Politics at play as South Koreans welcome the sporting world
The PyeongChang Winter Games, already dubbed the Peace Olympics or the Propaganda Olympics, depending on whether they are viewed through a sporting or political prism, began last night amid fireworks, dancing tigers and last-minute threats by the North Koreans to stage a boycott. The Australian flag-bearer, snowboarder Scotty James, who called for the Olympics to be focused solely on sport, said the ceremony was about bringing athletes together. “It’s not politics,’’ he said, promising to ignore the VIP section high in the stadium. He enthusiastically waved the Australian flag as the team entered the $100 million PyeongChang Olympic Stadium before a full house of 35,000 people.
James led 26 Australian athletes and several officials, all in the opening ceremony team uniform of silver jacket and green pants, and green and gold beanies. In the second row marching with chef de mission Ian Chesterman was the first indigenous Winter athlete Harley Windsor and the four-time Olympian Holly Crawford.
Temperatures were at -1C — relatively balmy compared with the -20C of recent days.
Despite a recent warming of relations between North and South Korea, over the past two days the North’s position at the Games became volatile and Olympic officials and the South Korean government feared the two Koreas might march together.
But the North Korean taekwondo team led the ceremony warmup to enthusiastic cheers from the North’s cheerleaders, seated in the upper decks of the stadium.
The biggest cheer came when the two Koreas marched in as one.
While seating positions were always going to pose diplomatic challenges, bullish comments by US Vice-President Mike Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to further increase the sanctions gave rise to last-minute threats by North Korean officials to derail the heralded marching together of the two Koreas.
At a pre-ceremony reception of 12 heads of state hosted by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Mr Pence stayed for a short time. Mr Abe shook hands and spoke briefly with North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, Kim Yongnam. North Korea was unimpressed that Mr Pence invited Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier, saying Mr Warmbier was there to “remind the world of the atrocities that happen in North Korea’’. Otto Warmbier was jailed in North Korea for stealing a poster but was returned to the US last year with severe brain damage and died soon afterwards.
North Korea’s delegation included Kim Yo-jong, the influential sister of leader Kim Jong-un.
Clockwise from main: The Australian team, led by enthusiastic flag-bearer Scotty James, enters the stadium in PyeongChang; Fireworks explode over the arena to signal the start of the opening ceremony; South Korean dancers perform ‘The Land of Peace’ segment of the ceremony