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The 2018 Winter Olympics: U.S. soldier athletes, Russian doping and a temporary peace on the Korean Peninsula

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While the opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics takes place this Friday evening in Pyeongchang, in South Korea — barely 50 miles south of the Korean DMZ — athletes and journalists have already begun filing into the Olympic Village by the thousands. From deciding which athletes to watch, to Russian doping and tensions with North Korea, here are some important things to look out for as the games get under way this week.

At this very moment, there are approximately 28,500 U.S service members in South Korea, most of whom are waiting for military exercises to resume along the Korean peninsula later next month. However, 7 of those soldiers will be trading in military fatigues for spandex suits and aero-helmets as members of the U.S. bobsled and luge teams.

Bobsled teams racing to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team at the Utah Olympic Park [Molly Choma/TeamUSA]

Two soldiers, Sgt. Justin Olsen and Capt. Chris Fogt, will be returning to the U.S. bobsled team after medaling in previous winter olympics. Sgt. Olsen, who hails from San Antonio, Texas, won a gold medal at the Vancouver games in 2010, and Cpt. Chris Fogt of Alpine, Utah, took a bronze medal in Sochi in 2014.

Joining them will be Sgt. Nick Cunningham from Monterey, California, and Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Weber, of the 10th Special Forces, from Pueblo West, Colorado. The 2 & 4-man bobsled events will take place on Feb. 19 and Feb. 24, respectively. A complete TV schedule can be found here.

As for the luge squad, Sgt. Emily Sweeney from Suffield, Connecticut, and Sgt. Taylor Morris from South Jordan, Utah, will complete in the singles luge event. Sgt. Matthew Mortensen will be competing in the doubles luge event along with his civilian-partner. Luge events will run from Feb. 10-15.

Emily Sweeney (USA) in Winterberg, Germany, 2016. Sweeney will be competing in the women’s singles luge event.
[Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images]

All of these soldier-athletes come out of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, which provides training and support to service members that are able to qualify for international competitions, such as the Olympics. According to Sgt. Justin Olsen, the road to making the U.S. Olympic team while serving in the military has had its special challenges.

“I would say the hardest part of balancing my Army career and being the best athlete I can is sometimes where to place emphasis,” he said to NBC Sports. “I want to test myself within the Army and be the best soldier I can for the United States, but sometimes I am unable to attend some career courses due to my athletic scheduling. I am very grateful for the opportunity to wear both uniforms and represent my country.”

Olympic champion push athlete turned driver Sgt. Justin Olsen, from San Antonio, Texas. [Washington Post/Toni L. Sandys]

In the aftermath of what has been considered one of the biggest doping conspiracies in sports history, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced in December that Russia would be banned from sending its national team to Pyeongchang for the 2018 Winter Olympics. That decision came more than one year after whistleblower and former director of the Russian Anti-Doping Center Grigory Rodchenkov exposed his agency’s misdeeds, which have been documented in the Netflix documentary Icarus.

Following an official inquiry, anti-doping investigators revealed that Mr. Rodchenkov’s allegations were, in fact, true, and that Russia had been sponsoring a secret doping program for at least 4 years. Many familiar with the scandal, including Mr. Rodchenkov, say the illegal doping program was encouraged by President Vladimir Putin ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which took place in Sochi, Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Following an investigation by WADA, It has been discovered that Putin either lead or encouraged a state-run doping program throughout the 2014 games. [ALEXEI NIKOLSKYI/RIA NOVOSTI/REUTERS]

Even with the ban, there will still be 169 Russian athletes competing as part of a group called, “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” While the Russian competitors will not be able to hold their country’s flag at the games or accept any gold medals to the tune of their national anthem, they will still be fighting to get on the podium. The presence of Russian athletes should make for an interesting Parade of Nations during the Opening Ceremony on Friday night, which many consider to be an exhibition of their national pride.

