Where eagles dare: tardy North Korean skier wins Olympic hearts

by Alastair HIMMER

Pyeongchang (South Korea) (AFP) - A tearful North Korean skier earned the biggest cheer of the day at the women's giant slalom Thursday after a display that brought back fond memories of glorious Olympic no-hopers.

Kim Ryon Hyang skied gently down the Pyeongchang course in a time of one minute, 40.22 seconds -- almost half a minute off the top times set by Italy's Manuela Moelgg and American Mikaela Shiffrin.

It was a performance reminiscent of British ski jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards, who stole the hearts of fans around the world with his all-too-brief attempts at getting airborne during the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

Roared on by around 150 of North Korea's famed "Army of Beauties" cheerleaders sporting red and white puffer jackets and dark glasses, the 25-year-old Kim punched the air as she crossed the line in one piece.

"I was greatly supported by our cheer group," said the diminutive North Korean after placing last of 67 finishers.

"I had confidence that North Korea could one day compete in international competition," added Kim, whose baptism of fire ended in tears when she was disqualified for a false start on her second run.

"As I'm at the Olympics I really should aim to do better. In the future I hope to be able to win a medal."

North Korea is said to have just one ski resort, the brainchild of the country's leader Kim Jong Un, although it is often empty except for the nursery slope, according to media reports.

But the secretive state has sent 22 athletes, including alpine skiers, to take part in the Olympics in South Korea as part of a charm offensive after months of bellicose rhetoric and provocative missile launches.

Of the 22, only pairs skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik reached the Olympic qualifying standard with the rest -- including slalom skier Kim -- getting a special invite.

North Korea's female cheerleaders have appeared at venues, clapping in perfect unison and serenading local fans with nostalgic love songs and being "one nation" while waving the blue unification flag.

Kim's spirited effort also sparked memories of Equatorial Guinean swimmer Eric "The Eel" Moussambani, who clung for dear life to the pool rope at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in his first dip in a 50-metre pool.