Winter Olympics opening ceremony
Pyeongchang, normally a sleepy rural ski resort, lies just 50 miles from the demilitarised zone, and the very presence of North Koreans here comes at a time when Donald Trump is talking openly of the US capacity to wipe the communist dictatorship off the map. Bach, though, would have us believe that his show is a politics-free lair, where all animosities are wiped away by the hand of Olympic friendship. It is, of course, nothing of the kind. Just a few hours earlier, Russia had reacted furiously to the announcement that bans on 47 of its athletes had been upheld. Still, in one of the great IOC fudges, 169 of them will still compete as independents. For a country that perpetrated the gravest doping scandal of recent memory at the last Winter Games in Sochi – drugging its competitors with cocktails of whisky and anabolic steroids while exchanging dirty urine samples for clean ones through a hole in a laboratory wall – it seems a laughably light penance.
In spite of Russia, there are also lashings of romance. For all that Tonga’s Taufatofua might be a shameless self-publicist, defying any predictions that he would wrap up sensibly against the chill by slathering on the baby oil again, he is also a classic Olympic cult hero, having swapped his former taekwondo career for an experiment in cross-country skiing. The next 16 days will be full of triers in the same mould. Skeleton racing, for example, brings us Ghana’s Akwasi Frimpong, who first moved to Holland as an illegal immigrant and who has financed his way here by selling vacuum cleaners. As for Britain, the prognosis is uncertain. Elise Christie, as watertight a medal prospect as Britain has, opens her campaign on Saturday in short-track speed skating, but elsewhere, the outlook has been dampened by the withdrawal of snowboarder Katie Ormerod with a fractured heel. Even Lizzy Yarnold, the flagbearer on this crispest of nights, has seen her powers attenuate dramatically since winning skeleton gold in 2014. For all that Britain has grown accustomed to Olympic medal bounties in summer, the haul of precious metal from the depths of this South Korean winter is unlikely to be lavish.
We can, at least, rely upon Sir Hugh Robertson to tell it as it is. While the chairman of the British Olympic Association has been instructing the country’s athletes to screen out any political distractions in Pyeongchang, he has also cast doubt on the IOC’s grandiose boasts of healing the rift between the two Koreas. “You want to be careful about over-claiming on this,” he said. “It’s great for the Games that there has been a rapprochement, but people watch sport for great sporting moments, not for what it is contributing to international diplomacy.” Try telling that to the choreographers of Friday’s ceremony. In one ethereal passage, the five children, the emblems of the evening, crossed a vast buckwheat field on a raft. In their wake flowed the River of Time, stirred up by a storm designed to signify the turmoil of Korean history. And yet, from among the buckwheat blossoms, iridescent fireflies – each representing a dream of the people, supposedly – glowed and rose into the cold night sky. Truly, you cannot fault the Olympics for the money spent on elaborate metaphors. The denouement, at least, was beautiful in its simplicity, as final torchbearer Yuna Kim, winner of figure skating gold in 2010, stood at the top of a slope and lit the flame, 30 rings of fire shooting towards a white, moon-shaped porcelain cauldron. Outside the stadium, a frozen river was framed by a blaze of pyrotechnics. It was a stunning coup de theatre, which not even a half-naked Tongan could upstage.