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pyeongchang 2018

Team South Korea celebrate their semi-final victory over Japan at the Gangneung Curling Center on Friday. The team’s success has spread curling fever in the host country making the so-called ‘Garlic Girls’ overnight national heroes.CATHAL MCNAUGHTON

Whatever South Korea's planners hoped for their Olympics, it almost certainly didn't include Pancake, Sunny, Annie and Steak – and it probably didn't include the sister of a dictator, either.

But when people look back on Pyeongchang after the closing ceremony on Sunday, those will doubtless be the central characters in an Olympics that has been defined by its power to surprise – in nuclear diplomacy and on the curling rink.

These Winter Games were accompanied with all sorts of promises. They would, planners pledged, herald a new era in Asian winter sport, launching South Korea into fourth place in the medal count. Thirty years after the Seoul Olympics marked South Korea's emergence from dictatorship and poverty, Pyeongchang would set a signpost to the country's arrival as a modern high-tech power. These Olympics might even offer a glimpse of peace on the Korean peninsula.

But the Games arrived at a particularly fraught moment. Months earlier, North Korea boasted that it had a missile capable of raining nuclear destruction on the United States.

Weather forecasters warned that Olympic temperatures would be not just chilly but potentially frostbite-inducing.

And there were South Koreans who were decidedly cool to the whole idea of an expensive sporting event on their soil.

Then came Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, who arrived at the Olympics surrounded by an army of cheerleaders and bearing an invitation for South Korea to attend a Pyongyang leaders' summit meeting that, if it happens, stands to mark a historic shift between two countries still technically at war.

And then came the people with the funny-sounding nicknames, the members of South Korea's women's curling team.

They chose their monikers from their favourite breakfast foods: yogurt brand Annie for Kim Eun-jeong, Steak for Kim Kyeong-ae, Pancake for Kim Yeong-mi and Sunny for how Kim Seon-yeong likes her eggs.

Theirs is a power breakfast: they vanquished Canada, Switzerland, Britain and Sweden and now have a chance at a gold medal.

And their steely sophistication has drawn huge television audiences, some of whom played along with sweeping brooms in front of robot vacuums in their own kitchens – and made women's curling the hottest ticket at the Olympics. On Friday night, in a prime-time match against national rival Japan, people stood outside the gates with signs begging for tickets.

For curling. In South Korea.

The Pyeongchang Games had been transformed.

"It's kind of abracadabra!" said hotel worker Ryan Shim, 26, one of the legions of new South Koreans curling converts as he jogged to get into the Gangneung Curling Centre on Friday.

Even the weather warmed up for a Winter Games that has managed to kindle both new hope on the Korean peninsula and the thrill of getting carried away in sport.

For curling, and maybe for these Olympics as well, "how can I say it?" said Wonyul Bae, who teaches sport management at Ithaca College, and attended the Friday night game. "Dreams do come true."

'Persistence paid off'

Some Olympics have clear story lines. Sochi put an exclamation mark on the corruption that had marred the Olympic image. The 2008 Beijing Olympics were a global coming-out for China, in much the same way as the Seoul Games marked an important moment in South Korea in 1988.

But even with only a few days of competition left in Pyeongchang, no one can really enunciate what these Games are supposed to be about.

That's been true from the beginning. The International Olympic Committee passed over South Korea twice before awarding the Games to Pyeongchang.

The "persistence paid off," Dick Pound, the long-time IOC member, said. But "we were never certain whether or not there was a countrywide enthusiasm for it, as opposed to the province." South Korea's Gangwon province, where nearly all of the Olympic events are taking place, won billions of dollars worth of new highways and bullet-train tracks for its efforts – with no clear idea how any of it will ever pay back the costs.

Indeed, in the many years it took to win and prepare for the Games, "it's quite possible that we might have lost the cause in a way – the cause to define what this actually means for the country," said Kim Byoung-joo, a business consultant and former diplomat who is an adjunct professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

The political turmoil that surrounded the ouster and arrest of President Park Geun-hye, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets to protest corruption, consumed the national conversation with the serious business of South Korea's democratic future.

The Olympics were an afterthought.

As they approached, anemic ticket sales only underscored a broad feeling of South Korean disinterest, a feeling reflected in the spectator barrenlands at many events once the Games began.

"When you visualize it you see a packed house – it's the Olympics!" Canadian ice dancer Kaitlyn Weaver said.

Seeing empty seats was "kind of frustrating," she said.

Still, she couldn't help but be swept up in the drama surrounding an Olympics held barely 80 kilometres from the border of a hostile country with an active nuclear-missile-development program – only to have people from that country show up in large numbers.

"I get chills just thinking about Korea marching together" as a united team at the opening ceremony, she said. Later, at the athletes village cafeteria, the North Koreans were there with others. "We're eating the same food, we're sitting at the same table and that's such a beautiful thing," she said.

"That's why the Olympics is so special, besides just being a sporting event. It's an opportunity to show the world that you can come together."

None of this was obvious even a few months before Pyeongchang, when France threatened to withdraw and sports leaders publicly mused about a disastrous boycott, amid worry that South Korea could not keep the world's best athletes safe from a menacing North Korea.

Then everything changed. North Korea did not just come, it brought some 500 people, including the second most powerful person in the country, Kim Yo-jong, who became the first inner member of the Kim dynasty to set foot on South Korean soil.

She arrived bearing enough smiles to earn her comparisons to "North Korea's Ivanka Trump." She also brought a blue folder containing an invitation for South Korean president Moon Jae-in to come to Pyongyang to meet her brother, Kim Jong-un.

