hotel about two hours' drive from the Olympic Stadium. Many South Koreans support the thaw with the North, but protesters insist that the South has been too generous, saying North Korea's Kim has been allowed to hijack the Games. 

Demonstrators call them the "Pyongyang Olympics", in a derisive reference to North Korea's capital. "We are at a state of war and we are inviting the prostitutes of our enemy," one demonstrator at an anti-North Korean rally told AFP. While Olympic officials are happy to see the North Koreans, they must surely wish the Russian doping controversy would simply vanish. One of the International Olympic Committee's senior members, former world anti-doping chief Dick Pound, rounded on his colleagues this week, saying the handling of the Russia crisis had seriously hit the credibility of the Olympic movement. 

He said the IOC "has not only failed to protect clean athletes but has made it possible for cheating athletes to prevail against the clean athletes". Athletes, meanwhile are wrapping up against the brutal cold with temperatures plunging to minus 20 degrees centigrade in recent days. Sub-zero conditions are expected for opening ceremony held in the open air stadium late on Friday, and many athletes say they may decide to stay away for health reasons.


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