JOHN POWERS I ON OLYMPICS
DAN ISTITENE/GETTY IMAGES
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — This isn’t the first time that the Lords of the Rings have put a country back together. For eight years, the International Olympic Committee forced East and West Germany to march and compete together. When IOC president Thomas Bach fenced in 1976, the countries had separate teams. Not until 1992, the first chance after reunification, was Germany truly one again at the Games.
The year after the Soviet Union had shattered into 15 pieces, the IOC glued it back together as the Unified Team. That was a one-time fix. The two Koreas, who have been technically at war with each other for 65 years, have marched together several times in Opening Ceremonies, most recently in Turin in 2006. But it’s the first time that the North marched in a Games hosted by the South.
The two countries entered the stadium for Friday night’s Opening Ceremony garbed in white jackets with “KOREA” on the back, as an athlete from each country bore a flag emblazoned with the Korean peninsula. It was, Bach declared, “a powerful message of peace to the world.”
“I think it shows potential for the spirit of the Olympics to survive,” said United States flag bearer Erin Hamlin. “That’s what it’s all about, connecting people together in a peaceful environment to celebrate sport and something that we all love to do.
“Yeah, we all speak different languages, are from different cultures, eat different foods, wear different things. But we all are the same. We’re all athletes, and none of that stuff matters when it comes to competition.”
On Saturday night, for the first time at an Olympics, the South and North will compete together against Switzerland as teammates on a combined women’s hockey team.
“Our team being put together was a political statement,” said Sarah Murray, who coaches the squad and who originally opposed the idea, which was firmed up only three weeks before the Games. “But now that the team is together we are just one team. Now it is hockey and we are here to compete.”
This also wasn’t the first time that athletes marched behind the Olympic flag as independent participants. The IOC arranged it for the Serbs and Montenegrins and Macedonians, for the Kuwaitis and East Timorese and others. Two years ago in Rio de Janeiro, there was a Refugee Team with 10 representatives from four countries.
But this was the first time that an entire nation was forced to march without its own flag or name. Russia, which hosted the Winter Games four years ago and topped the medal table, came in behind the five-ringed banner, which was borne aloft by a Korean volunteer. Their athletes, who will perform as Olympic Athletes from Russia, wore nondescript gray coats, blue pants, and white scarves and hats.
Customarily, the Olympic flag has been a protective emblem for athletes whose countries have been sanctioned by the United Nations or are in transition or whose Olympic committees have been suspended. This time it was punishment for the worst doping scandal in Games history, in which the hosts perverted their own global party.
Several dozen Russian athletes who were drugged in Sochi were banned from these Games, and the IOC made a point of vetting those who did come. On Friday morning, the Court of Arbitration kept out even more whom the IOC found suspicious, even though they hadn’t tested positive.
Bach didn’t mention the Russians during his traditional welcoming speech, but he didn’t have to.
“You can only really enjoy your Olympic performance if you respect the rules and stay clean,” he advised athletes from 92 nations. “Only then will your lifetime memories be the memories of a true and worthy champion.”
There are half a dozen new guests at this quadrennial sleigh ride: Ecuador, Eritrea, Kosovo, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Singapore.
The Opening Ceremony is their traditional coming-out party behind their own flags. The hosts agreed to give up their own as a gesture of good will. The previous hosts had no choice. That is unprecedented for an event that goes back to 1924.
But some things remained unchanged. The Bermudans strode in sporting their customary shorts. Summer or winter, their style endures.
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