The two Koreas marched together and South Korea’s president shared a historic handshake with Kim Jong Un’s sister as the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics opened in a spirit of intense rapprochement on Friday.
At a glittering but sub-zero ceremony, South and North Korea brought the crowd to its feet as they entered behind the blue-and-white Korean unification flag.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in shook the hand of a smiling Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as he entered the VIP seating section, and again as the Korean athletes marched.
South and North Korea last marched together at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. They also made the symbolic gesture at the opening of the 2000 and 2004 Olympics in Sydney and Athens.
“You will inspire us all to live together in peace and harmony despite all the differences we have,” said International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, before Moon declared the Games open.
Kim Yu-na, South Korea’s former gold medal-winning figure skater, wore skates as she lit the Olympic cauldron, after being handed the torch by two members of the joint Korean women’s ice hockey team.
Lee Hee-beom, head of the Games organising committee, said: “the North and South have become one through the Olympics”.
“Pyeongchang Olympics will become the hope and light for everyone that hopes for peace, not only on the Korean peninsula but in northeast Asia and the entire world,” said Lee.
In contrast, Russia’s athletes entered the ceremony behind a neutral flag after their team was suspended over a doping scandal. Despite the ban, 168 “Olympic Athletes from Russia” will compete in Pyeongchang.
Shivering athletes and spectators are bracing for one of the coldest Winter olympics on record, with real-feel temperatures plumbing minus 10C at the opening ceremony.
Japan’s speed skaters are among the athletes who decided it was too cold to brave the open-air ceremony, while organisers handed out heat packs, blankets and hats to keep spectators warm.
But Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua, echoing his eye-catching entrance at the Rio olympics, happily braved the chill as he appeared stripped to the waist and with his chest heavily oiled.
Expectations are sky-high for an array of stars at Pyeongchang, including American skiers Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn, while the drama in figure skating centres on whether Japan’s “Ice Prince” Yuzuru Hanyu can recover from injury to retain his crown.
Potential winners also include French flag-bearer Martin Fourcade in biathlon, hoping to add to his two gold medals in Sochi in 2014.
Competition gets into full swing on Saturday with five gold medals available, in ski jumping, cross country skiing, biathlon, speed skating and short-track speed skating.
Italian Christof Innerhofer topped Friday’s second men’s downhill training as Olympic racers battled tough conditions in alpine skiing’s blue riband event.
Innerhofer, who won downhill silver and combined bronze in Sochi four years ago, clocked 1min 18.97sec down a course shortened because of high winds atop the Jeongseon course.
It could prove to be an invaluable ski out, with weather conditions threatening Saturday’s third training and a potential rescheduling of Sunday’s actual downhill race, although nothing has been officially confirmed.
“It was very windy from behind on the track, I took the good wind with me, it blew me down!” said the 33-year-old Innerhofer.
Innerhofer, who has form on the mountain having finished second in the super-G in the test World Cup event two years ago, has struggled to bother the podium on a regular basis since his Sochi showing but insisted he still had something to offer.
“Sometimes I think about Sochi, especially when I go back home after every race and see my medals, it’s good memories,” he said.
“But I’m still here, because I want to live for the future, not the past. I would like to win.
“Sometimes I think maybe I can’t keep up with the best guys like I was years before, but I still try to believe and to give my best.”
Innerhofer predicted few surprises come race day here “because this slope is different from last two olympics. It will be skiing quick for known racers like Jansrud”.
Kjetil Jansrud, who won super-G gold and downhill bronze in Sochi as well as giant slalom in Vancouver in 2010, finished just behind Innerhofer but didn’t put much stock in the rankings.
“It’s not a training run that tells you very much,” he said, listing the shortened course, the shifting tailwind and a shaved down last jump.
Jansrud expressed his hope that the downhill would be held over a full course rather than an abbreviated one, and in “optimal conditions”.
“The message we got was that they wanted to do a downhill from the top in fair conditions,” he said.
“I’m thankful to hear that because that’s the way it should be in the olympics and we do have reserve days.
“If it’s more windy than today, the gondola is not going to run so then we have a major problem for everybody and it’s not going to happen.”
Canada’s Manuel Osborne-Paradis, who topped Thursday’s first training, said he had “no worries whatsover about the weather, we live in an outdoor sport”.
“If we were worried about the weather we’d have been screwed a long time ago when you’re like 10, 11, 12 years old,” he said.
“In and out of clouds, the wind, snow picks up, whatever – you push out the gate and you do your best for two minutes and all the stars have to align anyway, that’s the only factor you’re in charge of is how you ski.”
