In swirling frigid air, South Korea opened the 2018 Winter Olympics on Friday night — or Friday morning in the U.S. — with a fiery, fireworks-heavy opening ceremony that mixed lights, music, dancing and animals big and small.
A common element throughout (other than the fireworks) were five young kids, whose continual appearance and reappearance in the various segments of the opener threaded the ceremony together along the theme of peace.
Everything began with a brief video showing the group of children embarking on a journey through South Korea’s rugged mountains. They encountered a white tiger, this year’s Olympic mascot who “has been long considered Korea’s guardian animal,” and as soon as the video ended, the kids emerged into the stadium.
The tiger came too, as did an entire host of other animals, all giant puppets operated from within.
While details had been kept largely under wraps beforehand, opening ceremonies customarily trace the history and culture of the host country and Friday’s was no different. It kicked off with an audience-wide countdown from 10, in Korean, and also featured performances by Korean musicians and appearances by Korean athletes.
Yang Jung-woong, who directed the opener, had reportedly teased that it would “be like a fairy tale in the winter. It’s a fantasy, which children see as a dream.”
The ceremony, which began about 8 p.m. local time and 6 a.m. on the East Coast in the U.S., was staged at the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium in the mountains of Pyeongchang County, approximately 120 miles east of Seoul. The ceremony will be rebroadcast by NBC in primetime on Friday.
Across 15 segments — a mix of artistic performances and more bureaucratic fare, such as a speech by the head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach — the ceremony’s participants were seen either in pre-recorded video or moving across a large circular stage in the middle of the stadium, the floor itself being used as both a projector and surprise, sometimes turning into a waving sea, other times splitting open to reveal a sea of drummers inside.
The ceremony was in the tradition of the mass spectacle marking previous such openers at the Games in Rio de Janeiro; Sochi, Russia; London and others.
Like those, its highlights reaffirmed the truest sense of wonder: Watching something become something else before your eyes. The drummers became a flag; the seats became a face; doors became a window which became a portal.
In one stunner for the audiences at home, a swarm of 1,200-plus Intel Shooting Star drones flying in a pre-recorded segment formed the shape of a snowboarder before transforming into the Olympic rings.
In a late-show musical flourish, singers Lee Eun-mi, Ha Hyun-woo, Jeon In-kwon and Ahn Ji-young performed John Lennon’s “Imagine” surrounded by a crowd joining together, lights in hand, to create a single large dove — the candlelight also a reference to the massive peaceful protests in South Korea which ousted the previous president.
Capping it all off was Korean Olympic figure skating gold medalist Yuna Kim, who (while wearing ice skates, of course) was handed the Olympic torch at the end of a relay of other national sports heroes. She then lit the giant Olympic cauldron just outside the venue.
Friday’s ceremony was overseen by Executive Creative Director Song Seung-whan, an actor and producer who said in January, “We have worked on all of our scenarios under the theme of peace.”
Of Song’s work organizing the opening, POCOG President Yang-Ho Cho said then: “His experience and creative talent will prove to be valuable assets in producing ceremonies that will harmoniously connect our passion, tradition and cosmopolitan culture to the international audience.”
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The 35,000-seat Olympic Stadium was constructed specifically for the opening and closing ceremonies of this year’s Winter and Paralympic Games, after which it will be torn down, leaving behind a museum and smaller venue.
Some news reports in the months leading up the Olympics focused on the stadium’s lack of a roof and concerns about the potentially sub-zero-like temperatures inside — given the wind chill — with area lows this week dropping below the teens.
However, the stadium came equipped with several solutions to keep attendees warm, including heated enclosed shelters near the seating as well as seat, hand and foot warmers and a kind of wind-breaker.
Friday night’s event also included the parade of nations, including Team USA’s 244 athletes (who were kept warm thanks to a special heating system in their Ralph Lauren-designed uniforms, which used conductive ink in the shape of the American flag printed on the inside of their jackets).
In an attention-grabbing moment, athletes from the British island territory of Bermuda sported, yes, Bermuda shorts at the bitterly cold ceremony.
In a crowd favorite, hunky Tongan Pita Taufatofua, a breakout star at the opening ceremony in 2016, was shirtless yet again — as seemingly oiled-up as he was two years ago in Rio and again hoisting his nation’s flag.
Olympic bronze medal luger Erin Hamlin led the American athletes as flag-bearer, in a decision medalist and speed skater Shani Davis criticized after “dishonorably” losing to her in a coin toss.
The U.S. delegation to the Games was led by Vice President Mike Pence, who attended the opening alongside wife Karen as well as the father of Otto Warmbier, a college student who died from brain damage from a lack of oxygen from an unknown injury after being arrested in North Korea and held in custody for more than a year.
North and South Korea marched under the same flag in the opener, the first time the two countries have done so at any Olympics in 12 years. They will also field a joint women’s hockey team — a first for them at the Games.
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.