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Politically charged Olympics come to an end

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The overtly political 2018 Winter Olympics closed Sunday night very much as they began, with humanity's finest athletes marching exuberantly across the world stage as three nations with decades of war and suspicion among them shared a VIP box — and a potential path away from conflict.

Senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. presidential adviser and first daughter Ivanka Trump sat in two rows of seats behind the Olympic rings, meant to represent a competition of peace and international unity. In close proximity — though with no apparent communication between Trump and Kim — they watched a spirited, elaborate show that concluded the Pyeongchang Games.

Even as dancers performed cultural stories to music before a huge crowd, South Korea's presidential office released a brief statement saying that Pyongyang had expressed willingness to hold talks with Washington.

The North has "ample intentions of holding talks with the United States," according to the office. The North's delegation also agreed that "South-North relations and U.S.-North Korean relations should be improved together," Moon's office, known as the Blue House, said.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, just before declaring the games closed, addressed the two Koreas' cooperation at the closing ceremony, saying, "The Olympic games are an homage to the past and an act of faith for the future."

"With your joint march you have shared your faith in a peaceful future with all of us," Bach said. "You have shown our sport brings people together in our very fragile world. You have shown how sport builds bridges."

It was all an extraordinary bookend to an extraordinary Olympics that featured athletic excellence, surprises and unexpected lurches forward toward a new detente on the Korean Peninsula. Thrilled athletes marched into the arena around the world's flags, relaxed after showing their athletic best to themselves and to the world.

"We have been through a lot so that we could blaze a trail," said Kim Eun-jung, skip of the South Korean women's curling team, which captured global renown as the "Garlic Girls" — all from a garlic-producing Korean hometown. They made a good run for gold before finishing with runner-up silver.

That these games would be circumscribed by politics was a given from the outset because of regional rivalries. North Korea, South Korea, Japan and China are neighbors with deep, sometimes twisted histories that get along uneasily with each other in this particular geographic cul-de-sac.

But there was something more this time around. Hanging over the entire games was the saga — or opportunity, if you prefer — of a delicate diplomatic dance between the Koreas, North and South, riven by bloodshed and discord and an armed border for the better part of a century.

The games started with a last-minute flurry of agreements to bring North Koreans to South Korea to compete under one combined Koreas banner. Perish the thought, some said, but Moon's government stayed the course. By the opening ceremony, a march of North and South into the Olympic Stadium was watched by the world — and by dozens of North Korean cheerleaders applauding in calibrated synchronicity.

Also watching was an equally extraordinary, if motley, crew. Deployed in a VIP box together were Moon, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's envoy sister, Kim Yo Jong. The latter two, at loggerheads over North Korea's nuclear program, didn't speak, and the world watched the awkwardness.

What followed was a strong dose of athletic diplomacy: two weeks of global exposure for the Korean team, particularly the women's hockey squad, which trained for weeks with North and South side by side getting along, taking selfies and learning about each other.

On Sunday night, though K-pop megastars EXO claimed center stage, leaders rejoined athletes as a primary focus.

Kim, President Donald Trump's daughter and Moon sat in close proximity as the Olympics' end unfolded before them and the statement was released in Seoul. Also seated nearby was Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. forces Korea. Unlike Pence, Ivanka Trump was smiling as she turned in the North Koreans' direction. It was not clear what she was smiling at, but a White House official said it was not the North Koreans.

The developments Sunday both inside and outside the VIP box were particularly striking given that Kim Yong Chol, now vice chairman of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party Central Committee, is suspected of masterminding a lethal 2010 military attack on the South.

Outside the stadium, North Korea was not welcomed as much.

More than 200 anti-Pyongyang protesters, waving South Korean and U.S. flags, banging drums and holding signs like "Killer Kim Yong Chol go to hell," rallied in streets near the park. They denounced the South Korean government's decision to allow the visit. There were no major clashes.

That wasn't all when it came to these odd games. Let's not forget Russia — or, we should say, "Olympic Athletes from Russia," the shame-laced moniker they inherited after a doping brouhaha from the 2014 Sochi Games doomed them to a non-flag-carrying Pyeongchang Games.

Two more Russian athletes tested positive in Pyeongchang in the past two weeks. So on Sunday morning, the IOC refused to reinstate the team in time for the closing but left the door open for near-term redemption from what one exasperated committee member called "this entire Russia drama."

Away from the politics, humanity's most extraordinary feats of winter athletic prowess unfolded, revealing the expected triumphs but also stars most unlikely — from favorites like Mikaela Shiffrin, Shaun White and Lindsey Vonn to sudden surprise legends like Czech skier-snowboarder Ester Ledecka and the medal-grabbing "Garlic Girls," South Korea's hometown curling favorites.

Other Olympic trailblazers: Chloe Kim, American snowboarder extraordinaire. The U.S. women's hockey team and men's curlers, both of which claimed gold. And the Russian hockey team, with its nail-biting, overtime victory against Germany.

