Paralympics’ opening ceremony dazzles against political backdrop
The Winter Paralympics began amid a dazzling spectrum of color and music at Friday’s opening ceremony as Pyeongchang welcomed its second international sporting extravaganza of 2018.
And while South and North Korea didn’t march together, the North does have its first ever team at the Paralympics.
The pentagonal Olympic Stadium in Pyeongchang played host once again, celebrating the 567 athletes from 48 nations preparing to compete over the next nine days in South Korea.
Despite the sub-zero temperatures, the athletes were afforded a warm welcome from the 35,000-seater arena with a spectacular performance that drew on South Korean culture via an eclectic mix of traditional buk drumming, K-pop and the climactic lighting of the Paralympic cauldron.
The final ignition of the cauldron was carried out by South Korean wheelchair curling skip Seo Soon-seok, having taken the torch from one of the Olympics’ famous “Garlic Girls” — Kim Eun-jung, the skip for last month’s silver-medal-winning South Korean women’s curling team.
Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in was in attendance after global politics turned its head once more to the Korean peninsula with the announcement that a historic meeting will take place between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump.
North and South Korea march separately
In another development of the inter Korean diplomacy so prominently boosted by the Olympics last month, North Korea indeed will be participating at the Paralympics for the first time.
The delegation from north of the border includes two sit-skiers — Ma Yoo Chul and Kim Jeong Hyun — who will compete in the para cross-country as wildcard entries, while four “observing” athletes have also been sent to attend certain events as spectators.
In the Parade of Nations, the delegations from North and South Korea entered under separate flags, unlike the unprecedented unified march at the Olympic curtain-raiser last month.
The decision to march separately was made on Thursday following a lengthy meeting between the respective National Paralympic Committees (NPCs).
“Although we are disappointed, we respect the decision of the two NPCs who decided that marching separately would be better for both parties,” recently elected International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President Andrew Parsons said before the ceremony.
It was agreed after “a day of amicable and positive discussions between the two NPCs in the Paralympic village,” he added.
Meanwhile, International Olympic Committee (IOC) spokesperson Mark Adams empathized with the trials and tribulations of such complex diplomatic negotiations, saying: “We understand the difficulties for the International Paralympic Committee.
“This is not an easy process as we know from our own experience. We were still negotiating right up until the very last moment. Four hours before we still did not have agreement for a joint march.”
Despite the separated marches, there was a moment of unity later in the ceremony as one of the North Korean skiers, Ma, carried the Paralympic torch alongside South Korean cross-country skier Choi Bogue.
Beyond the Korean delegations, attention was also focused on the 30 Russian athletes competing as “Neutral Paralympic Athletes,” although their appearance passed without the drama of the Summer Paralympics in Rio, where a member of the Belarusian delegation was removed for waving a Russian flag in protest against the country’s exclusion.
Unlikely Paralympic stars shine
Alongside North Korea, Georgia and Tajikistan are taking athletes to the Winter Paralympics for the first time, with the latter achieving the rare feat of fielding a team at the Paralympics having been absent from February’s Olympics.
Perhaps even more so than the Olympics, the Paralympics promotes the stories of some of the world’s most remarkable individuals — people who have often pushed themselves beyond anything seen before.
Among the flagbearers at the opening ceremony were many of those figures.
Para snowboarder Mike Schultz led out Team USA — the largest of any NPC at the Games — having recovered from a life altering snowmobile crash in 2008, engineering prosthetics for himself and fellow competitors along the way.
Meanwhile Mexico’s sole competitor, Arly Aristides Velasquez Penaloza, carried his country’s flag into the stadium with the weight of four years’ recovery on his shoulders.
The 29-year-old mono skier competed in Vancouver in 2010 but after a serious crash at Sochi 2014 had to undergo severe surgery resulting in a lengthy and tortuous return to Paralympic-levels of fitness.
Also defying the odds is Japan’s ice sledge hockey goaltender Shinobu Fukushima, who makes an astonishing return to the Paralympics for the fourth time, now aged 61. The unlikely star only took up the sport in his 40s, having seen it at the Nagano Games in 1998.
There might not have been a topless Tongan in sight at this opening ceremony, but the Games won’t be lacking in stars.