February 14, 2018 / 4:17 AM / 7 days ago

North Korean pair given warm welcome on Pyeongchang debut

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - North Korean pair skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik made their long-awaited debut at the Pyeongchang Olympics on Wednesday in front of a crowd of euphoric spectators cheering on every jump and lift.

The pair were the first North Korean athletes to qualify for the Games but it was unclear for several months whether they would actually compete in South Korea.

The sense of anticipation was palpable at the Gangneung Ice Arena before the pairs short program.

A swarm of North Korean female fans wearing red and white tracksuits marched up to the stands, smiling and waiving to passers-by as out of uniform police officer looked on.

In the stands, they rhythmically chanted the skaters’ names as they waived flags of the country.

A small group of university students supporting better inter-Korean ties brandished a banner that read: “Pyeongchang fairy Ryom Tae Ok, jump toward unification!”

Skating to an instrumental cover of “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles, the pair cleanly executed all the elements of their program with a technically-sound performance that earned them a personal best score of 69.40 points.

They finished 11th overall and will compete in the long program on Thursday.

Bruno Marcotte, a Canadian coach who works with the pair, told Reuters on Tuesday they had been striving for a personal best score close to 70 points in the short program.

Their goal for the long program is more than 125 points. Their current personal best score for that program is 119.90.

The pair, who won bronze at the Four Continents Cup in Taiwan last month, embraced each other and their coaches in the kiss and cry area, jumping up and down with joy.

“There have been no inconveniences whatsoever when it comes to the life here in the South area,” Kim said in translated televised comments before the pair sped past the mixed zone where a horde of reporters were waiting for them.

“You could really feel the power and the energy of the Korean people.”

North Korea agreed to compete in Pyeongchang after the South and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) encouraged the heavily sanctioned state to participate as a peace gesture.

The skaters were the first North Koreans to qualify for the Games after they finished in the top six at a competition in Germany in September

North Korea did not have any athletes at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. They have sent 22 athletes to compete in Pyeongchang, including 12 ice hockey players in a combined North and South Korean women’s team.

Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim; Editing by John O'Brien and Sudipto Ganguly

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