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The Opening Ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympic Games Finds Poetry Amid the Politics

The Olympic opening ceremony broadcast by NBC on Friday had dozens of agendas, and like an awards ceremony that takes three hours to hand out many awards — some of them a little bit boring — the broadcast had a few sags, weird segues and conflicting messages. And yet there was something lyrical and occasionally irresistible at the core of the enterprise.

In the spectacles that opened and closed the ceremony held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the symbol of a dove recurred again and again. Was the sense of aspiration the symbol inspired just the result of a masterful deployment of visual propaganda? Or is there really a reason to hope that the Korean peninsula — and the Olympic Games taking place there — will not be the site of the endgame of the human race?

For those of us who want or need to believe the latter, the opening ceremony allowed us to latch on to that hope, if only for a few hours.

Of course, the ceremony also had to contend with many conflicting political realities. South Korean and North Korean athletes entered the stadium together, with just one word on the back of their coats: Korea. The show of unity was part of an array of peace efforts that seem both fragile and necessary, but as NBC commentators reminded viewers, North Korea is a repressive dictatorship. Katie Couric called it “barbaric and brutal.”

And the United States’ frosty relationship with that nation played out during the ceremony as well: As the united Korean team entered the stadium, Vice President Mike Pence and his wife were sitting down (they had been on their feet and clapping for other parts of the ceremony, including the arrival of the United States team). Earlier, the Pences, who stood in front of Kim Jo-Yong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, did not see the disdainful looks that flashed across Ms. Kim’s face when the American team entered the stadium — but viewers did. Who shook whose hand within that V.I.P. box was a matter for serious discussion, and near the end of the ceremony, two women from a united hockey team — one from North Korea, one from South Korea — ran up a stairway with the torch that would light the flame inside the stadium. In a ceremony that mostly eschewed bombast, it was one of the most quietly weighted and memorable moments. 

Because of all those crisscrossing currents of diplomacy, marketing, competition and unity, the ceremony now and then seemed like a ski run littered with moguls: Ups and downs whipped by quickly, and the ceremony itself had to fight to keep a sense of balance. But the artistic presentations that opened and closed the ceremony were often gorgeous and evocative.

At different times, viewers saw a raft floating across a peaceful pond; singers crooned “Imagine”; children explored a magical cave that could have come from a “Harry Potter” movie; and rows of women in red and white gowns created willowy patterns across the huge open circle at the heart of the stadium. Those who saw “The Handmaid’s Tale” may have briefly been reminded of the similar garments worn by the women in that TV series, but this was precision, movement and color put to a much different use.

All of the choreography in this precisely directed ceremony carried a sense of verve and possibility. Everything was just so — from costumes to the spacing between drummers to the arc of each set of fireworks at the end. But the attention to detail allowed the viewer to relax into the play of the symbols and colors: In these opening and closing bits, everything went off without a hitch. But all the planning and practice that went into the visuals didn’t drain them of the sense of joy and momentum that a pageant like this should have. 

There were a few odd elements that couldn’t have been anticipated: The NBC commentary team noted an event that had been edited out of the main part of the ceremony, which took place hours before its Friday night broadcast. Somehow an unauthorized person made his way on to the arena’s stage, twice, and footage was shown of the man being hustled away by security. All week, NBC has devoted as many moments as it can to crafting tightly controlled narratives about the games and individual athletes. But to its credit, it allowed this odd moment to become part of the story. At events like this, the impulse is always to airbrush everything to perfection — after all, the opening montage supplied by NBC was an exercise in Heartland Nostalgia, Sports Version, and the tugging on heartstrings was not subtle. But the broadcast sometimes allowed for the fact that elements of the Olympics endeavor will always be in conflict with each other, or in uneasy detente.

Couric and fellow commentator Mike Tirico explained that Russian athletes had been allowed to compete — and thus they entered the stadium along with the rest of the contingents — but the nation itself had been banned from the games after a doping scandal. The NBC hosts also noted that earlier in his trip to South Korea, Pence had met with the family of Otto Warmbier, a student who had been held by the North Korean regime and died soon after being returned to his parents. As athletes excitedly entered the stadium, Tirico, Couric and analyst Joshua Cooper Ramo offered tidbits about the histories of individuals or nations, and not all of those factoids were upbeat. As they bantered, they didn’t step on each other and they shared a polite, calm liveliness, but Ramo’s endless generalities about what constituted “Asian” culture felt about as deep as a Wikipedia entry. 

There was too much chatter over the loveliest parts of the broadcast, to be honest. Still, it was hard not to be swept up in Couric’s enthusiasm for Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua, who had become a star at the 2016 summer games in Rio when he turned up shirtless as he waved his country’s flag. Despite the cold in Pyeongchang, he turned up bare-chested again, and the giddy reception to his arrival was a fun, spontaneous moment in an exciting but often sluggish ceremony.

Even before the Games began, NBC’s agenda for the Pyeongchang Olympics was clear: The network is clearly pushing Shaun White and Lindsay Vonn comeback stories to the point that it’s already annoying. During the pre-packaged pieces that kicked off the three-hour Friday broadcast, it was hard to forget that branding drives much of the Olympic Games. It’s all about positioning athletes and teams in the ways that lead to future endorsements and greater fame: There are underdogs and comebacks, newly minted celebrities and Cinderella stories. The Olympics style of storytelling doesn’t allow for too much messiness. 

And yet, this slick kind of packaging can be effective. One of the smartest decisions NBC made was to have Sterling K. Brown narrate the inspirational film that kicked off the night. If there’s one actor who could make me buy into the line, “Maybe this is the perfect place to get you believing again,” it’s the passionate and convincing Brown.

However, the night belonged to the South Korean hosts who pulled off a ceremony that had elements of magic. I could have done without the phalanx of drones that formed up to make the Olympic symbol of interlocking circles, but the most elegaic moment of the night involved animals, of all things. In early sections of the artful Pyeongchang presentation, a series of animals moved across the white circle in the heart of the stadium. You could see the humans that operated them — the ways in which these manufactured beasts were manipulated was obvious. And yet they moved so gracefully that it was easy to simply bask in the poetry of their sinuous movements.

That is the kind of beauty the Olympic Games, for all their manufactured efficiency, aspire to. And sometimes they deliver.

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