Just two days into the Pyeongchang Games, the political propaganda is out of control. Stand back a little. When the wind gusts return, you don't want to be covered in that debris.
GANGNEUNG, South Korea — At the end of the opening ceremony on Friday night, after more than two hours of Kumbaya at its most elegant, the infamous Pyeongchang wind pestered the fantasy-closing fireworks exhibition. A grand and hopeful night concluded with smoke and debris forcing you to close your eyes and take cover.
It was harsh to the senses, a wicked way to transition from fairy tale to reality. Perhaps it was a warning, too: Don’t let Olympic reverie enchant you too much. It can blow up in your face.
Caution seems even more important now that diplomacy, inspired by a level of North Korean charm that many underestimated, has taken over the beginning of these Winter Games. Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of cruel and dangerous North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, has made a mesmerizing impression with her swagger and smile and goodwill gestures. North and South Korea may never have a close relationship again, but now they have a chance to grow closer.
As the two nations flirt with civility, as South Korea President Moon Jae-in mulls an invitation extended Saturday by the sister to visit Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, the Olympics are abuzz with Korean sporting unity. The joint North-South women’s hockey team debuted at Kwandong Hockey Centre on Saturday night, and while it became clear that squad is more symbol than competitor, it was another night for the so-called Peace Olympics to inspire with its message.
Before the game, hundreds stood on the streets outside the arena, waving unification flags and chanting. During the game, the crowd cheered every time the puck found a Korean player, no matter the situation. They even cheered an icing call on their team.
It was an inspiring night of uninspiring hockey. Switzerland pounded Korea, 8-0. Swiss forward Allina Muller completed a hat trick in the first period and scored the game’s first four goals. I started to doze off at one point, but then there was this strange mash-up of South Korean rappers performing “Uptown Funk” while cheerleaders sang with orders to “Unify the motherland!”
The North Korean cheerleaders wore red jumpsuits and took over small sections throughout the arena and mostly sang encouraging numbers such as “Win! Win! Our athletes win!” South Korea countered with dancers wearing black and dressing in miniskirts and knee-high boots.
It was a wild and entertaining atmosphere that included the presence of dignitaries. Kim Yo Jong watched with Moon Jae-in. The group also included Kim Yong Nam, the titular North Korea head of state, and Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee president.
No one was really there for the hockey. It was an event to attend and be seen. It served its purpose.
“It felt special,” Korean defenseman Yoonjung Park said. “It was a special moment. Hopefully playing as a unified team is a small step into something bigger.”
Or, like that post-fireworks wind gust, it could be joy setting us up for a nasty prank.
We’re likely to look back at the Peace Olympics and consider it the Political Games. In modern times, it is often looked upon with contempt when world leaders use sports to make superficial attempts to shape agendas. But it’s happening here. Kim Yo Jong is fascinating mostly because she seems so different from her brother, whose reputation as an unskillful madman belies the calculated and vicious dictator he actually is. Kim Jong Un is a doughy man with an odd haircut and a cartoon villain’s face. Kim Yo Jong, the first member of her family to visit South Korea since the Korean War, has a more attractive look, and her lack of makeup makes it seem effortless. At the same time, she has a presence so powerful that fans gasped as she entered the arena Saturday night wearing her usual black coat and with her hair in a ponytail.
She seems not-so scary, but she shares a similar belief system that has made her brother such a feared authoritarian. If North Korea is using the Olympics to charm and alter its reputation as a nuclear-strapped menace, Kim Yo Jong looks to be a potent secret weapon.
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There’s nothing wrong with desiring unity. South Korea should want a friendlier relationship with its neighbor. But if you thought Korean unity during these Olympics would be akin to a divorced couple mustering enough decency to sit together during their child’s graduation — just one night of good manners — well, this is something more. Right now, because mostly unknown athletes are symbolizing the peace, it feels pure. But it’s complicated.
“We’re not focused on the politics,” said Sarah Murray, the 29-year-old coach of the Korean team, who is a dual citizen of the United States and Canada. “We just try to give the players a ton of credit. We say, ‘It’s because of you guys the chemistry is good.’ It’s because of our team this is working, not because some politician told you this had to happen. Our players are the ones making this work.”
Despite the blowout loss to Switzerland, Murray and the team have done a solid job with a difficult situation, showing the agility to adjust and accommodate last-minute orders to create a unified team. But when the dignitaries visit, the coach and her team are merely unification wallpaper.
After the game, those guests visited the Korean team and spoke with them. Bach and Moon Jae-in shared some encouraging words. Or at least, we think they were encouraging. The players, wading in disappointment, didn’t listen well. And Murray wasn’t close enough to catch the gist. A hive of cameras pushed her too far back.
“Yeah, I didn’t hear any of it,” she said, laughing.
Notice she didn’t say that was a bad thing.
Just two days into the Pyeongchang Games, the political propaganda is out of control. Stand back a little. When the wind gusts return, you don’t want to be covered in that debris.