The Quiet Modernism of Pyeongchang's Opening Ceremony

In an imaginative but understated event, South Korea used augmented reality and tactical diplomacy to paint a hopeful picture.

South Korean Olympic figure skating champion Yuna Kim lights the Olympic flame
David J. Phillip / AP
Editor’s Note: Read all of The Atlantic’s Winter Olympics coverage.

If the most memorable Olympics opening ceremonies of recent years have anything in common, it’s an unabashedly bonkers streak. In London in 2012, multiple Mary Poppinses and a stunt double of Queen Elizabeth II descended from the heights of the stadium, while an appearance by the character Mr. Bean ended with a fart noise. In Sochi four years ago, performers dressed as LED jellyfish swarmed and undulated their way around the arena, after a mass-wedding montage in which dancing grooms and brides were pursued by other dancers wielding bright-red baby strollers. National tradition, unlike polite welcome speeches, isn’t always easily translated.

There was less palpable strangeness at the two-and-a-half hour Friday opening ceremony for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea. (That said, when the Olympic cauldron was lit in the final moments, it was by a giant burning spring that protruded, in somewhat phallic fashion, from a platform at the top of the stadium.) What was most notable about the event was how restrained it was, without any of the performative excess of Beijing, or the frenzied cultural jingoism of London. The ceremony’s director, Song Seung-whan, told The New York Times that he was working within a “very limited budget,” which perhaps explained why the overall effect was more muted than ceremonies past. But the themes of the evening—part tactical diplomacy, part futuristic fever dream—also pointed to more vital host-nation priorities than pyrotechnic grandstanding.

From the opening video montage set in an airport to the main narrative event in which five children traveled through time and space to a utopian cityscape with flying trains and virtual brain surgery, the emphasis was on the unstoppable march of progress. Although the beginning of the ceremony nodded to founding national mythology, the remainder was a subtle testament to South Korea’s technological and cultural power. Drummers in undulating lines moved in unison with light displays in the middle of the stage, before transforming seamlessly into the yin and yang of the South Korean flag. The national anthem was sung by the Rainbow Choir, South Korea’s first multicultural children’s chorus, emphasizing the country’s diversity.

This emphatic display of modernity was paused for the parade of athletes entering the stadium, highlights of which included a repeat performance by Rio 2016’s oiled-up, shirtless Tongan flag-bearer (this time braving below-freezing temperatures) and the strange spectacle of Russia’s delegation marching in nondescript grey and white outfits under the Olympic flag. (When the U.S. team came out of the stands, it was to the sounds of Psy’s inescapable 2012 hit “Gangnam Style.”) But the only delegation to draw an audible response from the audience was the final entrant: a unified Korean team representing both the North and the South, marching together under one flag.

The heightened symbolism of the moment was succeeded by a wacky video trip to the future, featuring self-driving cars, language that floats off the page and shimmers through the air, and multiple glowing doorway-shaped portals intended to symbolize free communication and interaction between different cultures. If this was interpreted in any way as a passive-aggressive dig at the restrictive tendencies of the Hermit Kingdom, it was swiftly followed by a gesture of peace—a performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” sung by four South Korean singers. Then, dancers with glowing headgear clustered into the shape of a giant dove, in the most literal manifestation of an olive branch in Olympic history.

The ceremony ended with a vast, augmented reality–assisted skier heading down a piste, followed by real skiers who were themselves accompanied by drones, perhaps a nod to the peaceful co-existence of humans and technology. It was a surprisingly Black Mirror–esque end to a performance that extolled the virtues of harmony while confidently projecting the inevitability of advancement. After all, there might not be robots competing at the Olympics any time soon, but judging by the U.S. delegation’s self-warming jackets, the future isn’t that far away.