Two North Korean rookie skiers finished last as they made their country’s Winter Paralympics debut in the South yesterday, but a flag-waving crowd cheered enthusiastically at the latest sign of an Olympics-fuelled rapprochement.
With spectators packing out the stands and waving the blue-and-white Korean unification flag, teenager Kim Jong-hyon and Ma Yu-chol – who both only started skiing three months ago – were the first over the start line in the cross-country race.
But they were no match for their more experienced rivals in the men’s 15km sit ski category, and rolled in 26th and 27th, with Ma completing the course in 1hr 4min 57.3 sec, and Kim finishing in 1hr 12min 49.9sec.
The gold medal winner, Ukraine’s Maksym Yarovyi, finished in around 41 minutes.
There was a silver lining to their less than triumphant debut – while they finished last, a Georgian and a Belarusian failed to complete the course at all, meaning they did worse than the North Koreans.
Slovakian skier Henrieta Farkasova won the first gold medal of the Pyeongchang Paralympics on Saturday and the USA clinched a hat-trick of victories as sporting action got under away at Games marked by a rapid inter-Korean thaw.
Medals were up for grabs in alpine skiing and biathlon. Russian athletes, competing under a neutral flag after a mass doping scandal, clinched two golds while France also won two.
The Paralympics in South Korea opened on Friday with a glittering ceremony that mixed spectacular light shows and fireworks with traditional Korean performances and modern pop music.
North Korea was in focus as the country’s first two athletes to ever compete at a Winter Paralympics paraded into the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium under their own country’s flag.
It was the latest stage of a detente on the Korean peninsula that began at last month’s Winter Olympics, and culminated with this week’s announcement that US President Donald Trump had agreed to meet the North’s leader Kim Jong-un.
Slovakia’s Farkasova was the first to take gold, skiing to victory in the women’s vision-impaired downhill category, accompanied by her guide Natalia Subrtova.
She completed the course at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre in 1min 29.72sec, beating second-placed Millie Knight of Britain and her guide Brett Wild by 0.86sec.
It was Farkasova’s sixth Paralympic gold, and she hailed her victory as “great, amazing”.
“Hopefully we can inspire through our achievements and [show] others to strive and do their best,” she said.
USA strike gold
The USA, who have the biggest team at the Paralympics with 69 athletes, got off to a good start, wining three golds, one silver and a bronze.
In the biathlon – which combines skiing and shooting – the Americans took gold and silver in the women’s sit ski, with Kendall Gretsch coming first and Oksana Masters second.
Gretsch said her victory was “pretty unexpected”.
“It’s my first Paralympics, first race, so it’s just a great way to kick off the week and hopefully [there’s] more to come,” she said.
American Daniel Cnossen, a former US Navy Seal, took gold in the men’s sit ski.
Andrew Kurka from Team USA won gold in the men’s sitting downhill skiing, with Japan’s Taiki Morii clinching silver.
In an echo of last month’s Winter Olympics, 30 Russian athletes are competing as neutrals after the country was banned over allegations of state-sponsored doping.
Russian biathletes Ekaterina Rumyantseva, competing in women’s standing, and Mikhalina Lysova, in the women’s vision-impaired category, both won gold on Saturday.
The North Korean cross-country skiers, Kim Jong-hyon and Ma Yu-chol, had originally been expected to march alongside their Southern counterparts at Friday’s opening ceremony but a row over how their “unification flag” should appear halted the plan.
Their countries’ teams took part separately in the athletes’ parade – but towards the end of the ceremony a member of the North’s delegation and a South Korean athlete carried the Paralympic torch into the Olympic Stadium together.
The rapid inter-Korean detente began at last month’s Winter Olympics. Athletes from the two Koreas marched together at the opening ceremony and Kim Jong-un’s sister attended the event.