Cheering crowds welcomed the Olympic flame to a freezing Seoul on Saturday, where the torch will be paraded for four days before making its way to Pyeongchang for the start of the Winter Games.
The outlook for next month’s sporting extravaganza has brightened since North Korea confirmed its participation, lifting security concerns over the South’s nuclear-armed neighbour.
The North has agreed to send an unknown number of athletes to the Games, who are expected to be accompanied by a high-level delegation, supporters, observers and an art troupe.
South Korean freestyle figure skater Park Hee-Jin raised the flame high before a crowd of hundreds who were gathered in the capital’s Sangam district in a ceremony held just weeks before the event on February 9-25.
Fans unfurled banners wishing the Olympics success accompanied by the rousing sound of traditional Korean drummers, while others took pictures with their phones.
“I am happy to become the first torchbearer in Seoul”, Park, wearing a white and yellow ski suit and a bobble hat, told reporters.
The skater, who took part in the Sochi Winter Olympics’ qualifying rounds, is one of more than 600 torchbearers participating in a 103-kilometre (64-mile) long journey around the capital until Tuesday.
South Korean football star Cha Bum-Kun was handed the torch near the Sangam World Cup Stadium, a venue for the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
“Go Pyeongchang, Go Korea football”, former Bundesliga player Cha said as he set off, with fans chanting his name.
The torch was also taken to the Gyeongbokgung Palace, the grandest of Seoul’s historic sites, where it was carried in a sedan chair as hundreds of participants wearing traditional court costumes reenacted a royal outing in the style of the Chosun dynasty which ruled from 1392 to 1910.
“This enactment of a royal parade is highly symbolic. It means all the Korean people are involved in celebrating and preparing for the Pyeongchang Olympics”, torchbearer Lee Hong-Bae, who acted the role of a king in red and gold royal robes, told AFP.
Led by dozens of flag bearers and traditional percussionists, Lee carried the flame some 250 metres (820 feet) before handing it over to the next torchbearer.
– ‘Largest-ever Winter Games’ –
The torch was then brought to the Gwanghwamun square, where Lee Hee-Beom, the head of Pyeongchang Olympic Organizing Committee, said at a welcome ceremony that the Games would be “the largest-ever Winter Games” with more than 90 countries including North Korea taking part.
The flame arrived in South Korea on November 1, 100 days ahead of the opening ceremony for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games.
It has travelled throughout the country, relayed by a who’s who of Korean sports and entertainment stars including Kim Yuna, who won the ladies singles figure skating at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the silver in the same discipline at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Speed skater Lee Sang-Hwa, who will be aiming for a record-equalling third Olympic gold in the women’s 500m in Pyeongchang, former US major league baseball pitcher Park Chan-Ho and Choo Shin-Soo, who plays for baseball team Texas Rangers, also held the torch.
Overall, some 7,500 torchbearers will have taken part in the relay, covering more than 2,000 kilometres.