What's next for the games? Tokyo in Summer 2020, then Beijing — Summer host in 2008 — staging an encore, this time for a Winter Games. With the completion of the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, that Olympic trinity marks one-third of a noteworthy Olympic run by Asia.

Meantime, the Olympians departing Monday leave behind a Korean Peninsula full of possibility for peace, or at least less hostility.

Slower final weekend for the Lake George Winter Carnival

LAKE GEORGE — Sunday was the slowest and final day of the 2018 Lake George Winter Carnival season, but it didn’t wash away the fact that it was one of the busiest seasons remembered.

Hotels were booked up and restaurants ran out of food and had to close early some nights throughout the month, according to Jessica Darran, the vice president of the carnival.

“Even with today’s weather and turnout, this season was phenomenal. Today gives us an opportunity to reflect,” Darran said.

The winter carnival starts the first weekend in February and runs every weekend throughout the month. This was the carnivals 57th year.

Lou Tokos, co-chairperson of the event, said this season went over and beyond his expectations.

“It was unbelievable,” Tokos said, also noting how busy the local shops and restaurants were.

Tokos tended the concession trailer and dished out hot dogs and cocoa to the handful of visitors who wandered the carnival bundled up in coats Sunday afternoon.

Darran described how the carnival grows and changes a little bit each year. This year, a new mascot, Rosie the Penguin, was a new addition to the carnival, as well as a hot chocolate bar that was started just a couple of seasons ago.

Darran said the ice was this season’s highlight.

“Mother Nature really cooperated with us this year; other than today we barely had to cancel events!” Darran said happily.

A couple of years ago temperatures hung in the 50s and were not conducive to ice-related activities.

On Sunday, two main attractions, the glacier golf and car races, were canceled due to too much water and slush on the lake. It was also the first time this season that nobody had signed up for the Polar Plunge.

On Saturday, Feb. 24, over 25 people dove into the icy water. Darran said it was hard to find parking in the village that day and lines for the popular chicken wing cook-off were remarkable.

“People came from all over the state for the cook-off,” Darran said.

A small group gathered around for Finnegan, the eight-year-old howling beagle mix from Connecticut, who took first in the Dog’s Got Talent contest. He’d already won second and third place in previous competitions.

The cold rain also didn’t keep away ice cream eaters from the free sundaes for Sundae Fun-Day.

“Events like those don’t get canceled because of weather, so they’re always a hit! And it’s a family-friendly event. The carnival is all about the families,” Darran said.

“This is our home in February.”

Congress and guns: Ideas, but no consensus

WASHINGTON — After a 10-day break, members of Congress are returning to work under hefty pressure to respond to the outcry over gun violence. But no plan appears ready to take off despite a long list of proposals, including many from President Donald Trump.

Republican leaders have kept quiet for days as Trump tossed out ideas, including raising the minimum age to purchase assault-style weapons and arming teachers, though on Saturday the president tweeted that the latter was "up to states."

Their silence has left little indication whether they are ready to rally their ranks behind any one of the president's ideas, dust off another proposal or do nothing. The most likely legislative option is bolstering the federal background check system for gun purchases, but it's bogged down after being linked with a less popular measure to expand gun rights.

The halting start reflects firm GOP opposition to any bill that would curb access to guns and risk antagonizing gun advocates in their party. Before the Feb. 14 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people, Republicans had no intention of reviving the polarizing and politically risky gun debate during an already difficult election year that could endanger their congressional majority.

"There's no magic bill that's going to stop the next thing from happening when so many laws are already on the books that weren't being enforced, that were broken," said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the third-ranking House GOP leader, when asked about solutions. "The breakdowns that happen, this is what drives people nuts," said Scalise, who suffered life-threatening injuries when a gunman opened fire on lawmakers' baseball team practice last year.

Under tough public questioning from shooting survivors, Trump has set high expectations for action.

"I think we're going to have a great bill put forward very soon having to do with background checks, having to do with getting rid of certain things and keeping other things, and perhaps we'll do something on age," Trump said in a Fox News Channel interview Saturday night. He added: "We are drawing up strong legislation right now having to do with background checks, mental illness. I think you will have tremendous support. It's time. It's time."

Trump said Sunday that the Florida school shooting is the top issue he wants to discuss with the nation's governors. Under pressure to act to stem gun violence on school grounds, Trump planned to solicit input from the state chief executives during meetings today at the White House. The governors are in Washington for their annual winter meeting.

Trump's early ideas were met with mixed reactions from his party. His talk of allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons into classrooms was rejected by at least one Republican, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., both spoke to Trump on Friday. Their offices declined comment on the conversations or legislative strategy.

Some Republicans backed up Trump's apparent endorsement of raising the age minimum for buying some weapons.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he would support raising the age limit to buy a semi-automatic weapon like the one used in Florida. Rubio also supports lifting the age for rifle purchases. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., a longtime NRA member, wrote in The New York Times that he now supports an assault-weapons ban.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said he expects to talk soon with Trump, who has said he wants tougher background checks, as Toomey revives the bill he proposed earlier with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to expand presale checks for firearms purchases online and at gun shows.

