North Korean skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik produced the performance of their lives to smash their personal-best score and qualify for Thursday’s pairs final at the Winter Olympics.
Vociferously backed by 200 singing North Korean cheerleaders, the duo seduced the supportive crowd on their Games debut with an excellent execution of their short programme to the Beatles classic “A Day in the Life”.
The 19-year-old Ryom and her partner Kim, 25, are the only two of the 22 North Korean athletes at the Games in South Korea to meet Olympic qualifying standards – the rest got in on a special invitation as part of a landmark agreement that led to some calling this the “Peace Olympics”.
And their skill was on full display at the Gangneung Ice Arena, the judges awarding them 69.40 points, destroying their previous highest score of 65.25 and propelling them into the free-skate final in 11th place.
The pair were initially marched past the media by a minder without stopping to discuss their electric performance.
But just before they left, Kim said the support from the crowd – North Korean cheerleaders and South Koreans – had been a huge boost.
“There has been no discomfort and now that we have competed, (we could see) how strong our Korean people can be when we are together,” the 25-year-old said. “We are one people sharing the same bloodline.”
Before Kim and Ryom took to the ice, the all-female posse of North Korean cheerleaders, mobbed by media on a trip to the beach the day before, went en masse to answer the call of nature.
Dressed in red uniforms with red-and-white woolly hats, they filed out to the toilet with their ever-present minders waiting patiently outside, occasionally approaching photographers to stop them taking pictures.
In a perfectly choreographed move worthy of any gold medal, the cheerleaders emerged to take their seats just in time to start waving North Korean flags.
Resplendent in matching black trousers and black-and-silver-sequined tops, Kim and Ryom looked relaxed and confident, giving the impression this was their fifth Olympics – rather than their first.
“And now the two skaters from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” barked the stadium announcer, her voice drowned out by cheers from supporters from both Koreas – two countries still technically at war.
Jeff Beck’s haunting guitar strains filled the air as Ryom and Kim nailed their opening triple twist lift, generating a roar of approval from the stands.
At the end of their routine they smiled, waved and bowed, and jumped up in delight when their marks flashed up on the big screen.
Watching from rinkside was their Canadian coaching consultant Bruno Marcotte, with whom they spent a spell training in Montreal last year.
In the run-up to the competition, he said his students were up against it.
“Let’s be honest, they’re ranked 15th in the world. It’s a really strong field,” he said. “They were 15th at the world championships in Helsinki, if they come top 12 we’d be ecstatic.”
The couple’s presence at the 2018 Games was only confirmed following a sudden rapprochement between the two Koreas after tensions reached fever pitch as Pyongyang carried out a series of weapons tests.
Snowboard legend Shaun White pulled off a spectacular final run of the day to grab his third Olympic halfpipe gold medal on Wednesday, claiming America’s 100th Winter Games title in the process.
The 31-year-old held his nerve at the last to score a brilliant 97.75 points and snatch the title from Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, who was leading on 95.25, with Australia’s Scotty James third on 92.00.
It was particularly satisfying for White, known as “Flying Tomato” because of his red hair, who won gold in 2006 and 2010 and helped put the hipster sport on the map, but flopped in Sochi four years ago.
White said it had been an agonising wait for his score from the judges to come through, as he pipped Hirano to the title to make US history.
“Oh man, that was awful and amazing at the same time. I knew I did a great ride and I was proud of that and I could walk away with my head high, but when they announced my score and I’d won, it crippled me,” he said.
“I was so overwhelmed with happiness, I’ve been through so much to get here. I had this crazy injury in New Zealand (in October) where I busted my face open.
“I actually did the same trick that injured me here in the halfpipe today. So there were a lot of obstacles to overcome and now it’s all worth it.”
Japan’s Hirano had to settle for a second silver in a row and James, a two-time world champion, saw his victory hopes dashed as he fell on his final effort.
Team USA are threatening to clean up in snowboarding in South Korea, winning all four competitions so far.
The 17-year-olds Chloe Kim and Red Gerard, and fellow American Jamie Anderson, have all won in Pyeongchang, where competitors have struggled with blustery winds.
White, a comparative veteran and snowboarding’s biggest star, was in ominous form in qualifying on Tuesday as he topped the standings with 98.50.
He has been determined to show snowboarding’s next generation that he is no spent force after scoring a controversial perfect 100 in Colorado last month that sparked accusations of favouritism.
White called his winning run in the tricky conditions in South Korea “one of the most challenging I’ve ever done” because of the combinations he pulled off.
His watching family were “beside themselves”, he said.
“I’m still shaking, I don’t know what’s happening,” added White. “Man, three gold medals. My fourth Olympics. Thank you, I’m feeling blessed.”
Scott Blackmun, chief executive of the US Olympic Committee, paid tribute to America’s Winter Games champions over the years, starting with speed skater Charles Jewtraw at the inaugural edition in 1924.
“Each and every one of the 100 times we have heard our national anthem play in Olympic Winter Games competition has been a truly unique and special moment,” Blackmun said in a statement.
“These medals have spanned nearly 100 years and showcase the dedication to excellence that is central to Team USA and the entire US Olympic family.”
Shani Davis insisted he wasn’t distracted by a row over the US flag-bearer for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics after he finished 19th in the 1,500m speed skating on Tuesday.
“I’ve been through a lot worse,” shrugged Davis, who had prompted a backlash when he suggested a racial motive after losing the right to carry the flag on the toss of a coin.
Davis, the most decorated US Winter Olympian with two Olympic golds and two silvers, lost out to Erin Hamlin when America’s winter sports federations couldn’t decide on the flag bearer, and tossed a coin to settle the matter.
The African-American Davis labelled the coin flip “dishonourable” in a Twitter post with the hashtag #BlackHistoryMonth2018, triggering an angry response on social media.
“I’ve been through a lot worse than what’s been going on for the past few weeks so it didn’t disturb me whatsoever,” said Davis, 35, in his first comments on the furore.
“I’m OK, nothing distracted me. No excuses for not performing.
“I just wasn’t strong enough to compete with the top-level guys. I’m thinking and hoping that this is out of the way now and I can just concentrate on the 1,000m.”
Davis, who put his Twitter feed in “protected” mode at the weekend, blocking new followers and access to his posts, added: “After the Olympics have gone I will sit back and go through everything in my mind, but I’m just happy to be here.
“The Olympics is a beautiful thing.”
The Netherlands celebrated a one-two in the 1,500m with Kjeld Nuis storming to gold ahead of compatriot Patrick Roest.