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.
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.
A namecard-sized badge, pinned to each lapel, bore a blue map of the Korean peninsula--the same design as the "unification flag."
"This will bring us closer to reunification," North Korean diver Choe Myong Hwa, 24, said as she waited in the tunnel before entering the stadium, speaking via cellular phone and a translator.
"My heart is exhilarated," she added. "I never thought this would be a reality."
"Korea" entered the stadium 97th in the procession of nations, between Kenya and Kuwait. Word boomed out over the public address system that the two nations were "marching together as 'Korea.' " The crowd cheered wildly. From his perch in the presidential box, Samaranch waved.
On the field, behind the placard bearing the name "Korea" came Park and Chung with the flag. They had been selected, officials said, because both were respected members of their teams and because one was male, one was female and they are about the same height.
Behind the flag-bearers came Olympic officials, including IOC members Kim and Chang. Then came athletes and coaches.
The Koreans marched halfway around the stadium, took their place in the assembly of athletes and spent the next hour--while waiting for the procession to conclude--taking group photos by the Korea placard. Both the Americans and Australians, who marched after the Koreans, fielded delegations of more than 600 each.
Today, with the onset of competition, the Koreas revert to two different entities, competing under their own flags.
But, said Cho In Chul, 25, a judo competitor from South Korea, today the world seems different. Cho, the bronze medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Games in the half-middleweight class, said he will be training informally now with Kwak Ok Chul, a half-middleweight from the North.
"We'd always thought we were different countries," Cho said through an interpreter. "But once we go hand in hand, we realize North and South are one country.
"And," he said, referring to Kwak, "whoever wins the gold medal will congratulate the other. Like brothers in a family."