Today in Olympic fashion: 1) the drab gray “neutral” coat of the Olympic Athletes from Russia. They’re barred from having their flag on their uniforms(because doping). No big RUSSIA lettering or other decoration allowed. These athletes didn’t look too happy.#pyeongchang2018pic.twitter.com/Boc3NGZpkX

— melissa block (@NPRmelissablock) February 5, 2018

While U.S.-North Korea relations have been become more and more inflamed over the last year, from U.S. President Trump calling North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un “Little Rocket Man,” to Kim threatening to push the “nuclear button,” South Korean leaders have managed to negotiate a regional détente – at least for the time being.

Following last month’s peace negotiations, the first official face-to-face meetings between Korean leaders in more than two years, North Korea announced that it would be sending a delegation of athletes and performers to Pyeongchang for the Winter Olympics. While the team of athletes may be humble — 22 in total — the complete North Korean delegation is 280 strong, made up mostly of cheerleaders, performers and journalists, according to South Korea’s unification minister, Cho Myoung-gyon.

Korean language used in the North and South has diverged in the six decades since the peninsula divided after the war. That's true for hockey terms, too — a challenge for the inter-Korean women's team at #PyeongChang2018https://t.co/nEbal6BnFs cc @CurtisMelvinpic.twitter.com/0BQIBekUwD

— Matt Stiles (@stiles) February 3, 2018

The two Koreas will also be marching under the white and blue Korean unification flag, which many consider a promising sign of future dialogue between the two countries. Multiple North Korean dignitaries are also expected to be present at the Olympic games, including the supreme leader’s sister, Kim Yo Jong. She is considered a key player within the North Korean regime and will be the first member of the Kim dynasty to ever visit South Korea. Her presence will undoubtedly draw plenty of attention as she attends the opening ceremony on Friday evening.

Kim Yo Jong (left) the younger sister of Kim Jong Un (right), will cross into South Korea to attend the opening ceremony on Friday, Seoul officials confirmed. [Sky News]

American leaders will also be at the opening ceremony, as Vice President Mike Pence is currently making his way to join the Olympic team (with a mixed reception) in Pyeongchang. His presence won’t be purely ceremonial, however. Along the way, Pence will be visiting with U.S. military members in Japan, in addition to meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to reaffirm the United States’ military commitment to the region. According to the Pence’s aides, his primary goal this week is to remind the world that while North Korea looks like it’s turning the page towards a chapter of peace, the regime running the country is still cruel to its people and is continuing to develop nuclear weapons.

As NPR reported on Feb. 5, a clear indication of the vice president’s message is the person that will be joining him at the opening ceremony; the father of the deceased American college student, Otto Warmbier. In 2016, Mr. Warmbier was arrested and convicted by North Korean authorities for attempting to steal a propaganda poster. While he was sentenced to 15 years in prison, Warmbier was eventually released back to the U.S. in a coma, and died in June 2017. The cause of his initial injury was never determined, although Vice President Pence and other U.S. officials have repeatedly blamed North Korea for Warmbier’s death.

Vice President Mike Pence shakes hands with American soldier during a meeting with US and South Korean soldiers at Camp Bonifas near the DMZ between the North and South Korea. [Reuters]

Later this month, when the games end and all the athletes return home, the U.S. and South Korea are scheduled to resume military exercises just across the border from North Korea. It is also likely that the U.S. and South Korea are going to say that they are united in their efforts to deal with the region’s present nuclear threat.

In recent practice, however, the two countries have begun to favor very different approaches. While the Trump administration has favored a hard line approach comprised of threats and sanctions, South Korea has been more flexible, taking every opportunity available to get North Korea to the negotiating table. Regardless of which country wins the most medals this month, or how spectacular the opening ceremony is, the looming nuclear question will likely continue throughout the games and beyond.

LIMA CHARLIE NEWS, with James Fox

Lima Charlie provides global news, insight & analysis by military veterans and service members Worldwide.

For up-to-date news, please follow us on twitter at @LimaCharlieNews

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