It’s a difficult moment to look at the Korean Peninsula and think about sports, with fears of nuclear catastrophe looming larger than they have since the Cold War.
When the XXIII Olympic Winter Games begin Friday in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the politics of a nuclear North Korea will be an inevitable topic of discussion as will the absence of an official Russian delegation because of ongoing allegations of state-sponsored doping.
But politics and drugs are part of every Olympics, and the best athletes in the world still find a way to cut through the murk. So here are five storylines to watch for the Winter Games:
How will the proximity of North Korea affect these games?
The most recent news on this front has been upbeat, with North and South Korea announcing in January that they would form a single delegation and march into the Feb. 9 opening ceremony under a blue-and-white unification flag.
It was not clear how many athletes North Korea would send, but the agreement carried great symbolic weight after a year of heightened tensions between the neighboring Koreas.
It remains to be seen what United States officials might say about North Korea as the world turns its gaze toward Pyeongchang. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have spent much of the past year lobbing insults at each other, even as the United States wrestles with the serious question of how to handle a nuclear North Korea.
Some international affairs experts have argued that Kim’s recent Olympic diplomacy is a ploy to improve his standing on the world stage.
Regardless, the political backdrop will be an urgent topic as the Korean and U.S. delegations roll into Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium.
Slalom queen Mikaela Shiffrin is the best bet to emerge as the dominant American performer in Pyeongchang. Shiffrin won a gold medal in 2014, but since then, the 22-year-old Colorado native has established herself as one of the most dominant skiers in history, with world championship gold medals in 2015 and 2017 and a mind-boggling string of World Cup victories.
Shiffrin is the daughter of two ski racers who sought to mold her into a champion from an early age. In South Korea, she’ll be an overwhelming favorite in the slalom and a top contender in the giant slalom and combined events. She could become just the second American (after Andrea Mead Lawrence) to win two gold medals in Alpine skiing at one Olympics or the second American (after Bode Miller) to win three overall medals in Alpine skiing at one Olympics.
Meanwhile, don’t forget downhill master Lindsey Vonn, whose female record for World Cup victories Shiffrin might one day chase. At age 33, Vonn has battled physical woes for years, including the knee injury that kept her out of the 2014 Olympics. But if she’s healthy in South Korea, she can’t be counted out in the downhill or the super-G.
The United States is still searching for its next figure skating superstar.
When you think of past American stars from the Winter Games, figure skaters dominate the list.
But U.S. skaters didn’t win a medal in either the men’s or women’s individual competitions in 2014, and no U.S. woman has won an individual medal since Sasha Cohen took silver in 2006.
On the men’s side, 18-year-old Nathan Chen has a chance to reset the narrative with his jaw-dropping array of quadruple jumps. He hit seven of them cleanly to win his second consecutive national title last month. Chen is a gold-medal contender but could also skate well and finish off the medal stand because of fierce competition from stars such as Shoma Uno and Yuzuru Hanyu, both of Japan.
On the women’s side, the United States would need a major upset to claim even a bronze medal.
Gracie Gold, once considered the country’s best medal bet, stepped away from the sport last fall to focus on treatment for depression and an eating disorder.
Bradie Tennell won a national championship and secured her Olympic spot in January, but the 20-year-old has a thin international resume. Teammate Karen Chen finished fourth at world championships last year but just third at nationals last month. Veteran Mirai Nagasu has more experience than either against elite competition but has never broken through at an Olympics or world championships. She at least has the triple axel, a jump no other contender is expected to attempt, as a potential equalizer.
The bottom line is there’s no sign the next Michelle Kwan or Tara Lipinski is walking through that door.
Among the X athletes, look for the old man and the female prodigy.
At age 31, snowboarder Shaun White remains one of the biggest names in the U.S. delegation, but he had to scrap just to get into his fourth Olympics.
White won gold in the halfpipe in both 2006 and 2010 before falling to fourth in 2014. He was in danger of failing to qualify this year until he scored a perfect 100 on his last run at the Snowmass Grand Prix in January. That clutch performance raised the possibility White might have one more great run in him with a gold medal on the line.
For the next big thing, look to the women’s side, where 17-year-old snowboarder Chloe Kim is expected to seize a medal and figure prominently in NBC’s coverage.
Kim was too young to compete in the 2014 Olympics, where she would have been a medal contender. But between her deep bag of tricks, her outgoing personality and her background as a first-generation Korean-American, she’s the perfect package for these games.
The ongoing Russian doping scandal will be unavoidable.
Despite the December news that the International Olympic Committee would ban Russia — always a titan in the Winter Games — from Pyeongchang, some Russian athletes will compete in neutral gray uniforms, without a national affiliation.
These athletes (hundreds applied for exemptions) had to win individual approval from an IOC panel by demonstrating a history of competing clean. Though the IOC punishment, for “unprecedented systematic manipulation” of doping regulations, was theoretically a bombshell, it left many anti-doping officials angry with what they describe as a half-measure.
On the other side, Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have lashed out against the ban and disputed the facts behind the IOC investigation.
Each time a Russian athlete competes, doping will be the underlying context, as was the case at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.