A day before the official opening ceremony of the XXIII Olympic Winter Games, the first sporting action from Pyeongchang, South Korea, is already underway. Political complications, currently in abeyance, could resurface at any moment.
With a bulging roster of events, organizers have scheduled events on Day Minus One (Thursday morning local time, Wednesday in the U.S.) and Day Zero (Friday/Thursday). The opening ceremony, which will see North and South Korea parade for the first time under a unified flag, is set to begin at 8 p.m. Friday evening in Pyeongchang. That’s 6 a.m. Friday for early-rising sports fans on the U.S. Eastern seaboard, and 3 a.m. for the red-eyed on the West Coast.
Katie Couric will co-host NBC’s opening ceremony coverage. Erin Hamlin, the first U.S. athlete to win an Olympic single luge medal, will lead out Team USA.
The action kicked off with a newly introduced twist on the ancient sport of curling – mixed doubles – from the Gangneung Curling Center. This made-for-TV version of curling is played by a male-female pair and is quicker than the traditional team format. Hosts South Korea launched the action with a 9-4 victory over Finland.
Next up, billed as more of a grudge match, was the U.S. versus Russia, or more precisely Olympic Athletes from Russia (known as Team OAR), as the Russian national team has been banned because of the country’s doping offenses. Having lost their previous Russian encounter, the American brother and sister team of Matt and Becca Hamilton comfortably won their match 9-3 after just seven ends. The pair will compete again Thursday in a match against neighbors and rivals Canada.
The political context in Korea has the potential to be a running story throughout the two weeks. North Korea and its controversial leader, Kim Jong-un, have spent much of the last year asserting their nuclear arms capability and baiting U.S. President Donald Trump in the process.
Speaking in Japan en route to Korea, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence again condemned North Korea. “Freedom-loving people across the world long for the day when peace & prosperity replace Pyongyang’s belligerence & brutality. W/ our allies & partners we will continue to strive to peacefully dismantle N. Korea’s nuclear program & alleviate the suffering of its people,” he said Thursday on Twitter.
Despite the mutual suspicions between North and South Korea, which are still technically at war, there has been a modest outbreak of peace on the Korean peninsula. Kim Yo-jong, the high-profile sister of Kim Jong-un will attend the Games, along with 22 athletes and a 400-strong delegation of cheerleaders, musicians, and taekwondo players.
But peace can be complicated, too. Japan has objected to the newly minted united Korean flag as it appears to show an island territory over which Japan claims sovereignty.
North Korea has also brought forward a major military parade back home in its capital, Pyongyang, which other countries say is a provocative move. And North Korean officials say that they have no plans to meet with Pence or other representatives of the U.S. government while they are in the South.
The Pyeongchang Games run Feb. 9-25.