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Winter Olympics Get Under Way As Ban On 45 Russian Athletes Upheld

Participants wave flags of the combined Koreas before the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang on February 9.

The opening ceremony of the 23rd Winter Olympics is under way in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where heads of state and prime ministers were among some 35,000 spectators gathered to watch the colorful two-hour show.

The ceremony at a new open-air Olympic stadium on February 9 started hours after an arbitration court dismissed an appeal by a group of 45 Russian athletes against a ban on participation in the games.

The decison by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) comes amid a long-running row over doping which has seen Russia banned from the games, although as many as 169 Russians will compete as independents.

Along with the controversy over the ban and the participation of Russian athletes under the "Olympic Athletes from Russia" (OAR) designation, the Pyeongchang games are also shaping up as a showcase of a partial thaw between North and South Korea.

North Korean athletes are participating in a joint team with South Koreans, and they will march together under one peninsula flag for the first time in more than a decade.

Because what is forecast to be the coldest weather during a Winter Olympics in decades, the ceremony was slimmed down to two hours. Organizers plan to distribute hats, blankets, and seat-warmers to combat the cold during the Games, which end on February 25.

Earlier on February 9, CAS rejected the appeals of 45 Russian athletes and two coaches, saying in a statement that the athletes had not demonstrated that their ban was "carried out in a discriminatory, arbitrary, or unfair manner."

"The applications filed by Russian athletes and coaches have been dismissed," CAS said in a statement.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russia regretted the decision and would continue to help Russian athletes defend their rights.

Russian delegation spokesman Konstantin Vybornov refused to comment the decision, simply saying, "That's it. The story is over."

CAS had been assessing several appeals filed by Russians after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned Russia from competing as a team in the Winter Olympics.

The IOC cited what it said investigations showed was a longstanding state-sponsored doping program and "unprecedented systematic manipulation" of the Olympic antidoping system at the Winter Olympics that Russia hosted in Sochi in 2014.

The IOC subsequently invited 169 carefully screened Russian athletes to compete as independents in Pyeongchang.

CAS has already upheld appeals filed by 28 Russian athletes, citing insufficient evidence against them. However, the IOC has refused to invite them to the Games, saying the evidence was there and criticizing the sports court.

After the latest CAS ruling, the IOC said, "we welcome this decision which supports the fight against doping and brings clarity for all athletes."

'Olympic Games Of Peace'

South Korea appears to hope the Olympics will show it is seeking to defuse tensions and foster rapprochement with the North.

Along with 22 athletes from the North, Pyongyang sent a delegation of 400 musicians, singers, martial artists, and cheerleaders to the games in Pyeongchang, 80 kilometers from the heavily fortified border.

Furthermore, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, and the North's ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam, are also in Pyeongchang.

Ahead of the opening ceremony, South Korean President Moon Jae-in on February 9 shook hands with Kim Yong Nam, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.

Kim, who is officially leading Pyongyang's diplomatic delegation to the Games, met Moon at a leaders' reception ahead of the opening ceremony, it said.

Moon's office also announced that he will meet the North's Olympics delegation on February 10 in the presidential Blue House, including Kim's sister.

The official opening of the Olympics in Pyeongchang on February 9 will also be attended by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who arrived in South Korea on February 8.

During his meeting with Pence at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, Moon highlighted the visit of the North Korean officials to the games, calling them the "Olympic Games of peace."

But just hours before the opening ceremony, Pence skipped a dinner where he had reportedly been due to share a table with South Korea's president and the North's ceremonial head of state, according to AFP.

Pence has said the United States "will not allow North Korean propaganda to hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games."

He told allies in Asia that the United States will soon impose tough new sanctions against Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, BBC, and The New York Times