First introduced after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 in Connecticut, the measure has twice been rejected by the Senate. Some Democrats in GOP-leaning states joined with Republicans to defeat the measure. Toomey's office said he is seeking to build bipartisan support after the latest shooting.

"Our president can play a huge and, in fact, probably decisive role in this. So I intend to give this another shot," Toomey said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

The Senate more likely will turn to a bipartisan bill from Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to strengthen FBI background checks — a response to a shooting last November in which a gunman killed more than two dozen people at a Texas church.

That bill would penalize federal agencies that don't properly report required records and reward states that comply by providing them with federal grant preferences. It was drafted after the Air Force acknowledged that it failed to report the Texas gunman's domestic violence conviction to the National Criminal Information Center database.

The House passed it last year, but only after GOP leaders added an unrelated measure pushed by the National Rifle Association. That measure expands gun rights by making it easier for gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines.

The package also included a provision directing the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to review "bump-stock" devices like the one used during the shooting at a Las Vegas music festival that left 58 people dead and hundreds injured.

Senate Democrats say any attempt to combine the background checks and concealed-carry measures is doomed to fail.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was skeptical Trump would follow through on proposals such as comprehensive background checks that the NRA opposes.

"The real test of President Trump and the Republican Congress is not words and empathy, but action," Schumer said in a statement.

"Will President Trump and the Republicans finally buck the NRA and get something done?" Schumer asked. "I hope this time will be different."

Governors fear for election security amid Russian cyberattacks

WASHINGTON — Will your vote be safe this year from foreign adversaries working to undermine U.S. democracy? Some of the nation’s governors aren’t so sure.

State leaders of both parties worried aloud Sunday about the security of America’s election systems against possible cyberattacks ahead of this fall’s midterm elections, aware that Russian agents targeted more than 20 states little more than a year ago, and the Trump administration has taken a mostly hands-off approach to the continued interference.

U.S. intelligence leaders report Russian hackers are already working to undermine this November’s elections, which will decide the balance of power in Congress and in statehouses across the nation.

“In my lifetime, I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s scary,” Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, said. “The biggest concern is when you have a president and an administration that denies the problem and doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the problem, it’s hard to believe that they’re going to be offering any real solutions or funding to make our system more secure.”

Election security has been overshadowed by a near-constant string of chaos and controversy out of the White House over the last year. As most of the nation’s governors gathered in Washington for a weekend conference, issues like gun violence, Trump’s leadership and the economy dominated most hallway conversations. Yet non-partisan experts and both Democratic and Republican elected officials suggest there is no issue more critical to American democracy than the integrity of the nation’s elections, which are facing unprecedented cyberattacks.

The Trump administration so far has done little to help secure the mishmash of 10,000 local voting jurisdictions across the nation that mostly run on obsolete and imperfectly secured technology. Russian agents targeted election systems in 21 states ahead of the 2016 general election, the Department of Homeland Security said, and separately launched a social media blitz aimed at inflaming social tensions and sowing confusion.

The search for a solution has been shaped by partisan politics.

While Democratic governors lashed out at the Trump administration for ignoring the threat, some Republicans, such as Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin insisted the media are overstating the problem. Several other Republicans, however, were openly concerned about outside interference but declined to criticize the Trump administration’s inaction.

“There’s obviously nothing more important than protecting the mechanism of democracy, and they’ve shown that they can at least meddle if not directly influence,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who leads the Republican Governors Association, said of Russian hackers. “We’re paying attention to it.”

Earlier in the month, senior officials from the Department of Homeland Security participated in a series of “coordination meetings” with state and local election officials and private companies to discuss cybersecurity for the nation’s election infrastructure, the White House said last week. A Trump spokesman, however, declined to respond to the governors’ concerns when asked to comment Sunday.

Trump rarely mentions the Russian threat. The president has instead repeatedly condemned special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election meddling as “a witch hunt.”

Mueller’s team has charged 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies in a plot to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

“I do think hackers are a threat for the nation,” said Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican. “We’ve seen a lot of foreign influence trying to break into our election cycle.”

But Fallin, like several governors, downplayed the threat in her state. She noted that Oklahoma participated in the recent meetings with the Department of Homeland Security.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, said his state, which allows some voters to return ballots electronically, recently earned the top grade for election security — a B — in a national report released by the Center for American Progress.

“We’re Number 1 in the nation and we’re closest to Russia,” he said. “Our elections are in good shape.”

Few governors could detail what specific steps are being taken to strengthen election security when asked. Democrats in particular suggested that the Trump administration has done almost nothing.

“It’s one of the most, if not the most, immediate threats,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. “So now we’ve been able to prove that Russia hacked. What’s our response? Does our country have a response?”

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, another Democrat, likened Russia’s cyberattacks to Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Because of some infatuation with Vladimir Putin, the president of the United States refuses to recognize that we’re under attack. It’s like December 8, 1941, and Franklin Roosevelt getting up there and saying, ‘yesterday nothing happened.’” Inslee said. “That’s the situation we have right now, and it’s disturbing.”