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South Korea offers spectacle of lights, music — and hope — in memorable opening ceremonies

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Monica Kim’s pride was palpable as she stood outside Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium trying to put into words how she feels about her country hosting the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

“I’m so enthusiastic to participate in these Olympics in my home country,” said the 29-year-old office worker, who attended Friday’s opening ceremonies with her boyfriend and parents. “In Vancouver Winter Olympics, I was there studying English. Yuna Kim won the gold medal, and I was so honored to be there and watch my fellow Korean win.”

That experience instilled in Kim an enduring affection for the Olympics. Kim and her family were richly rewarded for making the trip from Seoul and enduring the frigid temperatures — about 26 degrees during the show — when the torchbearer who was honored with lighting the Olympic cauldron was revealed to be none other than figure skating Olympic champion Yuna Kim.

The stadium erupted when Kim skated for a few moments at the base of the cauldron, which was located at the top corner of the stadium. Among those cheering were first-time Olympic speed skater Jerica Tandiman and three-time Olympic bobsledder Chris Fogt, both Utah natives.

"It was an experience I will never forget," said Tandiman, a Kearns High graduate who competes in long track. "There were so many feelings while walking into the stadium. I felt excited, honored and united. It was an experience where it no longer mattered what country or sport anyone was from. We were all there to experience the same Olympic spirit and it was beyond awesome."

Fogt, a captain with the U.S. Army, said it was an experience unlike anything else.

"(It) was great," said the American Fork resident. "It never gets old and is just as exciting as the first time. There really is no other feeling in the world like walking out behind your flag with Team USA athletes to represent our great country on a stage like the Olympics."

Tandiman and a number of U.S. athletes were moved by the gesture South Korea made to North Korea in marching together at the end of the ceremonies under a flag that was white with a blue outline of the entire Korean peninsula to symbolize unity.

"I think North and South Korea walking together was powerful," Tandiman said. "To come together is what the Olympics are all about."

The torch was carried into the 35,000-seat stadium by four-time Olympic champion speedskater Chun Lee-kyung, and then handed to a series of South Korean athletes, including South Korean hockey player Park Jong-ah and North Korean hockey player Jong Su-hyon, who carried the torch together up a flight of stairs that took them from the floor of the stadium to the base of the cauldron. From there, they handed the torch to Yuna Kim.

The lighting of the torch reflected South Korea’s passion for machines. When Kim touched the flame to what appeared to be an ice sculpture, a metal mechanism spiraled out of the flames and toward the cauldron, eventually lighting it.

The show was a series of moving, colorful expressions of South Korean culture. Like most opening ceremonies, the night’s performances were woven into a story.

In the case of Pyeonchang, the story involved five children traveling through time in search of peace. One of the most impressive numbers was the opening segment, where dancers used a cross between a costume and a puppet to bring a white tiger to life, as well as a number of other animals.

That was followed by the highly anticipated parade of athletes, which featured more than 2,900 competitors from 90 countries. Six of those countries were competing in the Games for the first time — Ecuador (cross country), Eritrea (alpine skiing), Kosovo (alpine), Malaysia (alpine and figure skating), Nigeria (women’s bobsled and skeleton). Cheyenne Goh (short track).

Former UVU track athlete and Orem resident Akwasi Frimpong carried the flag of his home country, Ghana, as he reveled in the experience of being the first skeleton athlete from a West African country to be part of the Games.

The U.S. contingent was the largest in Winter Olympics history, although not all of the 242 team members marched in Friday’s ceremony. Team USA entered the stadium while the international hit “Gangnam Style” played, prompting many of the athletes to dance to the chorus.

Highlights from other countries included those who wore traditional dress, most notably Tongan’s bare-chested flag bearer and cross country skier Pita Taufatofua. The internet sensation came out in traditional attire in Rio, and maybe a little extra oil, and became a massive hit.

The 2016 Taekwondo Olympian earned more fans in Pyeongchang, and maybe renewed respect, as it was below freezing when he marched sans shirt this time around. There was also a bit of an incident, although it began playfully. About 30 minutes into the ceremonies, two men dressed as President Donald Trump and North Korean president Kim Jong-un were posing for pictures and joking with spectators when they were told to leave by security personnel.

Tandiman was among the many athletes who posted a few pictures documenting her experience.

And while most of the parade was lighthearted fun, the crowd responded with applause and tears when South Korea closed the parade marching under the unified flag with North Korean athletes.

It was not the first time these two countries, politically different but culturally similar, have marched together in the Olympics. They did so in the 2000 Summer Games as well.

Still, maybe it was the jaw-dropping creativity of the show, which included synchronized skiers and LED-lit snowboarders followed by a pyrotechnics display that forced oohs and aahs from even the most frigid mouths, but people seemed genuinely moved by the gesture.

IOC president Thomas Bach welcomed the world to the 2018 Games, offering gratitude to South and North Korea, while seemingly taking a shot at Russia.

“You can only really enjoy your Olympics performances if you respect the rules and stay clean,” Bach said. “Only then will your lifelong memories be the memories of a true and worthy Olympian.”

Bach said the world would be inspired by the cooperation and camaraderie between the athletes of North and South Korea.

"All the athletes around me, all the spectators here at the stadium, all the Olympic fans watching around the world, we are all touched by this wonderful gesture,” he said. “We all join and support you in your message of peace. When we are united in our diversity we are stronger than all the forces that want to divide us.”

His main message, however, was to the athletes, who sat behind him during the brief address.

“This is the moment we have all been waiting for,” Bach said. “Now it’s your turn (athletes). This will be the competition of your life. … Over the next days, the world will be looking to you for inspiration. You will inspire us all to live together in peace and harmony despite all the differences we have.”