VANCOUVER (AFP) - North Korean figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik may need a helping hand from the International Olympic Committee if they are to realise their dream of competing in the Winter Olympics next month.
But experienced Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte is in no doubt that if the promising duo do end up taking part in the February 9-25 Games in Pyeongchang, they will be fully deserving of their place.
Marcotte was granted a rare glimpse of Stalinist North Korea's sporting culture last year after coaching Ryom and Kim during eight weeks between June and August in Canada.
The 43-year-old had first noticed the duo during an appearance at the Asian Winter Games in Japan last year, where they placed third.
Marcotte made contact with the North Korean delegation to offer encouragement to the pair.
"They have very classical lines while skating to modern music, so it's a nice mix," Marcotte told AFP this week. "They're very charismatic in the way they skate - a lot of emotion and a great connection with each other, so my eyes were drawn to them right away." That initial contact prompted further talks a few weeks later, following a 15th place finish at the World Championships in Helsinki, when a North Korean federation representative and the skaters' coach tapped Marcotte about the possibility of the pair travelling to Canada to train.
The couple had trained in Canada before, having spent time in Toronto when they first began to skate as a pair three years ago.
The North Koreans - who train for around four hours a day in Pyongyang - requested coaching and choreography assistance from Marcotte during the camp.
Marcotte was required to find lodging for the athletes as well as their coach and a federation official, a former skater who would also act as translator since neither the skaters nor their coach spoke English.
'Really good energy'
As coach of South Koreans Kim Kyueun and Alex Kam, as well as competitors from several other countries, Marcotte was happy to take on the challenge.
Ryom, 18, and Kim, 25, gleaned insights from Canada's two-time world champions Eric Radford and Meagan Duhamel - who is married to Marcotte - during their stay.
"I brought them to the off-ice classes I do since they were very interested in that. They wanted to be stronger, so I took them to my pilates class," Duhamel said.
"They look up to us, but it was really fun for us to train with them. They had a really good energy every day and they worked really, really hard.
"The same as us, they wake up and they want to train every day. They want to be the best athletes in the world and represent their country at the Olympics." In Canada, the pair appeared to have no restrictions on what they did or where they went, Marcotte said.
"They love Canada. They felt safe here. They loved the people," he added. "I hope they come back." Historically, North Korean figure skaters have seldom competed outside their country and, when they do, their talent and ability often comes as a big surprise.
"I wish people would talk about how good the pair is," said Marcotte, who feels they could finish top 10 at the world championships this year.
"They're young. They want to learn. The main thing is they need to get faster. From there, anything's possible." The International Skating Union (ISU) said Wednesday that the pair had met "the necessary technical requirements" to take part in Pyeongchang.
However because North Korea officials missed a registration deadline, Ryom and Kim's fate was now left in the hands of the IOC.
"I don't know what's going to happen. It looks positive. I have faith they'll be there but just like (everyone else), I'm waiting to see what's going to be the outcome," Marcotte said.
North and South Korea will meet at the IOC's headquarters in Lausanne on January 20 to iron out the details of the North's participation at the Games.