Moon has yet to accept, although few observers doubt he will do so.

North Korea's participation at the Olympics was initially mocked as "missile insurance" for South Korea. It may have marked the beginning of an important pivot. "The Olympic Games has been a critical juncture that has changed the phase from pressure towards dialogue," said Kim Hyun-wook, a scholar at Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

It has made "South Korean people feel that the North and South are one national identity."

Sixty-five per cent of those surveyed by the Korea Society Opinion Institute believe the Olympics will improve inter-Korean relations. In a RealMeter survey, 61.5 per cent of people supported an inter-Korean summit.

At the Games, meanwhile, large crowds came out to watch the sporting construct conceived by political leaders as the symbolic heart of North Korea's Olympic participation: a unified Korean women's hockey team.

Slapped together by politicians, it scored twice in the five games it lost. It also brought the two countries into a common sporting effort, a picture of unity in shin pads and skates.

"I think we have changed the way that people see the North, and definitely the way our players and our staff view the North," said team coach Sarah Murray, the Canadian-American woman thrust into the middle of North Korea's Olympic involvement.

"I hope that it has long-term effects. But I'm not sure."

There is reason to restrain expectations. For the Olympic closing ceremony, North Korea is sending Kim Yong Chol, a controversial general linked with two 2010 attacks on South Korean forces, including the sinking of a warship with a torpedo, killing 46 sailors.

The United States has dispatched Donald Trump's daughter, Ivanka, whose arrival on Friday was followed, several hours later, by the imposition of what the U.S. President called the "heaviest sanctions ever imposed" on North Korea.

Whether the Games achieve anything durable on the Korean peninsula comes down to North Korea, said Chun Yungwoo, who was Seoul's top representative at international denuclearization talks a decade ago.

"Time is running out. I don't know how long the U.S. can wait until North Korea decides to make the strategic decision to abandon its nuclear ambitions."

If it doesn't, he said, "those who believe in diplomacy will become the biggest losers." Because "that will only pave the way for military option against North Korea."

It's a chilling thought – and just one more reason for South Koreans to be captivated by curling.

Because as they have discovered these Olympics, tensions on the women's curling sheet tend to end in victory.

Gold medal on the line

For 29 seconds on Friday night, South Korea stopped breathing. It was the 11th end in the semi-final match against Japan, the teams even at seven. Japan had just made a clutch shot, putting a rock in scoring position.

Skip Kim Eun-jeong – yogurt Annie, an instantaneous new icon in her owl-eye glasses – had the hammer.

As she slid out of the hack, 3,000 people filling the seats and hundreds more standing fell silent to the sound of polished granite on ice, not daring to exhale.

The three sweepers laid into their brooms. The shot looked light.

Kim Eun-jeong, yelling encouragement, raced in close behind, banging her broom on the ice.

Her rock settled in just off the button, tapping against Japan.

The team shrieked, brooms in the air and the crowd roared. Moments later, Kim Eun-jeong blew kisses into a delirious crowd.

Next stop: the gold-medal match on Sunday.

"With this huge support, I thought there's nothing we can't do," Kim Eun-jeong said.

"I can't express my emotions into words," teammate Kim Seon-yeong – Sunny – said. "All I can say is, I'm really, really happy and I'm so glad to have the chance to get a gold medal."

These had the makings of a difficult Olympics for the host nation. South Korea is to short track what Norway is to cross-country, but it failed to match expectations on home ice. On Thursday, two crashes tore away medal hopes in the women's 1,000 metres and the men's 5,000 metres relay. South Korea still scooped up more short-track medals than any other country, but head coach Kim Sun-tae acknowledged "disappointments," while declaring himself satisfied.

"We've always talked about how we should accept whatever results we get," he said.

On Friday night, South Korea languished ninth in the medal standing, far from its fourth-place target.

But rather than wringing its hands, the country stood transfixed by curling.

The curlers are "good! And they're cute. And they're charismatic and they kind of represent this Korean spirit, an underdog image," said Charm Lee, the former president of the Korea Tourism Organization.

While leading the tourism effort, he came up with a national advertising tagline: "Be Inspired by Korea."

Watching the women's curling team, he figures it might be time to bring it back. "Korean women are a great image-maker for the country," he said.

"They're like magical warriors to me," said artist Stella Kim, who captured the team's poker-faced death stares in a manga-inspired piece of fan art that, posted to Twitter, was immediately spread far and wide.

Like the Olympics itself, the likelihood is that this is a short-lived Olympic moment. Even so, it is an extraordinary one. "Curling is bigger than soccer right now," Bae said.

South Korea may have wanted Pyeongchang to remind the watching world of its technological prowess and cultural sophistication.

Instead, it got something arguably better: a group of four unflappable curlers.

"We've brought Winter Olympic sport to the common man, accessible to everybody," said Kim Kyung-doo, who in 1994 led the effort to bring curling to South Korea. He eventually convinced Uiseong, a sparsely populated rural area where he owned land, to build the rink where the women's team trained. The four women were among the first group to begin training there in 2006. (They have been dubbed the "Garlic Girls" because Uiseong is famous for the pungent bulbs.)

Kim coached them for years. He took them to Buddhist temples to meditate. Together, they studied Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and Secrets of the Heart.

He used it as a manual for achieving success from a humble upbringing – not a bad metaphor for an Olympics that has defied low expectations.

Before the curlers became icons for the Games, "there wasn't a lot of interest in the Olympics," Kim said.

"Now, I hear people say, 'It feels like the reason the Pyeongchang Olympics exists is for the curling.'"

With reporting by Eunice Kim

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