A beautiful spectacle? Sure. But this opener was tougher to take


PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- There was a dazzlingly oversized, anatomically segmented, multiple-person-operated white tiger at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics here on Friday night. There were also a slew of puppets and dancers; a group of children crossing a "vast buckwheat field on a raft"; an extended playing of "Gangnam Style"; a Tongan skier walking shirtless in sub-freezing temperatures; a cover performance of John Lennon's "Imagine"; and a dramatic lighting of the Olympic flame, performed -- while on ice skates -- by the legendary South Korean figure skater Yuna Kim.

But even with all that, there was also a nagging, niggling, lingering question:

What did we actually see?

Was that rapprochement? Unity? An opening to true and fair and clean competition?

And were those actual Russians? Or were they just a bunch of people from Russia?

We saw a spectacle, for sure, a lovely (if cripplingly frigid) display of music and dance and lights and sound. But much of it felt like an (excellently choreographed) exercise in hypocrisy, too.

How could it not? For years, Olympics officials have been steadfast that the Games are supposed to be free of political messages, of ideology, of anything that runs deeper than the basic trappings of sport. They are, quite often, maniacal about it, paranoid to the point of absurdity about anything that might be construed as controversial. Just this week, for example, Olympic officials told the goalie for the South Korean men's hockey team that his helmet -- which had a depiction of a legendary Korean naval commander from the 1500s painted on it -- was in violation of the Games' rule against political statements and, thus, had to be changed.

His helmet.

Meanwhile, the lasting moment from this opening ceremony -- if not from this entire Games -- will be South Koreans and North Koreans, walking into the stadium, elbow-to-elbow, beneath a unified Korean flag.

That last part is important, too. If the premise of the Olympic ideal is simply that sports allows athletes to rise above their differences, then having the North and South Korean athletes walking alongside each other would have been a dramatic statement on its own. Two countries still technically at war watching their sons and daughters parade together as they smile and laugh. There is beauty there.

Yet by having a joint Korean women's hockey team compete at these Games, and by having them walk beneath the flag, and by allowing the rhetoric behind the appearance of the North Koreans' participation to be grounded in the idea that this is part of the progress toward reunification -- the entire thing is far more political than anything that could be painted on a hockey helmet.

Understand, the merging of the Koreas just isn't a simple subject: In fact, a survey by the Korea Institute for National Unification found that support for a unified Korea has dropped to about 58 percent, down nearly 12 percentage points from just four years ago. And for people in their 20s -- people like many of the athletes competing in these Games -- the segment opposing unification (71 percent) is far bigger than that supporting it.

With that sort of schism, why are the Olympics -- which aren't political, remember -- allowing themselves to become a platform for one side over the other?

Now, it is easy to gloss over it all, if you want to, easy to just follow along with the script. At one point in the ceremony on Friday, five children released a dove into the skies of Pyeongchang in a symbolic hope for peace. The sequence was touching, and so is the sentiment, yet the presence here of a North Korean delegation (which includes the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un) isn't quite so straightforward.

How open are the minds of the North Korean officials? How willing are they to have meaningful interactions about the eventual enmeshing of their cultures? Well, North Korean athletes and musicians here are, according to reports, not even allowed to go to the bathroom without minders.

Oh, and peace Games? On Thursday, one day before the Olympics opened, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un held a massive military parade in Pyongyang in which he showed off his powerful military arsenal, which, he has made clear, is what makes North Korea a world power.

And yet: "You will inspire us all to live together in peace and harmony despite all our differences," IOC president Thomas Bach said during the ceremony. "You will inspire us by competing for the highest honor in the Olympic spirit of excellence, respect and fair play."

Except, well, even that part is tricky. Because about 20 minutes before the Korean athletes paraded together, there were the Olympic Athletes from Russia dancing through, a group whose Olympic-sanctioned abbreviation for scoreboards -- OAR -- is perhaps the only thing sillier than the name itself.

Remember, the Russian Olympic Committee was suspended after a massive, state-run doping program was uncovered. As part of its punishment, the federation was absolutely, positively, no-doubt-about-it banned from participating in these Olympics ... other than the 160-plus athletes from Russia who are here, staying in the athletes village, walking in the opening ceremony and competing as, well, OAR.

Again, there's an easy gloss -- the IOC didn't want to penalize athletes who didn't test positive, didn't want to punish them for the sins of others -- and that's fair enough. Only this wasn't a few athletes who were doping, or just a few cheaters sneaking steroids under the cover of night. It was massive, widespread, government-sponsored doping. The IOC is either punishing Russia for that or it's not. Having Russian athletes wear jeans and trendy grayish jackets (it was basically a big Gap commercial) instead of Russian uniforms as they waved to the crowd didn't exactly feel like any sort of meaningful statement.

Will Russian President Vladimir Putin see Russian champions at these Olympics as any different from the list of previous gold-medal winners from his country because their flag isn't flying and their anthem isn't playing and the IOC mandated that the shade of red they wear in their uniforms at these Games is (and this is not a joke) slightly different from the typical Russian red they usually wear? Probably not.

But then, that is where we are with the Olympics. A modified tinge of red is a big, complicated thing, while an ideologically loaded flag and a mixed hockey team and a dictator's sister and decades of bellicosity is somehow clean and small and simple.

So the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics took place here on Friday night. It was rich and glittery, dazzling and captivating.

It was a memorable beginning ... to something.