There’s nothing quite like the threat of mutually assured destruction to lend some drama to the Olympics, is there?
Every two years, the Olympic Games return to television, offering viewers a unique meta-narrative that unfolds over two weeks. The Sochi games in 2014 were plagued by protests over LGBT rights in Russia, plumbing problems and — who could forget? — Bob Costas’ pink eye. Two years later, Rio was all about the spirited people of Brazil overcoming Zika, economic woes and disconcertingly green pools.
We’re only a few days into the 23rd Winter Olympics, but the pre-packaged story this year is about whether the unifying spirit of athletic competition can — fingers crossed — cool the nuclear brinkmanship between North Korea, neighboring South Korea and the United States.
The games kicked off Friday night in Pyeongchang, just 60 miles from the border with North Korea, with a ceremony titled “Peace in Motion” that combined the usual pyrotechnic wizardry, adorable singing children and elaborate light displays with a moving call for harmonious co-existence.
In addition to an urgent performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine” by a quartet of South Korean music stars, there were projected yin-yang symbols and doves, and even thousands of synchronized drones deployed not in the name of war but to create dazzling airborne animations in the night sky.
Athletes from both sides of the DMZ marched into the stadium under a unified Korean flag, prompting deafening applause from most of the audience — except for Vice President Mike Pence, who sat in silent protest as the dignitaries around him rose to their feet. (The irony was duly noted on Twitter.)
The event culminated with the lighting of the Olympic flame, carried up an illuminated flight of stairs by a pair of hockey players from the unified Korean women’s team, one from the north, one from the south. The message of peace was as clear and infectious as the K-pop that blared in the stadium throughout the parade of nations.
The ceremony also marked the beginning of a new and hopefully turmoil-free chapter for NBC, its first Olympics in many years without either Matt Lauer, who was fired in November after allegations of sexual misconduct, or Costas, who stepped down last year.
Anchored by Katie Couric, newly appointed Olympics host Mike Tirico and analyst Joshua Cooper Ramo, NBC’s broadcast of the ceremony was instructive and mostly intelligent, though not without embarrassing moments.
Following a year in which sports and domestic politics have intersected messily, and in contrast to the Sochi games in 2014, when NBC was criticized for soft-pedaling Russia’s human-rights record, the network emphasized the geopolitical stakes of this year’s games.
As Couric, who returned to NBC to anchor the ceremonies, pointed out early in the broadcast, Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, is the first member of the regime’s ruling family to visit the south since 1953.
She was seated in the dignitary box directly behind Pence and his wife, Karen, and provided dramatic cutaways throughout the night. (The glaring look on her face as the U.S. team entered the stadium was worthy of an Oscar, if not a gold medal.)
NBC plugged the arrival of the unified Korean team almost as enthusiastically as the season finale of “This Is Us.” For those of us who can recall the Olympics of the Cold War, it all had a throwback vibe, even if the Olympic athletes from Russia, barred from competing under their nation’s flag because of a doping scandal, received relatively scant attention.
At times on Friday, NBC laid on the international intrigue a bit thick.
“Are these teams taking the first steps down a new and peaceful path, or is this the very last image of fellowship and hope before tragedy strikes the people of this peninsula?” analyst Ramo asked regarding the unified Korean team. “That’s why it’s so electric here, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of lives are at stake.”
Warms the heart, doesn’t it?
NBC, in fact, seemed to be taking a cue from “This Is Us,” its tearjerking megahit whose success is a reminder that viewers apparently love nothing so much as life-and-death drama. Fittingly, the network kicked off Friday’s three-hour broadcast with a montage narrated by Sterling K. Brown, the Emmy-winning star of the series.
Thankfully, for those of us who enjoy the sweeping spectacle and smaller-scale human storiesof the Olympics, the weekend offered plenty to enjoy, even a few moments of levity.
To the delight of Couric, Pita Taufatofua, the bare-chested Tongan flag bearer who became a viral star of the Rio games, made a triumphant, if chilly return to the opening ceremony.
“Mike, I’ll handle this one,” a breathless Couric told her co-host as Taufatofua, wearing nothing but grease on his upper half despite temperatures in the 20s, strutted onto the floor of the stadium. (He made the Bermudan athletes, with their knee-bearing shorts, seem positively wimpy by comparison.)
The seemingly interminable parade of nations often turns into the parade of trivia. But instead of rattling off the usual Wikipedia fun facts about each country (“Madagascar is an island nation off the coast of Africa”), Couric and Tirico focused on the athletes, sharing improbable biographies about lugers from India and a family of cross-country skiers representing Thailand.
The cringe-worthy commentary was refreshingly rare and mostly came courtesy of Ramo, who made numerous broad generalizations about “Asian culture” that felt like rehashed stereotypes. He claimed that Koreans viewed Japan as "a cultural, technological and economic example," a comment that many interpreted as putting a positive spin on Japan's imperialist rule. NBC issued an on-air apology Saturday. (Just a thought: NBC should consider hiring a Japanese analyst for the 2020 games in Tokyo.)
Even on a night when we were urged to “imagine there's no countries,” the show skewed heavily toward American athletes. Anyone who took a shot every time the camera cut away to skier Lindsey Vonn would have passed out well before 11, and NBC also seemed to use some clever editing to draw out Team USA’s entry into the stadium for as long as possible.
At times throughout the weekend, NBC’s programming felt like an early episode of a reality show called “America’s Next Breakout Olympic Star.” Would the winner be 18-year-old, Ghana-born short-track speed skater Maame Biney? Or figure skater Bradie Tennell, a 20-year-old newcomer to international competition? The jury is still out, but by Sunday, NBC at least had its first American gold medal winner, Red Gerard, a waifish 17-year-old snowboarder.
Yet the personalities never completely overshadowed politics. Saturday’s primetime broadcast included a report by Mary Carillo about the unified Korean women’s hockey team, which includes 12 players from North Korea. Carillo found inspiration in their 8-0 loss to Switzerland on Saturday because, she said, “For the second night in a row, Korea came together.”