Five-ring Circus

“Seventy Percent of Korea Is Mountains”

NBC turned an opening ceremony spectacle into a dull social studies report.

PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 09:  The flame burns inside the Olympic Cauldron during the Opening Ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium on February 9, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.  (Photo by Pool - David J. Phillip/Getty Images)
The flame burns inside the Olympic Cauldron during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium on February 9, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. Pool/Getty Images

The most impressive shot during the Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony came late in the event, when 1,200 illuminated drones floated above a ski slope. The machines gracefully swerved and swooped into a series of formations—a snowboarder, a dove, the Olympic rings—and the effect was, like the games themselves, fleetingly grand.


And then Katie Couric broke the spell.

“We should mention the video was recorded in December due to uncertain weather conditions,” Couric said. It was a real buzzkill, albeit one that was totally on brand for NBC. Couric, Mike Tirico, and crew brought this spectacle to American viewers roughly 14 hours after it took place in Pyeongchang, South Korea. While the opening ceremony aired on Friday night in primetime, NBC’s coverage had all the verve of an early morning traffic report.

The Olympics are all about pomp and pageantry, but Friday’s ceremony often felt like it was lacking in energy. For one thing, there appeared to be thousands of empty seats—an optical illusion, apparently, caused by the crazy in-stadium lights.


NBC’s broadcast was also an illusion of sorts. Condensed and curated, viewers were treated to a version of the ceremony included far more “Gangnam Style” than the hosts originally intended:


Tirico and Couric, for their part, seemed to be as close to the action as I was in California, half a day later. The network often goes overboard during the Olympics when it comes to covering emotional angles, but Friday’s broadcast was weirdly passionless. While no one expects spontaneity from a tape-delayed broadcast, you could almost hear Tirico and Couric turning the pages of their scripts.


Aside from the exorbitant paycheck, the lavish accommodations, and the front-row seat to one of the sporting world’s grandest events, commentating on the opening ceremony is a thankless job. You’re tasked with making the audience care about previously unknown athletes and the strange sports they play, and without being able to actually watch those athletes play their sports.

The one powerful moment during Friday’s ceremony came when athletes from North and South Korea marched together under a unified banner. It was the kind of image you could imagine printed in history textbooks, though NBC didn’t linger too long on this grandiose diplomatic overture. For context, Tirico turned to correspondent Joshua Cooper Ramo, whose day job is as an executive at Henry Kissinger’s consulting firm.* “We’ve talked some about the incredible symbolic power of color in Korean culture,” he said, speaking about the flag design. “And that white background and blue unified Korea touches very deeply on an idea of harmony and balance and integrity.” Got it.


NBC’s coverage was full of these kinds of bland “fun” facts seemingly plucked from hastily written social studies reports. Here is but a sampling:

—Tirico: “[Korea is a] very mountainous country. Seventy percent of Korea is mountains. It had a huge impact on how Korean culture eventually developed.”


—Couric: “Bates College, Bryant Gumbel’s alma mater.”

—Tirico: “Those candles represent the traditional lanterns used to escort important guests into Korea’s imperial court.”

Even the pump-up video for Team USA looked like a sad PowerPoint presentation, one that led with an exciting factoid about the shortest and tallest American athletes in Pyeongchang.

The oddest fun fact of the night came when a team of dancers performed a routine around glowing rectangles.


“South Korea has more tech rehab centers, primarily for video game addicts, than any other nation except for China,” Couric said.

“That’s one of the big tenets you’re going to tackle with your [National Geographic] series coming up,” Tirico responded.

“That’s right, Mike.”

The final legs of the torch relay followed soon after, with figure skater Yuna Kim lighting the Olympic cauldron from an elevated ring of ice. It was a moment of grace and joy—though someone should really tell her about the prevalence of tech rehab centers in Korea. I’ve heard they’re a pretty big deal.

Correction, June 26, 2020: This post originally misspelled Henry Kissinger’s last name.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

The Olympics Opening Ceremony Is a Lie

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