GANGNEUNG, South Korea — There was a pairs skating event at the Gangneung Ice Arena Wednesday but even if you were there, you might have missed it. In the sparsely populated arena, the real spectacle was the dueling cheering squads in the audience supporting the two nations in PyeongChang who did not march in Opening Ceremonies under their own country’s flag. South and North Korea were jointly introduced as Korea, with a unified flag depicting the Korean peninsula in a gesture of good will and political detente, while the Russian athletes are competing as the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR) after Russia was banned from PyeongChang for doping violations in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Sitting at opposite ends of the arena, the North Korean squad far outnumbered the Russian one by a dozen or more—and outdid everyone in the rink with their unified chants and cheers. Dispatched by Kim Jong Un from North Korea, the uniformly dressed women, all sporting red-rimmed white knit hats, red ski jackets and pants, were hard to miss in the arena—especially when they filed out en masse to use the restroom during a break (some even waved to the journalists taking their picture).
The Russian supporters came from St. Petersburg, and some are cheerleaders for the local ice hockey team who felt their athletes, who are competing with neutral uniforms and under a neutral International Olympic Committee approved flag, could use some love from back home. “We thought it would be very difficult for our Russian athletes,” Kristina Vakhania, decked out in a large poncho in the Russian tricolors, says. “Without any support I can’t imagine how they would feel.”
The all-female North Korean squad of around 100 strong took over a top section of the bleachers for the first half of the competition and left shortly after the team they had come to support, Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, had competed. They did cheer for the South Korean pair, but they waved the unified flag for them. When Ryom and Kim took the ice, the North Korean flags came out. Chanting their names as the pair was introduced, the squad applauded every landed jump, including an impressive triple twist lift, and clapped along to the Beatles cover as the pair did their final step sequence and entered their death spiral.
The solidly performed program earned them a season’s best score, and prompted Ryom to jump into the arms of her Korean coach as soon as she left the ice. The duo hugged their Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte as well; they spent several months last summer working with Marcotte in Montreal.
The pair seemed to savor every minute of the adulation showered on them from the crowd—Kim bowed to the crowd as he left the ice and seemed especially reluctant to move on from the kiss and cry area after receiving their scores, waving to the crowds repeatedly. “The cheering from the South Koreans and North Koreans together for us was very helpful,” Kim said to the Olympic News Service. The pair, along with a North Korean official, did not stop to speak to the rest of the media afterward, walking quickly past a gaggle of Korean reporters without making eye contact. In their Olympic debut, the pair are in 11th after the short program.
“I’m very happy for them,” Marcotte said of how the pair skated.
The pair from South Korea, Alex Kang Chan Kam and Kyueun Kim, whom Marcotte also coaches, didn’t fare so well. Skating first among the 22 teams, the duo felt the added pressure of competing in their home country, and Kim fell on the throw triple salchow and singled the next side-by-side jumps. By the time she met the media, she was in tears. “I made a mistake and I am very disappointed,” she said in a barely audible voice.
Once the North Korean cheering squad left, it was easier to concentrate on the skating, which was likely among the strongest in recent Olympics. Marcotte said he’s never seen pairs consistently skate better and “crazy squeaky clean,” including one of his teams from Canada, Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford who are in third going into the long program Thursday (Marcotte is married to Duhamel).
The current world champions from China, Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, skated a powerful program to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and included a huge throw triple flip that gave Sui seemingly endless hang time before she landed cleanly. The top Russian pair of Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov are in second, just 0.71 points behind.
The Canadians are hoping to redeem their seventh place finish four years ago in Sochi, and packed their program with more difficult side-by-side jumps and throw jumps than the other top pairs; in fact, when adding just the elements that the top three pairs completed, the Canadians have the highest total, but that total is added to another score that incorporates more subjective measures such as skating skills, choreography and interpretation of the music.
While the skating was impressive, it was hard to miss the fact that the arena was hardly full. Tickets are expensive, according to Yeonju Lee, who used to skate when she was younger and came from Seoul to watch the event with her mother, Soonyeon Jang. And because the event occurs at 10 o’clock in the morning Korea time, few could afford the time or expense to spend the day at the Olympics.
Which was too bad, because it was quite a spectacle—both on and off the ice.