Though the Olympics Opening Ceremony took place Friday morning, the games in Pyeongchang actually kicked off Thursday night and have already been a wild ride of low lows—who greased the rink before Nathan Chen took the ice?—and very, very high highs: World, say hello to Italian pairs figure skater Matteo Guarise.
But even that emotional roller coaster—that sexy, sexy roller coaster—couldn’t prepare us for the sensory overload that was the Opening Ceremony. We roused ourselves out of our sweet Matteo dreams to watch NBC’s online live stream at the ass-crack of dawn, which, broadcasting with no announcer and only natural sound, was a real trip and exercise in googling when it came time to figure out who these performers were.
The whole pageant will broadcast again in primetime on NBC, with plucky color commentary from Mike Tirico and Katie Couric. Friends, you’re in for a real treat.
These things are, both by design and tradition, patently ridiculous.
An entire country’s cultural history plays out as some sort of interpretive dance, with metaphors, armies of background dancers, and seizure-inducing light shows lending pomp and circumstance while headline-grabbing national performers—say, Gisele Bundchen walking a giant runway in Brazil—lend it lunacy. Then there’s the Parade of Athletes, which, clocking in at roughly 56 minutes in Pyeongchang, is its own Olympian test of fan endurance.
And while bombast is the modus operandi at these events—this is the opportunity for a country to literally show off in front of the entire world—what made the Pyeongchang Opening Ceremony a pleasure to watch was actually its gorgeous refinement.
Don’t be fooled, excess still abounds: the 35,000-seat stadium carried a $100 million price tag and will only be used four times before being torn down; no actual sporting events will take place there. And roughly an hour of K-pop blaring as athletes marched in a circle is just a lot to take in at a pre-dawn hour. (We’ll generously assume the genre’s jaunty monotony will be less grating in primetime.)
These things tend to be Cirque du Soleil history classes with better special effects, and Friday’s Pyeongchang ceremony was as exhausting and laborious—but also as visually spellbinding—as that might suggest.
Clocking in at just over two hours, the live event was never not the most—whether it was Tonga’s shirtless flag-bearer baring his breakout bare chest again despite arctic temperatures or, I kid you not, choreographed snowboarding—but it was so technically proficient we were almost constantly in awe.
We’re introduced off the bat to five children who would be our guides through it all. We eventually stumbled upon a janky BBC One live stream that had announcers actually explaining what everything we were watching was meant to symbolize, and it was all so laughable we at once were so glad we did and also wish we could’ve taken in all the silliness sans context.
The children, you see, are on a journey through the past and the future as they discover peace and harmony as envisioned by the South Koreans. OK! Each child represents an element believed to make up the universe: fire, water, wood, metal, and earth. Sure! They all wore a specific color, meant to symbolize the Olympic rings. Stellar!
They eventually debut on the stadium’s LED-blanketed stage, where they’re joined by a slew of animal puppets and a massive ensemble of women banging Jaggu drums, as they depict what is meant to be a telling of Korean folklore and cultural history. It’s all really beautiful and quite delicately done. The drummers especially, wearing white and deep red, made for stunning visuals.
We’re used to excessive amounts of hokeyness and cheese from opening ceremonies, and there was plenty of that here. (Try not to groan as you’re informed that we’re “moving onto a section now called peace in motion…”) But this was far more stylish than most previous ceremonies, especially in the way new live-event technology was used in conjunction with crowd-pleasing old faithfuls—I’ve never seen so many fireworks in my life—with a seamless, impressive-but-not-showy touch.
There was something undeniably profound about the event, too, with North Korea and South Korea marching under the same flag, an electrifying moment that came at the end of the Parade of Athletes. In stuffy speeches, the president of the IOC and the president of the Pyeongchang Olympics heavily stressed the importance of the moment, while a photograph of Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, shaking hands with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in had already gone viral before the ceremony even started.
The drag of the proceedings reliably came through the hour-long march of the athletes, which ends up as a winter coat fashion show and exercise in factoid-research for the announcers more than anything else. The trivia is absurd and fun, until it’s just plain boring.
The delegation from the United States entered the stadium just as “Gangnam Style” was playing. Watching camera cuts to Vice President Mike Pence, seated just in front of North Korean government leaders, stoically waving at Team USA while Psy plays in the background is a real journey to go on at 6:40 am. The American athletes, sporting heated parkas and the latest in oven mitt couture on their hands, entered near the first half of the parade, which, as it always does, devolved into a scanning for cuties in order to pass the time. (Hello, only delegate from Timor-Leste.)
When the athletes were finally seated, the rest of the ceremony really dialed itself up, both in terms of self-seriousness and entertainment value.
We flash forward into the future in which the five cute kids are now all grown up. One becomes a doctor, one an artificial intelligence specialist, one a K-pop star, one an urban simulation expert, and one a teacher and holographic specialist. The narrative is meant to symbolize how South Korea sees itself at the center of the Fourth Industrial revolution. I mean, sure. Cool CGI though!
There was some intricate choreography involving light-up doors that was a part of this section, the meaning of which was lost on us, but was easily the best door choreography we’ve ever seen.
Four Korean pop stars, including Jeon In-kwon and Ha Hyun-woo, then sang “Imagine,” which was...not great. An opera singer sang the Olympic anthem, which was absolutely glorious. Eyes turned to the sky for a light-drones show that zoomed the action to a nearby ski slope, where 100 skiers and snowboarders raced down the hill in choreographed formation—so freaking cool—“as if to show the coexistence of humans and technology in the future.” (These metaphors, guys…)
Before you knew it, South Korean figure skater Kim Yuna lit the torch, and an army of breakdancers, rollerbladers, and fire dancers hit the stage while seemingly every firework in the world went off over Pyeongchang in the ceremony’s climax.
There was a funny bit at the end of the BBC One stream I was watching where one announcer, who had just raved for about 90 seconds about how fantastic he thought the ceremony he just watched was, was asked if he liked it better than the one from Sochi four years ago. His candid response: “I don’t really remember Sochi.”
That’s kind of how we feel.
We will inevitably have an interminable K-pop beat lingering in our head the rest of the day, and lost count at the number of times we cooed an impressed “whoa!” during the ceremony. But these things, for all their cost and production value, are generally disposable. The sad truth: Thousands of talented performers were involved in Friday’s extravaganza, but the only one anyone will remember past Monday is the shirtless flag-bearer from Tonga. Make of that what you will.