The Olympics are not just for the sporty. It’s a misconception that has often plagued the minds of those of us who choose a channel purely because it is playing something, anything, that is not about the sporting event. But the Olympics are so much more than just sport. For instance, the opening ceremony.
Try not to be distracted by the Nigerian bobsled team, or the return of the bare-chested Pita Taufatofua, the flag bearer for Tonga. Ignore the audience’s heated seats in anticipation of the coldest Winter Olympics to date, and the impersonators of Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. The main theme of the opening ceremony is the unification of North and South Korea, with a lot of political skating on thin ice.
The 23rd Winter Olympics, hosted in Pyeongchang, South Korea, begins with the bell of peace in its very centre. The stage glaciates and the first set of fireworks thunder into the sky. The music is cinematic with dreamy, chordal vocals floating around the stadium before an inspirational brass section picks up. Throughout the evening various special effects are used creating the appearance of a constellation in a dome around the stadium, and a giant 3D figure snowboarding through the air over the heads of the torch bearers.
The story is of five children who travel through time, gliding through their country’s past and discovering their own futures. There is some great use of puppetry. The various animals and plants dance with the five children to an entwining of traditional Korean instruments and a modern style orchestration of classical string and woodwind instruments.
You may also recognise the distinct sound of django drums, with complex contrasting rhythms and powerful, unified dynamics. In congregation, the drummers manage to go from almost silent to thunderously loud, as if they are one single organism. Dancers come together to create perfect shapes on the huge stage, the circle of drummers, all in white until the very end when they reveal red and blue in the underneath of their sleeves. This creates a yin and yang shape, making the Korean flag to show, yet again, the unification of North and South Korea as one, perhaps in metaphor to the dancers and drummers.
The national anthem begins with the innocent voices of the Rainbow Children’s Choir from South Korea. Made up of 75 children from multicultural families. The Rainbow Children’s Choir is yet another symbol for peace, harmony and unification. South Korea’s Taegukgi (태극기) flag is raised as these adorable, young children serenade their motherland with the national anthem ‘Aegukga’ (애국가), which roughly translates to ‘Patriotic Song’.
For those who do not care greatly for music that does not have a systematic beat and modern sound, your wait is over. In the parade of athletes, a number of K-Pop hits are played. To start, a few club-sounding tunes with no vocals over the top, but we quickly move to Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’, the 2012 hit of which I am sure no one needs reminding (but here it is anyway! – mean Ed).
We then have four of the biggest names in the current K-Pop world: TWICE, with ‘Likey’; BigBang, with ‘Fantastic Baby’; the most internationally loved KPop group, BTS, with ‘DNA’; and Red Velvet, with ‘Red Flavour’. All of these hits have been remixed slightly to have a systematic, pulsating beat. Athletes are beaming and dancing as they parade their country’s flag proudly around the circumference of the circular stage.
The lights dim and the cinematic music fades. In the silence, a single spotlight pierces the dark to reveal the 77-year-old, Kim Nam-gi, as he begins a haunting rendition of the Korean folk song, ‘Arirang’ (아리랑). Over 600 years old, ‘Arirang’ is said to have originated from a legend, in which a couple fall in love from across a river. In one version they sing the song to each other to express their sorrowful emotions, and in another the man drowns as he tries to cross over. ‘Arirang’ was a resistance anthem against the Imperial Japanese Rule; and so the song is the perfect choice to represent a unified Korea.
Next are speeches by Pocog president Lee Hee-beom and Thomas Bach, the IOC president. Those same viewers who do not care for the Olympics will most likely not be impressed by the sight of a man taking a selfie with his GoPro, but this spectacle is soon interrupted by a rendition of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, performed by Jeon In-kwon, the lead singer of the folk group Deulgookhwa; Ahn Ji Young, Bobbalgan4 singer; Ha Hyun-woo, lead vocal and guitarist of the rock band Guckkasten; and singer Lee Eun Mi. An outline of a dove is created around the four singers by dancers holding electric candles, which is slowly filled throughout the song and then the five children, whose story has been followed all evening, release a dove into the air. A soft, touching performance which yet again bulldozes the theme of peace and unification into our heads.
The penultimate performance of the evening is the Olympic Anthem. The renowned opera singer, Hwang Su-mi, fills the stadium with her astonishing vibrato that intertwines with the classical music, as eight South Korean athletes carry in the Olympic flag. Insooni’s uplifting tune, ’Let Everyone Shine’, accompanies footage of the Olympic torch bearers leading into the famous, gold medal-holding figure skater, Kim Yuna, flying over the ice like its her second home, before lighting the Olympic Cauldron.
Finally, the Just Jerk dancing crew, dressed as Dokkaebi (도깨비), mischievous, goblin-like creatures, dance in tight formation. They perform b-boying with flames and rollerskating with sparklers as the purely percussive music transforms into the orchestral, cinematic style before a modern, glitchy sounding track. Finally all three styles combine for a gargantuan finale, with fireworks and a terrific bang that not even the cheering from the stands can bellow over.