Jansrud’s Norwegian teammate Aksel Lund Svindal, a three-time medallist in Vancouver, said the field was wide open.
“On any given day, anything can happen. Downhill in the olympics is any given day,” the 35-year-old said.
“On any World Cup it’s hard to predict the winner… but here there’s one downhill every fourth year and then it really gets a lot of focus and if there’s a prize you remember it longer.”
Austria’s defending Olympic champion Matthias Mayer said the course was “much easier” than the icy challenge that was the downhill in Sochi.
“It’s going to be so close on Sunday as a result,” said the 27-year-old, who upset a host of favoured rivals to claim a shock win before he’d even claimed a World Cup downhill victory.
“It’s always so, so special for all of us.”
The casual viewer of the Pyeongchang Olympics could be forgiven for wondering just how many athletes are doped after a raft of recent revelations in winter sports, despite “every effort” to crack down.
Endurance sports such as cross-country skiing and biathlon have come under the most scrutiny, but – much like the Summer Olympics – no discipline has been completely unscathed in the build-up to the Games, which open on Friday.
Russian athletes deemed “clean” will compete under a neutral flag after their country was banned for a well-orchestrated drugs cheating system four years ago that allegedly had links all the way to the Kremlin.
Speaking on the eve of the Games in South Korea, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) president Craig Reedie attempted to assuage the concerns of athletes who fear their rivals could dope their way to gold.
There had been “very substantial” testing ahead of the Games, he said, adding: “I hope (that) will give the athletes comfort that they are in a fair and honest competition.
“Every effort has been made to provide a proper playing field for the athletes and I hope, more than anything else, that at the end of the Games that is what it will be.”
But recent Winter Games reveal grounds for scepticism.
Ahead of the Olympics, British newspaper the Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD said they had been passed a database showing that more than 50 cross-country skiers set to compete in South Korea returned abnormal readings between 2001 and 2010.
Following Salt Lake City in 2002, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) increased its scrutiny after Spain’s Johann Muehlegg and four others were caught doping and stripped of their medals.
At the 2006 Turin Games, doping products were discovered in a chalet used by a coach involved with Austria’s cross-country skiing team. He fled the Games but was caught at a police roadblock.
COCKTAIL OF STEROIDS
However, doping at the Winter Olympics reached its nadir with the Russian plot four years ago in Sochi.
The 2014 Games, hosted at enormous cost by Russia in the Black Sea resort, marked a new low with allegations of state-sponsored doping and the mass switching of test samples in favour of Russians.
The former director of the Moscow anti-doping lab Grigory Rodchenkov – now in exile, fearing for his life and cooperating with investigators – admitted he fine-tuned a muscle-building cocktail of steroids to ensure Russian competitors won medals on home soil.
And they inevitably did, as Russia soared to the top of the medals table – a triumph for President Vladimir Putin.
Russia has always denied accusations that it mounted a system of state-sponsored doping and has accused Rodchenkov of acting alone.
WADA commissioned Canadian professor Richard McLaren to compile a report that focused suspicion on hundreds of athletes, with skating, ice hockey, biathlon and even curling on a long list of winter and summer Olympic sports under scrutiny.
Endurance athletes in Pyeongchang will be heavily tested for the endurance booster EPO, and anti-doping officials fear that athletes have taken to using tiny, so-called “micro” doses to avoid detection. In response, testers will be taking ever more frequent samples.
“EPO micro-doses disappear quickly so doses are taken almost every day in the hope of escaping testers,” Xavier Bigard, of France’s national anti-doping agency, told AFP.
He also warned that the doses were likely to be taken out of competition to aid training and recuperation.
Anabolic steroid use is also under the microscope.
“One positive test in two is for anabolics and these offences happen in a wide field of disciplines,” Bigard added.
“EPO and anabolics can be used together to get both endurance and power. A cheat would be well advised to use both.”
In bobsleigh or speed skating, power is especially important.
Chinese speed skater Shi Xiaoxuan was banned from Pyeongchang after testing positive for clenbuterol, an endurance-boosting substance.
Chris Creveling of the US, a silver medallist in the 5,000m speed skating relay at the Sochi Olympics, has been barred for a positive test for clomifene, as has Canadian bobsleigher Jonathan Francis.
“It’s a substance that helps bring other anabolics to their full potential, a kind of booster,” explained Bigard.
According to WADA data, ice hockey has produced by far the most positive tests while alpine skiing emerges almost as white as snow.
But fans would be forgiven if they no longer believed in winter sports’ Snow White fairytale.