No medals but plenty of cheers for North Korean athletes

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - North Korea will not be the only nation leaving the Pyeongchang Olympics without a medal, but they are one of the few minnows of winter sports to have earned rousing cheers wherever they go.

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When 25-year-old alpine skier Kim Ryon Hyang glided down the mountain in the women’s slalom to take last place, North Korean cheerleaders led the crowd in a warm ovation.

The diminutive Kim beamed after the race, taking photos with fans and waving excitedly to the crowd.

The cheerleaders, outnumbering the nation’s athletic team by 10 to one, have been a fixture wherever North Korea’s 22 athletes have competed.

They were particularly vocal when North Korean players joined South Koreans in a unified women’s ice hockey team, the first joint North-South team to compete at any Olympics.

The team’s head coach, Canadian Sarah Murray, played six of the 12 North Korean players in all five games. Only one, Kim Un Hyang, played in every one.

Figure skating pair Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, the only North Koreans to qualify for the Games, were the nation’s best hope. The others were given wildcard entries, part of South Korea’s diplomatic efforts to re-engage with the North.

The pair ranked 13th out of 16 teams, outperforming South Korean pair Kim Kyu-eun and Kam Alex Kang-chan.

“There remains lots of things to do ... It seems that we still lack experience and guts. We will do better,” Kim Ju Sik told reporters.

North Korea came into the Games with another big handicap: some of the world’s toughest international sanctions.

Unable to obtain their own state-of-the-art sporting equipment, they borrowed it from world skiing, skating and ice hockey federations -- on the condition they return it before heading home.

Additional reporting by Rory Carrol, Daniel Burns, Karolos Grohmann and Hyunjoo Jin; Editing by Mark Bendeich