After two failed bids, billions of dollars in preparation and a nagging national debate about whether it’s all worth it, the Winter Olympics open Friday in Pyeongchang with a gala ceremony meant to showcase South Korea’s rise from poverty and war into one of Asia’s most modern nations.
The isolated, rugged mountain town of Pyeongchang, one of the poorest, coldest and most disgruntled parts of an otherwise prosperous South Korea, will be a global player for two weeks of winter sports, Olympic spectacle and, just maybe, a bit of inter-Korean reconciliation.
There will be plenty of sporting drama for both die-hard snow and ice junkies and the once-every-four-years enthusiast.
Will the Russians who aren’t Russians — the 168 who have been invited as “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” competing in neutral uniforms under the Olympic flag — bring home gold? Will Patrick Chan of Canada hit his quad jumps and claim figure skating glory?
Can reigning men’s gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan overcome injury and defend his title against Chan? Will the past and present star of American skiing, Lindsey Vonn, be surpassed by the likely future of the sport, Mikaela Shiffrin?
But the athletic aspect of these games has been overshadowed in the buildup to the opening ceremony by a frenzied, increasingly momentous fire-hose spray of political developments. The rival Koreas, flirting with war just weeks ago, are suddenly making overtures toward the no-longer-quite-so-absurd notion of cooperation.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s sister, making an unprecedented visit to South Korean soil, will now likely attend the same opening ceremony as US Vice President Mike Pence, who’s vowing toughest-ever sanctions on the North. Could they meet? That and other theories have engulfed South Korean media.
Pyeongchang was not supposed to share the spotlight with Pyongyang. This was not supposed to be, as some in Seoul grumble, the “Pyongyang Games,” a play on the North Korean capital’s phonetic similarity to Pyeongchang.
After two failed Olympic bids that emphasized the high-sounding notion that the games could help make peace with North Korea, Pyeongchang finally sold its successful try in 2011 on the decidedly capitalistic goal of boosting winter sports tourism in Asia.
But North Korea has a habit of not letting itself be ignored when it comes to its southern rival.
Its agents blew up a South Korean airliner ahead of the 1988 Seoul Olympics in an attempt to dissuade visitors; then it boycotted its rival’s Olympic debut on the world stage. A few years later, the discovery of the huge progress Pyongyang had been surreptitiously making on its nuclear programs plunged the Korean Peninsula into crisis. It has only deepened over the years as the North closes in on the ability to field an arsenal of nukes that can hit US cities.
And so, with a little help from a liberal South Korean president eager to engage Pyongyang, the 2018 Pyeongchang Games open.
They do so with as much focus on the North, which has zero real medal contenders, as the South, which in the three decades since its last Olympics has built a solid winter program as it went from economic backwater and military dictatorship to Asia’s fourth-biggest economy and a bulwark of liberal democracy.
Could Pyeongchang’s initial pitch — that it could contribute to peace on the Korean Peninsula — actually become reality? The opening ceremony will offer at least some hints about that, and maybe more. What’s certain is that these Games, more so than any in recent memory, are about far more than sports.