Earmuffs, extra thick anoraks, and a stadium where LED lighting appeared to have replaced the spectators were the order of the day at the opening ceremony of the XXII Olympic Winter Games, held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Friday against a backdrop of political and strategic maneuvering between the divided north and south.
National athletes paraded in around a center circle and a ring of energetic dancers, while in the hills nearby there were volleys of fireworks and torch-bearing skiers.
The Pyeongchang Games are already providing a snowy backdrop to something of a thaw in relations between North and South Korea, two nations still technically at war. Earlier in the day, South Korean President Moon Jae-in shook hands and briefly chatted with North Korea’s figurehead leader, Kim Yong-nam. Then, at one point during the opening ceremony, Moon, Kim Yong-nam and Kim Jo-yong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, were clustered together inside the glass box from which VIPs watched the athletes march in. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence sat next to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Politics was momentarily set aside when athletes from North and South Korea made their entrance for the first time under a single banner, as a unified Korean team decked out in white padded coats and black slacks. They appeared huddled together, but it was not clear if that was caused by an overflow of amity, the extreme cold, or their large numbers.
“United, we are stronger than all the forces that want to divide us,” Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said to a round of applause.
Other large cheers were heard for the six countries represented for the first time, and for athletes from small or tropical territories such as Jamaica, Eritrea, Hong Kong and Singapore.
And Pita Taufatofua was back. The oiled-up athlete from Tonga went shirtless two years ago at the opening of the Summer Games in Brazil, and became an Internet sensation in the process. He went topless again in the Korean Alps, despite the subzero conditions.
Other parts of the ceremony ranged from high-tech light formations and clever use of projection mapping to flag bearers wearing Korean traditional costume. Less convincing was a creaky four-person rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”