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Pyeongchang Olympics opening ceremony spotlights peace amid political tensions

Nordic ski jumper Noriaki Kasai, holding the Japanese flag, leads Team Japan into Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium in Pyeongchang, South Korea, during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics, on Feb. 9, 2018. (Mainichi)

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- The 2018 Winter Olympics, that festival of peace and sports, officially began on the night of Feb. 9 with a grand opening ceremony at Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium here.

With the participation of North Korea, the focus of international opprobrium for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, this edition of the games has taken on a more overtly political flavor than usual. While there are worries that the event's tone could thus deviate from the Olympic ideal of "promoting a peaceful society," host nation South Korea began the games with a potent symbol of that very idea, launching the opening ceremony with a projected image of the Bell of Peace -- an ancient bell that legend says calmed the seas and brought peace to the Korean Peninsula.

The opening ceremony kicked off amid minus 3-degree-Celsius temperatures at 8:30 p.m., with fireworks bursting in the air around the stadium. After a dance performance inspired by Korean legend came the athletes' procession led by Greece, the land of the original ancient Olympics. All told, a record high of 92 teams comprising some 2,900 athletes are participating in the 2018 Games.

Team Japan entered the stadium 62nd, with flag bearer and Nordic ski jumper Noriaki Kasai, 45, at the head of 97 of Japan's 269 winter Olympians.

Attending the ceremony were major political leaders from more than 10 countries, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, United States Vice President Mike Pence, and North Korea's ceremonial leader Kim Yong Nam.

The message of peace and unity was reinforced at the very end of the athletes' procession, as the North and South Korean teams entered as one, marching under the Korean unity flag -- a blue map of the entire peninsula on a white background. The group was announced simply as team "Korea," and the athletes were met with resounding applause and waves from the world leaders as they appeared.

North Korea has 22 athletes in Pyeongchang, along with a band, and some observers have criticized Pyongyang for trying to use the Olympics for "smiling diplomacy" aimed at softening South Korean public opinion. Nevertheless, when the athletes from both North and South walked into the stadium to the chords of "Arirang," a Korean folksong, many South Koreans there appeared on the verge of tears.

Meanwhile, Russian athletes entered the stadium under the Olympic flag as the "Olympic Athletes from Russia" (OAR) team, after the country's official team was banned by the International Olympic Committee for systematic doping. Technically, the athletes will not be representing Russia, but rather competing as individuals.

Finally, the Olympic cauldron was lit by 2010 Vancouver Winter Games gold medal figure skater Kim Yuna.

The Pyeongchang Games features a record-high 102 events, and will run until Feb. 25.

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