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North Korea, Russia and a swimsuit model: five things about the Winter Paralympics

The North Korean delegation arrives at the Paralympic Village today ahead of the Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang.AFP
The North Korean delegation arrives at the Paralympic Village today ahead of the Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang.AFP

North Korea, Russia and a swimsuit model: five things about the Winter Paralympics

Hundreds of athletes have descended on Pyeongchang, high in the snow-clad mountains of South Korea, for the Winter Paralympics.

Ahead of the opening ceremony on Friday, here are five talking points:

From Pyongyang to Pyeongchang

North Korea took centrestage at the Winter Olympics and they will also be in focus as they contest their first Winter Paralympics, against the backdrop of a rapid thaw in inter-Korean relations.

Cross-country skiers Kim Jong Hyon and Ma Yu Chol are the only two competitors from the isolated state, although it is unclear whether they will parade alongside South Korean athletes at the opening ceremony, as happened at the Winter Olympics.

North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics triggered a series of conciliatory moves, including an offer from Pyongyang to consider abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.

‘Neutral’ Russians

In another echo from the Winter Olympics, 30 Russians will compete as neutrals as the country remains suspended by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) over a mass doping scandal.

Not everyone was happy with their inclusion – German Paralympic Committee President Friedhelm Julius Beucher reportedly slammed it as a “slap in the face to clean athletes”. The Russian question also hung over the Winter Olympics, where despite two “clean” Russians failing drugs tests, Russia’s suspension was lifted by the International Olympic Committee three days after the closing ceremony.

‘Sexy’ role model

Paralympians are an eclectic bunch, from a heavy metal-loving German wheelchair curler, to a Mexican who found unlikely success in mono-skiing and a 61-year-old Japanese ice hockey goaltender.

American snowboarder Brenna Huckaby, who lost her right leg below the knee, made headlines when she featured in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue.

“I just wanted to be that role model for women with disabilities. At least in the [United]States, you don’t see women with disabilities in a sexy way,” she said.

Record turnout

A record 650 athletes from 49 countries are taking part, up from about 570 at the last Winter Paralympics in Sochi. They are competing in 80 medal events across six sports – alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, ice hockey, snowboard and wheelchair curling.

Organisers say there has been good public interest, with about 275,000 tickets sold so far.

One of the most popular spectator sports is para ice hockey, also known as sledge ice hockey. It is a fast and furious game in which players sit in double-bladed sledges and use two sticks to propel themselves across the ice and to shoot.

Alpine skiing and snowboarding are also favourites with spectators. There are no new sports in Pyeongchang but eight new events have been added to snowboarding.

‘More professional’ classification

IPC president Andrew Parsons this week said classification was “one of the major issues” facing Paralympic sports, and organisers will have their work cut out avoiding controversies in Pyeongchang.

Sports for disabled people have numerous different categories, depending on the type of disability and how serious it is.

Sometimes athletes have their level of disability reclassified, leading to them being deemed ineligible for their chosen sport.

Players have also abused the system – 10 members of a Spanish basketball team were stripped of gold medals they won at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics in the intellectual disability category after it was revealed they had no mental handicap.

Currently much classification work is carried out by volunteers, but Parsons vowed to “make the classification process more and more professional”.

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