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Koreans March as One in Sydney at Opening Ceremony of Olympics

September 16, 2000|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Behind a placard that read simply "Korea," athletes from North and South Korea--two nations still technically at war--marched together Friday night in the ceremony opening the Sydney Summer Games.

In a historic highlight from a night of symbolism that stressed the theme of reconciliation, Park Chong Chul, a male judo coach from North Korea, and Chung Un Soon, a female basketball player from the South, led the joint delegation--together grasping a single blue-on-white flag depicting the Korean peninsula, the "flag of unification."

Thunderous applause washed over the 180 Koreans as they marched into and around Olympic Stadium, hands joined and arms raised. Moments later, speaking by cellular phone from the infield as the ceremonies carried on, Chung could hardly believe it was for real. "I am almost crying," she said via a translator. "Much happiness."

The joint march, the latest step in a fledgling rapprochement between North and South, vividly made real the symbolic power of sports to bring people together. It was an evening rich with possibilities--the very reason the Olympic movement relentlessly persists in promoting sports as a path to world peace.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 23, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 5 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Korean division--A Sept. 16 story about the opening ceremonies at the Olympics erred in saying the Korean peninsula has been divided at the 38th parallel since 1945. At the end of World War II, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel, but the countries now are divided along the cease-fire line near the 38th parallel, where hostilities ended in 1953.

Another unified Olympic team--representing the Muslim-Croat federation and the Bosnian Serb republic--came to compete for Bosnia-Herzegovina, for the first time since its war ended in 1995.

Appearing, too, were four athletes from East Timor, which has been convulsed by violence since a vote last year for independence from Indonesia. All four marched in white behind the Olympic flag carried by Victor Ramos, a 30-year-old boxer.

And, in a dramatic gesture aimed at the mostly Australian crowd of 110,000 people, the Olympic flame was lighted by Cathy Freeman, an Aborigine favored to win the women's 400-meter run.

Sydney organizers followed the tradition of allowing an athlete from the host nation to light the flame. Choosing Freeman, a champion of Aboriginal rights, was clearly a signal sent to help heal the wounds over the injustices long endured by this nation's 390,000 indigenous people.

Barely suppressing tears, Freeman jogged up a flight of stairs in a white bodysuit. She stepped into a pool of water and touched the torch to a caldron submerged in water. A ring of fire encircled her. Then the caldron rose from the water and flames ascended a waterfall to the top of the stadium.

The flame-lighting climaxed an imaginative ceremony--keyed to a dream sequence of reconciliation between a young white girl and an Aboriginal elder--that set the stage for the traditional march of nations into the stadium.

International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch had announced Sunday that the two Koreas would march as one. The idea had first been suggested in a May 25 letter he sent to both South and North--shortly before the historic summit between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il.

The mid-June summit in Pyongyang, capital of the communist North, concluded with the two leaders signing a declaration that said the Koreas wanted to "build up trust between each other" by developing a "national economy" and cooperating in such fields as "society, culture, sports, health and environment."

The two nations formally remain at war, though wide-scale hostilities ended in 1953. The peninsula has been divided at the 38th parallel since 1945.

Since June, however, they have taken a first few steps toward rapprochement. Last month, for instance, 200 Koreans who had been separated from their families for half a century--100 from the North, 100 from the South--were reunited with them, albeit for only three days.

Upon the arrival last week in Sydney of Samaranch and the other members of the IOC's ruling Executive Board, the status of the joint march was very much in doubt. But Samaranch, one of the world's consummate political operators, brokered a deal, saying Sunday that it was the product of "maybe two meetings a day for the last three or four days."

The hang-up in agreeing to a joint Korea delegation of 180 was in the numbers.

South Korea sent 284 athletes and 151 officials and administrators, for a total of 435, to Sydney. North Korea sent 31 and 31, a total of 62, according to an Olympic database.

Even after the march, it remains unclear how parity in numbers could have been achieved.

Officials from both countries said it ultimately didn't matter.

"This is a very important symbol for our nation, eager to unify the country," Chang Ung, the IOC member from North Korea, said in halting English.

The Koreans mixed for hours, even traveling together on the same buses from the athletes' village to the stadium.

Each Korean marcher wore the same uniform: a blue blazer, with beige pants for men and a beige skirt for women, a white shirt and an orange tie decorated with purple stripes that swirled down to a purple, silver and black picture of a bird.

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