Pyeongchang Paralympics bringing optimism to South Koreans

Following the Winter Olympics, South Korea welcomes participants from the North with a changed tone.

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    Pyeongchang, South Korea - Interest in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics, which start on Friday, is gaining momentum on the ground.

    Organisers have managed to sell more than 285,000 tickets, which is nearly 130 percent of their target of 220,000. These Games will be the largest in history, with 570 athletes from 49 countries taking part.

    The level of interest in the Games is an unexpected turnaround for the organisers. The excitement rides on the coattails of the successful Olympics that wrapped up less than two weeks ago.

    "When we were here six months ago, we were concerned about the ticket sales," Andrew Parsons, president of the International Paralympics Committee (IPC), told Al Jazeera.

    "South Koreans don't want this to end. This is the last chance that they can go to the venues and see some exciting sports."

    Adding to the occasion is a rare show of unity between the two Koreas demonstrated through the historic joint women's ice hockey team agreed by officials from both sides at a landmark high-level inter-Korean meeting in January. 

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    The move was initially unpopular in South Korea. However, a changed sentiment was echoed at a Paralympics torch event in the capital Seoul over the weekend.

    "Regardless of whether it was planned or not, how we got there was greater than the result. As a Korean, I see it as a positive move." Said Lee Jong-ho, a Seoul resident who came to the event with his wife and two kids.

    North Korea sent a 24-member delegation to South Korea on Wednesday for the Winter Games, the first time it is taking part in the Winter Paralympics.

    Flag issues

    Both sides were supposed to march together under a unified Korean flag at the opening ceremony. But that will not happen due to differences over what is put on the flag.

    North Korea wanted a flag that includes the disputed island Dokdo, which is called Takeshima in Japan.

    The island is administered by South Korea and claimed by Japan. North Korea also insists that Dokdo belongs to the Korean nation.

    The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) did not allow the flag with Dokdo, saying it would violate the prohibition of political expression.

    Regardless, the organisers are hoping the event will send another strong message of peace, dispelling worries that the North's participation could be misused for the secretive state's propaganda agenda. 

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    "It was not politics using a sports event. It is the other way round. It brings people together," added Parsons.

    South Korea's organising committee plans to maximise this opportunity to increase exchanges with North Korea.

    "We want to help develop the para-sports [in North Korea], and we hope these Paralympics can play a positive role in reunification." Lee Myung-ho, the president South Korea's Paralympic Committee, said.

    South Korea's Paralympic team is determined to emulate the success of the Winter Olympics squad, setting out to collect at least four medals.

    "For an athlete, the public's support and attention are important and encouraging. However, we are just homing in on the objective." Said Jang Jong-ho, a member of the squad.

    Many South Koreans are planning a trip to Pyeongchang and Gangenung to see the Games.

    "We saw a very successful Winter Olympics. I believe we will see another equally successful Paralympics," said Cho In-ae, a Seoul resident. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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