Off the Pitch Media's guide to the 2018 Winter Olympics

Despite a lack of interest from major sponsors, logistical issues and construction delays, PyeongChang is set for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

The second Olympics (the first being Seoul 1988) but first Winter Games to be held in South Korea, PyeongChang, which is based 180km east of the capital in the Gangwon Province, beat off competition from Munich (Germany) and Annecy (France) to host the 23rd edition of the multi-sport event.

Following the Opening Ceremony on February 9, nearly 3,000 athletes from 92 nations will compete for medals in 102 events across 15 sports, with big air (snowboarding and freestyle skiing), mass start speed skating and mixed doubles curling new additions to the schedule.

POLITICS
Although sport and politics are separate entities, the two go firmly hand in hand when it comes to the Olympics, and that has been no different in the build up to PyeongChang.

One of the big stories dominates the hosts and its neighbours. Despite doubts over whether they would, North Korea, who boycotted in ’88, will send athletes to the Games in a major breakthrough.

Tension between the two had escalated dramatically in recent months due to the North’s nuclear and missile programs. However, after the first high-level talks in more than two years took place on the border village of Panmunjom, they agreed to send a delegation which includes Kim Yo-jong (sister of leader, Kim Jong-un) and is led by Kim Yong-nam, the highest-ranking official to visit the South in four years.

Additionally, athletes from both nations will march under a unification flag at the Opening Ceremony, while the women’s ice hockey team has been united for the Games.

Although a promising step in the right direction, it will be interesting to see how relations are throughout the next two-and-a-half weeks as there’s been a few bumps in the road to rapprochement. Most notably the South publicly criticised the North’s large-scale military parade scheduled for the day before the Olympics, leading to the latter cancelling a cultural event.

Undoubtedly the other big story surrounding the Games is the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision to issue invitations to 169 Russian athletes who can compete as neutrals, despite the country being banned for doping.

Additionally, as recently as February 1, a court of arbitration overturned a further 28 lifetime Olympic bans – in a move condemned by the IOC and a very large percentage of those within the sport, who are working so hard to rebuild its reputation in the war against doping – or, as we like to call it, cheating.

So, despite now having to perform as individuals, the third biggest group of competitors in PyeongChang will be Russians, behind only the United States and Canada.

However, one athlete who will not be appearing under the “no national identification design” badge is speed skater Olga Graf. The 2014 double-bronze medallist said: “the sport has become a bargaining chip in dirty political games.” Says it all really.

FIRST TIMERS
Moving away from the heavy stuff, there are narratives to keep an eye on that sum up the spirit and passion of the Olympics, symbolised by Games mascots
Soohorang and Bandabi.

We all know the film Cool Runnings, right? Well, 30 years after Jamaica’s men’s bobsleigh team historically competed in Calgary, the women’s team are making their debut in South Korea.

Led by the experienced Jazmine Fenlator, who competed for USA as a push-athlete in 2014, they will be targeting a top-10 finish. This is very unlike the men of three decades ago who then had very little experience of hurtling down a bobsleigh track at high speed.

In the same event, Nigeria have created an even bigger stir than their Jamaican counterparts by becoming the first African sled to compete in the country’s maiden Winter Olympics.

Consisting of three ex-track and field athletes – Seun Adigun, Ngozi Onwumere, and Akuoma Omeoga – they maintained their world ranking until January 14 to secure a historic qualification.

THE GENERATION GAMES
A great thing about the Olympics is that you can have athletes from across different generations battle against each other.

In PyeongChang there’s a 36-year difference between the oldest and youngest registered athlete. Canada’s curling queen, Cheryl Bernard is 51 and China’s halfpipe skier, Wu Meng, is one of six 15-year olds down to compete.

Bernard, who skippered her team to silver on home ice in 2010, is only on standby, meaning if she doesn’t compete, Finnish curler, Tomi Rantamaeki, will be the granddad of the Games at 49.

ONES TO WATCH
The Olympics always makes legends out of superstars and superstars out of relatively unknowns.

With so many athletes on show it’s hard to highlight those who may rise to the top, but we’ve picked out eight names expected to get you on the edge of your seat.

Mikaela Shiffrin – The 22-year-old alpine racer, who became the youngest ever slalom gold medallist in Sochi at the age of 18, is competing in five events. Although winning them all is unlikely, the reigning overall World Cup champion has the ability and mentality to realistically have a chance of becoming the first American woman to win three medals in skiing at one Olympics.

Marcel Hirscher – The no.1 skier in the world and arguably the best there has ever been, the Austrian will be attempting to win his first Olympic gold in this third Games. On course for his seventh straight World Cup crown, the 28-year-old is expected to compete in the Super G and combined events, plus the slalom and giant slalom.

