The Winter Olympics got under way with a spectacular opening ceremony today and a “powerful message of peace” between North and South Korea.
Fireworks lit up the freezing night sky in Pyeongchang, where temperatures dropped to -5C, as athletes from both sides of the 38th parallel carried in the Unification Flag.
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said the opening ceremony and the Games as a whole showed “the unique power of sport to unite people”.
Watching in the stands were US vice-president Mike Pence and the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Kim Yo-jong, who was expected to be one of three torchbearers to light the Olympic Flame at the end of the ceremony.
Mr Pence’s presence follows an unprecedented war of words between President Trump and Kim Jong-un over the North’s numerous missile tests last year, including rockets they claimed could reach the US mainland. Kim Yo-jong, dubbed the “princess”, smiled for the cameras as she became the first member of Pyongyang’s ruling dynasty to set foot in the South since the Korean War in the early Fifties. She is on a US sanctions list over alleged links to human rights abuses in North Korea.
The trip, together with 90-year-old nominal head of state Kim Yong-nam, was the diplomatic high point of an Olympics-driven rapprochement between the rival Koreas, which are technically still at war. Organisers want the Games to be known as the “Peace Olympics”. Winter Olympics chief Lee Hee-Beom told the Standard the Games were a “historic moment for the region”. He said: “Thirty years on since the Seoul 1988 Summer Games, we are once again putting our country on the world map, bringing nations together to celebrate sport and peace.
“North Korea participating in Pyeongchang 2018 reinforces our message of peace and shows that sport transcends politics. It is a very significant moment in our history and I wish them, and all the competing athletes the very best of luck.”
Mr Bach, in his speech inside the Olympic Stadium, focused on the title of the ceremony, Peace in Motion. He said by marching together, the athletes “send a powerful message of peace to the world”. “All the athletes around me, all the spectators here in the stadium and all Olympic fans watching around the world, we are all touched by this wonderful gesture,” he said. “We all join and support you in your message of peace. United in our diversity, we are stronger than all the forces that want to divide us.”
However, British Olympic Association chairman Hugh Robertson said it was premature to suggest the Games could heal the rift between the North and South. He said: “You want to be careful of over-claiming about this. It’s great that for the Games that there has been this rapprochement. But people watch sport for great sporting moments not because of what it’s contributing to international diplomacy.” North Korean athletes have, however, already reportedly started to embrace some elements of Western culture, by ditching traditional Korean food in favour of pizza and pasta.
Forty-six athletes and officials from North Korea are being housed at the Gangneung Olympic Athletes’ Village. A chef at the restaurant said: “For the first two days, they mainly came looking for Korean food. Since then, they’ve often been eating at the salad and foreigners’ sections, and they like the spaghetti and pizza.”
The opening ceremony, which began at 11am, was telling the story of five Korean children travelling in time in a quest for peace. It was to include animals, nature and a cast of 2,000. Augmented reality and 5G technology were also being incorporated in the event — as well as a version of the John Lennon song Imagine — in front of 25,000 spectators at the specially-built Olympic Stadium. South Korean girl group Sistar were expected to sing the national anthem, with the spectacle being broadcast in more than 200 countries.
Team GB, which last night attended a reception with Princess Anne, was entering the stadium led by defending skeleton champion Lizzy Yarnold. Great Britain has taken its biggest ever team to a Winter Olympics with 59 athletes. UK Sport has challenged them to claim a record medal haul.
Britain won four medals at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, equalling the 1924 haul from Chamonix.
Ms Yarnold said: “There are so many talented athletes competing here for Team GB and hopefully this can be the start of our most successful ever Winter Olympics.”