PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – On a divided peninsula marked most in its recent history by war and division, the 2018 Olympic Winter Games opened Friday night as a tribute to the powerful symbolism of the five rings, the two Koreas punctuating the colorful parade of nations by marching into Olympic Stadium together.
On a chilly evening in a stadium roughly 50 miles from the demilitarized zone that since the armistice in 1953 has buffered North from South, athletes and officials from the two Koreas reprised a march behind a blue-on-white flag representing a united Korea.
The two sides had marched together at the opening ceremony at three prior Games, starting in 2000 at Sydney. For the first time at an Olympics, though, North and South will compete together – unified – in women’s ice hockey. Compare: at the 1988 Seoul Summer Games, the North boycotted.
As International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said in the lead-up to the ceremony, “The Olympic spirit is about respect, dialogue and understanding,” adding that these Games “are hopefully opening the door to a brighter future on the Korean peninsula, and inviting the world to join in a celebration of hope.”
These are the first of three Olympics in which the world is invited in succession to Asia: PyeongChang in 2018, Summer Games in Tokyo in 2020 and Winter Games in Beijing in 2022.
PyeongChang, as the world is about to discover, is no Tokyo. It is no Beijing. It is a town of just under 44,000 people, one of the smallest-ever Winter hosts. Think Lillehammer in 1994 – the last time the Games were this cold, too, which did not stop the delegation from Bermuda from marching Friday as ever, in shorts.
In bidding for 2018, the idea was less to advance peace on the Korean peninsula – the irony is notable – than to promote winter sports through the tagline “New Horizons” and to showcase advances in South Korea since Seoul in 1988. Yuna Kim, the Vancouver 2010 women’s figure skating gold medalist who played a key role in the bid, lit the cauldron here Friday – who else?
That Olympic message, meanwhile, was for many months at risk of being diminished, just as before the Rio 2016 Summer Games, by the ongoing saga involving allegations of doping involving Russian athletes and officials.
After complexities sparking litigation that literally carried on until Friday morning, 168 are due to compete as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”
The U.S. team: 242.
Not here: NHL players, for the first time at a Winter Games since 1994.
Here: a snowboard whopper called “big air,” with the world’s tallest ramp, one of four new events on the Winter Games program.
Six nations are at the Winter Games for the first time, including Nigeria; its women’s bobsled will be the first from Africa to compete at the Winter Olympics.
Here, too: Norway’s Maren Lundby, winner this season of seven of 11 World Cup women’s ski jump events. The South Korean short-track speedskater Shim Suk-Hee, winner of three Sochi 2014 medals, who is from Gangneung, the coastal city staging the ice events at these Games. Russia’s newest figure skating sensation, 15-year-old Alina Zagitova, the new European champion, as well as 18-year-old Evgenia (fans say “Janny”) Medvedeva, the two-time world champion.
And, of course, the U.S. contingent, including the snowboarders Shaun White and Chloe Kim, figure skater Nathan Chen, and skiers Lindsey Vonn and the likely breakout star of the 2018 Games, Mikaela Shiffrin.
No U.S. female cross-country skier has ever won an Olympic medal. Look out: the American women’s team has been steadily winning medals recently on the World Cup tour.
Then there is Pita Taufatofua. The shirtless, oiled-up Rio 2016 flag-bearer from Tonga, a Summer Olympics competitor in taekwondo, qualified for these Winter Games in cross-country skiing.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Once more, Taufatofua carried the Tongan flag. Again, shirtless and oiled-up.
“I won’t freeze,” he said. “I am from Tonga. We sailed across the Pacific. This is nothing.”
The thermometer read 28 degrees.
Let the Games begin.