North Korean Figure Skaters Qualify for Olympics, Possibly Easing Tensions – New York Times

North Korea boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics held in Seoul, the South Korean capital. And North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong-un, is highly unpredictable.

When the skaters were asked minutes after Friday’s performance if they hoped to compete at the Games, their coach, Kim Hyon-son, stepped in and said, “It is up to the North Korean Olympic Committee to decide whether they will participate or not.”

The North Koreans appeared relaxed and open — to a point — at a second meeting with reporters after the competition here, the Nebelhorn Trophy, but requested that no questions be asked about the Olympics. Their reluctance probably stemmed from the fact that the decision will not be theirs, said Bruno Marcotte, a prominent French Canadian coach who also works with the skaters.

“It’s out of their hands,” he said.

Clearly, though, the outcome was important to North Korea. It has invested considerable time and money to make Ms. Ryom and Mr. Kim eligible for the Winter Games and respected at the international level. The skaters trained over the summer in Montreal with Mr. Marcotte, whose wife, Meagan Duhamel, is a two-time world pairs champion. And the pressure of a suitable performance here seemed to weigh on Ri Chol-un, an official with the North Korean skating federation.

“I’ll sleep after the long program,” Mr. Ri had told Mr. Marcotte.

Friday’s long program, lasting four minutes, was not flawless. Ms. Ryom and Mr. Kim reduced planned, side-by-side triple Salchows to two rotations instead of three, at Mr. Marcotte’s instruction. The jump had been inconsistent in practice, and there was no need to take an unnecessary risk.

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“I was a little nervous, but the coach comrades, they trusted us and people have been cheering for us,” Mr. Kim, left, said. “We took a lot of motivation from them.”

Credit
Jun Michael Park for The New York Times

A reporter later joked that Kim Jong-un had called and said he would not send the skaters to the Olympics unless they could reliably land the triple Salchows. Mr. Marcotte laughed and said, “He can blame it on me.”

Otherwise, Ms. Ryom and Mr. Kim were flowing and engaging while performing to a French Canadian tune called “I am a Song.” The crowd responded with enthusiastic applause at the tiny Eissportzentrum arena.

In this subjective sport, many felt the judges would be sympathetic, but Friday’s Olympic qualification appeared deserved. The North Korean pair finished with a total score of 180.09 points, their career best at an international competition. They took sixth place over all but, more important, they finished third among a subset of pairs from countries seeking five available Olympic spots.

“I was a little nervous, but the coach comrades, they trusted us and people have been cheering for us,” Mr. Kim, the skater, said. “We took a lot of motivation from them.”

At the conclusion of their routine, Ms. Ryom and Mr. Kim thrust their arms in the air.

“I felt delight and extremely grateful to our coaches,” Ms. Ryom said. “There were many people of different nationalities and backgrounds cheering for us. The fact that we gave them some kind of joy, that was the best part in the performance.”

Mr. Ri, the skating official, once nervous, was now exultant.

“I love our skaters very much,” he said. “Our skaters hope to be world level. I’m proud. They love to skate very much. They have great potential.”

Other competitors also seemed happy for the North Koreans.

Timothy Leduc, an American skater who will attempt to gain the lone Olympic pairs spot for the United States in January with his partner, Ashley Cain, said: “We’re all citizens of the world; we’re all humans. They are incredible athletes. It’s very fun to watch them compete. If they go out and earn their spot under the same panel of judges we’re all being judged under, they’ve absolutely earned it.”

Anita DeFrantz, a vice president of the International Olympic Committee from the United States, said in an interview last week in New York: “It’s always important to have this show of peace which the Games embody. And the opportunity for athletes to get together, especially from nations that traditionally haven’t been friendly, is a wonderful thing.”

South Korean officials have said they are planning the Games in the belief that North Korea will participate. Ms. DeFrantz said: “We hope so. I hope there’s no reason for them not to. I know we’re doing everything we can to insure that there is no barrier.”

If North Korea does not compete in Pyeongchang, Ms. Ryom and Mr. Kim would still have a chance to enhance their international standing at the World Figure Skating Championships in March in Milan, Italy. Ms. Ryom and Mr. Kim finished 15th at the 2017 world championships, an event far less fraught with world politics.

“I want to continue to improve until I become world champion,” Ms. Ryom said this week.

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