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.