The Opening Ceremony of the XXIII Winter Olympics got underway at 8 PM local time tonight in PyeongChang, South Korea against a backdrop of theatrical flourishes and geopolitical tension. But despite the freezing temperatures, that tension seemed to thaw a bit as the evening kicked off. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s sister Kim Yo-jong arrived by private plane earlier in the day to attend the “Peace in Motion” ceremony and shake hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Moon also met with North Korea’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam, the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit the Republic.
They stood a few rows apart in the Olympic stadium tonight, again shaking hands during a moving highlight of the ceremony when South and North Korea marched together under one flag and the single title of Korea. The two countries are officially at war and in today’s context this was quite notable.
Also in the Olympic stadium, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife cheered on Team USA — massive at 244 athletes. When they entered early in the proceedings (the roster is in alphabetic order, according to the Korean alphabet), it was to the strains of Psy’s ubiquitous 2012 K-pop tune “Gangnam Style.”
Pence had earlier met with the father of Otto Warmbier, the American student who was jailed in North Korea last year and died upon returning home. Pence also met with and praised North Korean defectors on Friday.
While inside the 35,000-seat stadium the celebration was about passion and harmony, outside, protesters gathered. There have been consistent small manifestations by people who see South Korea’s invitation to North Korea as appeasement to a country that was firing missiles just a few months ago. The demilitarized zone is less than 20 miles from the stadium.
But the South Korean government has called this the “Peace Games” and the opening reflected that. Organized by director Song Seung-whan, best known for the non-verbal stage musical Nanta that incorporates traditional samul nori rhythm, the show started off with an empty stage save for what looked like the TARDIS off of Doctor Who. A fireworks display quickly began outside and above the stadium, followed by a film centering on the journey of five school children and a light and music show inside that featured a puppet tiger, phoenix and other beasts along with images of a turtle ship.
Wearing traditional dress, an all-female group mapped out the South Korean flag to drumbeats, followed by the procession of national teams. After that, the kids came back for a look towards the future, a performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and 1,200 drones forming shapes in the sky. The lighting of the torch was handled by Korean figure skating champ Yuna Kim, followed by another light, dance and fire show — with rollerskates.
Also notable during the evening, Tonga’s one-man team of cross-country skier Pita Taufatofua was back, bare-chested and oiled up again, parading with his flag after the 2016 Summer Games. The Russian team did not walk out with its flag as punishment for the doping scandal.
Athletes from 92 nations are competing in more than 100 events over the next two weeks. These are the first games since Discovery struck a $1.4B deal to acquire European rights for six years, with a number of other new broadcasting partners coming on board for the first time. They are also a big moment for NBC domestically, while Eurosport will show 900 hours of live coverage and 4,000 hours in total via its TV channels and streaming service Eurosport Player.