PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Fingertips froze. Legs shivered. Breath hung nearly solid in the air. As the sun set behind the newly-constructed wall of PyeongChang Stadium, realization about Friday night’s Opening Ceremony set in: this was going to be a cold two hours. The Olympic spirit may inspire the heart and nourish the soul, but it doesn’t do much to warm the body.
(Before we continue, a warning: this story will spoil much of the events of the Opening Ceremony. If you’re waiting until Friday evening to watch it in the United States, come on back after you’ve caught your breath.)
This Opening Ceremony was, from 30,000 feet, like most other Opening Ceremonies: dramatic, pyrotechnic, delicate, occasionally incomprensible, whimsical, powerful, emotional. The lumbering tiger that opened the ceremony, the endless rows of lit doorways on wheels, the spectacular sheets of flame arcing around and above the dancers in the night’s final moments—all were magnificent, all were memorable.
But here’s the thing: all were also pre-planned. Korean planners and organizers had spent years prepping this ceremony, trying to plan for every single bit of uncertainty, every hint of chaos. The Olympic committee guarded its secrets so closely that a photographer who let slip a bit of the trophy-lighting spectacle got his credential yanked and his organization banned from covering the ceremony.
As spectacular as the night was, though, it was the moments of unplanned spontaneity that raised the Opening Ceremony from fascinating to transcendent. First we had the Bermuda team, walking into the stadium in shorts. Those Bermudians wear their shorts everywhere; you think some 26-degree wind chill is going to slow them down? Not a chance.
But that was only the opening act. Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua did the impossible, repeating his act from Rio and marching shirtless and fully greased. It was a glorious moment of supreme idiocy, and it resonated with the millions watching on television in a way that no airy, winding speech on the Olympic ideal ever could.
Then came the night’s largest cheer and best moment. At the end of the hour-long athlete processional — a march hustled along by the night’s silent MVPs, the pink-clad herders who literally shooed preening athletes around the track — the final delegation gathered at the entrance to the stadium.
Both Koreas stood together under one flag, the first time they’d done so in three generations. They stood together, they marched together, they smiled and waved together, and all around them, the cheers of the crowd drowned out even the perpetual anthemic soundtrack. It was a moment of genuine joy, genuine humanity — most of the North Koreans had likely never left their home country, and most South Koreans have never seen a North Korean in person. They’re strangers separated by a common boundary, more alike than any two nations on earth yet worlds apart. But for a brief, glorious moment, they were one, and that moment gave the tiniest bit of hope that the scars that crisscross these two countries might one day heal.
The likelihood of the Olympics alone bringing about a revolutionary change on the Korean peninsula is tiny; good feelings fade into the air, but grudges remain carved in stone. Before long, North Korea will be back to its old ways, blustering and threatening, the neighborhood tough guy who’s far more pathetic than frightening.
Still, there’s one moment from the Opening Ceremony that ought to give everyone a touch of motivation, whether they’re seeking to reunify two nations or just get going on their day’s to-do list. Late in the festivities, two Korean hockey players — South Korea’s Park Jong-ah and North Korea’s Jong Su-hon — approached the near-vertical slope that led upward from stadium’s floor to the base of the torch. They began running up the hill, and suddenly, there were stairs before them—stairs that led all the way to the top. They passed off the torch, sisters bonded in triumph.