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Volume 24 No. 181
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Pyeongchang Opening Amazes As It Envisions A Better World

Ben Fischer

The run-up to this Winter Olympics has been beset by scandal, controversy, fights and cynicism, and none of that let up in the final hours before the opening ceremony on Friday. On a personal level, I was freezing cold and late on two deadlines. Also, I didn’t get dinner.

In short, I was in no mood to be amazed and amused.

But the South Koreans managed to turn my mood around, putting on an upbeat, creative show that actually elicited a verbal “wow’ from me twice — once when I realized the LED brick secured to my seat was part of a stadium-wide system of patriotic light shows for every country, and then again when the centerpiece rig shot fireworks in all directions.

Fireworks explode as the cauldron is lit with the Olympic flame.
Photo: Getty Images

Pyeongchang 2018’s succinct, fast-paced ceremony was a veritable K-Pop concert, paying homage to Korean traditions while firmly planting this Games in an energetic, youthful milieu. It could have been the soundtrack to a spin class.

Former Chicago Tribune Olympics reporter Philip Hersh said it well: “Striking difference in tone between this upbeat opening ceremony and the solemn, near religious affair at Seoul ’88,” he said. “Thirty years later, South Korea shows itself a hip, self-confident, place.”

I was especially impressed by how the organizers handled the presence of North Korea. There have been moments since the North decided it would participate that the International Olympic Committee seemed to be overplaying its hand, acting as though it had brokered a peace treaty instead of organizing a joint women’s hockey team.

But the Koreans didn’t make too much of it. They took it for what it was.

The combined teams of North and South Korea march in during Friday's opening ceremony.
Photo: Getty Images

The march of the combined Korean team underneath the Unification Flag elicited the loudest cheers of the night, but just by a hair — applause was nearly as loud for figure-skating legend Yuna Kim’s appearance to light the cauldron.

The second-to-last torch bearers were one North and one South Korean member of the women’s hockey team, another fitting but understated symbol. There was plenty of talk of peacemaking, but fundamentally, Friday night was a party for South Korea, a country that’s developed an infectious, fun-loving culture that’s more than geopolitics.

Aside from the pretty lights, two moments stood out to me: First, the combination dance routine/video series that depicted small children growing up and thriving as brain surgeons, scientists and athletes. It said to me “We’re still getting better,” a phrase Americans don’t say much anymore.

Pyeongchang's opening celebration was spectacular throughout.
Photo: Getty Images

The other: When rock star Jeon In-kwon and three other singers performed John Lennon’s utopian but self-aware “Imagine.” The lyrics are impossibly idealistic — naive, even — but all it’s asking is for you to stop and consider a better world for a little while.

Just the right touch, I felt, on the night Kim Jong-un’s sister sat in the VIP box.

She’ll go home, and the dictatorship will continue. People will suffer, and the war of words with the west will continue. But like the song, the Olympics give us a chance to contemplate a different path for a short while.