Marit Bjorgen – The most successful women’s cross-country skier in history is aiming to win three gold medals for the third successive Games. At the age of 37, the Norwegian could also become the most decorated female Winter Olympian ever as she’s currently tied on 10 medals with Raisa Smetanina and Stefania Belmondo.

Peter Prevc – Slovenia’s ‘Flying Man’ is carrying the hopes of a nation on his shoulders. The 25-year-old became the first person in history to jump over 250 metres in 2015 and won silver and bronze in Sochi. He’ll be hoping to go one better this time but will have to defeat 2014 double gold-medallist, Kamil Stoch.

Lindsey Vonn – The most decorated female downhill racer ever, the queen of the slopes is back at the Olympics after missing 2014 through injury. A gold and bronze medallist in 2010, the 33-year-old showed she’s ready for more by claiming her 81st World Cup win on February 4, taking her to within five of Ingemar Stenmark’s all-time alpine record.

Ayumu Hirano – The Japanese snowboarder made headlines in 2014 when he won silver as a 15-year-old in the halfpipe event. He has since picked up gold in the 2016 and 2018 X Games and is favourite to take the same medal home from PyeongChang. To do that he will have to see off competition from the likes of the legendary Shaun White and fellow countryman Yuto Totsuka (just 16!).

Chloe Kim – The 17-year-old American phenomenon is expected to deliver the goods in South Korea. Winner of four X Games – the first at the age of 14 – and the first female snowborder to complete two perfect back-to-back 1080s in competition, the double-gold winner from the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics could dominate the field.

Martin Fourcade – The Frenchman, who is an 11-time World Champion and claimed two golds and a silver in Sochi, is simply the best Biathlete on the planet. A fan-favourite due to his tendency to give his medals to young supporters, the six-time overall World Cup winner plans to keep anything he wins here.

BRITISH HOPES

Great Britain took a big step in Sochi four years ago when they secured four medals, equalling their best ever tally set in the inaugural 1928 Games and taking their overall to 26 (10 gold, 4 silver, 12 bronze) in 22 appearances,

Now, with their biggest ever winter squad heading to South Korea, Team GB no longer needs to pin all their hopes on the likes of Eddie the Eagle.

Overseen by performance director, Dan Hunt (previously head of elite performance at the Premier League and British Cycling coach), the 59-strong British crew are targeting a record five medals.

Here’s a brief look at the athletes – minus snowboarder Katie Ormerod who sadly had to withdraw through injury  earmarked as podium hopefuls.

Elise Christie – The ‘Barbie of speed skating’ has bounced back admirably since her heartbreaking triple disqualification in Sochi by winning three golds and a bronze at the 2017 World Championships.

Katie Summerhayes – Despite searching for consistency since finishing seventh in Sochi, the 22-year-old is in a good place having claimed silver in the ski slopestyle World Cup in November.

Dave Ryding –  Currently ranked No. 10, the alpine ski racer has a medal shot heading into his third Winter Olympics. Showed he can mix it with the best when he led Finland’s World Cup event in November, before sadly crashing out.

Izzy Atkin – The 19-year-old  proved she has the mentality when she became the first British woman to win a ski slopestyle World Cup last season. She has since backed that up with more medals, including a silver at January’s X Games.

Andrew Musgrave – After a disappointing QF exit in Sochi, the cross-country skier’s fourth-placed finish (50km) at the 2017 World Championships and third-placed finish (15km) at the Toblach World Cup event make him a contender.

GBR 1 Four-Man Bobsleigh – Having claimed Great Britain’s first bobsleigh World Cup medal since 2013 with bronze in November’s Park City meet, the team – piloted by Brad Hall – are in with a shot in South Korea.

Curling Teams – Both the women and men will be confident of matching the bronze and silver medals won respectively in Sochi. Women’s skip Eve Muirhead remains from 2014, while her brothers Thomas and Glen are part of the men’s rink.

Lizzy Yarnold – Sochi’s GB golden girl and 2018 GB flag bearer, the 29-year-old goes into the skeleton as an underdog after a mixed season which has seen her win just one medal. However, she knows what it takes to win.

James Woods – Hampered by injury in Sochi, the freestyle skier from Sheffield will be determined to shine. The 26-year-old warmed up in good fashion by taking big air bronze at the X Games – a competition he won 12 months earlier.

Well we hope that’s helped whet the appetite for what is set to be a Games full of thrills, spills and memorable moments. You may not be feeling it now, but we’re sure you’ll be the resident expert when it comes to luge and figure skating in no time.