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Despite the pageantry of the opening ceremony, politics still takes center stage

David Wharton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Olympics

PYEONCHANG, South Korea – A rumbling sound drifted through the stands at Olympic Stadium, soon growing to a roar, the crowd finally stirring on a wind-chilled night.

Nothing about the opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Games -- not the music or the light shows, certainly not the speeches -- carried quite as much charge as the entrance of the Korean athletes.

This wasn't just the home team marching onto the field; this was a combined squad from the North and South, from neighboring countries that have endured decades of uneasy armistice.

"We are all touched by this wonderful gesture," said Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee. "We all join and support you in your message of peace."

The moment confirmed what should have been evident -- if you hold the Games in the middle of the Korean peninsula, sport cannot help being drawn into politics.

Even as the athletes bounced across the field, dressed in sparkling white coats, waving and throwing their arms in the air, there was intrigue in the dignitaries' box above.

There, Vice President Mike Pence sat just feet from the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The two never shook hands or spoke, according to Pence's office, but the optics were startling nonetheless.

All week long, it seemed that Olympic organizers understood the circumstances.

"Sport cannot lead the policy in the political arena," said Lee Hee-beom, president of the organizing committee. "But we are aiming for a 'Peace' Olympic Games."

Friday night's two-hour ceremony, which began 17 days of competition in this mountainous region 50 miles from the Demilitarized Zone, echoed that sentiment with the story of five children moving toward a "peace envisioned by Koreans."

This theme began with the sounding of a traditional temple bell at the center of the darkened stadium and then continued with vignettes of music and dance.

The children walked through a stylized landscape of animals and trees, finding their way to a heavenly altar. Organizers made generous use of images from the country's history and mythology.

The last time Korea hosted the Olympics -- the 1988 Summer Games -- things were not so harmonious.

A few months before the competition began, Korean Air Flight 858 was downed in a bombing later attributed to North Korean agents. The run-up to these Games has been almost as tense, with North Korea's Kim and President Trump trading barbs and raising concerns about nuclear conflict in the region.

But in a New Year's Day speech, Kim made a public overture toward South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Last-minute negotiations paved the way for North Korea to send a contingent of 22 athletes across the border to compete in five sports.

The countries, who had marched together in past Games, went a step further this time by agreeing to form a unified women's hockey team.

"For me, coming from a formerly divided country ... this is really a very special and emotional moment," said Bach, who was a medal-winning fencer for Germany.

The IOC leader was embroiled in another controversy this week involving the Russian contingent.

Russia had been barred from competing as a nation because of a widespread doping controversy. Individual athletes were invited to participate as "neutrals" if they could prove they had not used performance-enhancing drugs.

At the opening ceremony, scores of these "Olympic Athletes from Russia" took part in the Parade of Nations wearing outfits that bore no national markings. Not everyone was happy with the arrangement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted on several occasions that the U.S. was behind an unfair prosecution of his country. In meetings a few days ago, IOC members argued bitterly over whether the punishment was stern enough.

All of this threatened to overshadow what ranks as the largest Winter Games, with 92 nations bringing nearly 3,000 athletes to compete in 102 medal events.

The 244-member U.S. squad arrived with a number of established stars, including snowboarder Shaun White and skiers Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin. There also were promising newcomers such as figure skater Nathan Chen and snowboarder Chloe Kim.

"That mix," team leader Alan Ashley said, "really gives us a great opportunity."

But ahead of the Games, skiing, snowboarding and skating have taken a backseat as Lee and other Olympic officials expressed hope that sports might pave the way toward better relations between the North and South.

International experts had doubts.

"What's going to be most interesting is what happens when the Games finish," said Tim Powdrill, an associate director for Risk Advisory, a London-based security management group. "The real test is whether the North Koreans launch another (test) missile when the U.S. and South Koreans hold their next military drills."

Pence added to this speculation by traveling to South Korea with Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto had been held by the North Koreans and died shortly after his release last year.

Warmbier sat a short distance from the dignitaries' box, while below, a pair of Trump and Kim impersonators made their way through the stands, drawing onlookers until ushers escorted the two away.

The ceremony ended with the Korean women's hockey players carrying the Olympic torch to the rim of the stadium where South Korean figure skater Yuna Kim ignited the cauldron.

Then came a booming display of fireworks.

In his speech to the crowd, Bach seemed to hope that once competition began in earnest this weekend, things might quiet down, allowing sports to take center stage.

"Dear athletes," he said, "now it's your turn."

(c)2018 Los Angeles Times

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