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Olympics Begin With Opening Ceremony

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, let the games begin. The torch has been lit. The opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, has officially concluded. And that means after years of training and preparation, the athletes and trainers from around the world can fully focus now on the competition. Now, earlier this morning, we caught up with NPR's Russell Lewis. He is part of the NPR team covering the Olympics. He was right in the thick of all the pomp and circumstance.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Well, it's been a wonderful ceremony. You know, and I guess you have to say that the opening ceremony really at any Olympics is a highlight, and it's certainly been true of this one, as well. I mean, let's concede that it's cold out there, of course. It's an open-air arena. And, you know, you might hear loud, blowing fans near me at the moment. I'm actually inside a tent with these really loud heaters. So that's...

GREENE: Well, lucky you. (Laughter).

LEWIS: ...Taking it away for a little bit. Yeah, exactly. (Laughter).

GREENE: Well, I mean, it's a little warmer than it was, though, right? People were worried that we were talking about frigid temperatures. It sounds like it thawed a little bit there, which was helpful.

LEWIS: Yeah. You know, it's down in the 20s, you know, which is not too bad. But it's still, you know, for those that have been sitting in the stadium for a couple of hours, you know, it gets cold in a hurry.

GREENE: Well, they're watching such symbolism. I mean, what have you seen?

LEWIS: Well, you know, I mean, I guess one of the most poignant moments really was when the athletes from a unified Korea walked into the stadium together. You know? It was just - I mean, it was really striking. They walked in together. They were under a unified flag. All of their jackets just said Korea. The flag bearer was a woman who was a bobsledder, and it was also being held - a bobsledder from the South - and then it was also being held by a hockey player from the North. And they were holding it jointly. So it was really - it was a really touching sort of moment. You know, the U.S. team walked in. Flag-bearer Erin Hamlin was holding it. You know, she's the luger from upstate New York. She won a bronze in Sochi, was the first American to win an individual medal in that sport.

You know, we should say that the athletes from Russia also was pretty interesting. You know, the country was banned from the Games, but individual athletes were allowed to participate if they passed a heightened doping screening. You know, they walked in under the Olympic flag, not the Russian flag.

GREENE: No Russian flag. Interesting.

LEWIS: Yeah, but the under the Olympic flag, and it was actually carried by an Olympic volunteer. They were wearing gray and white uniforms with white scarves, not flashy. There was no red, no blue, you know, from the color of the Russian flag. And of course I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this, but, the tiny island nation of Tonga. David, you might remember their flag-bearer from the Summer Olympics two years ago. He walked in topless, oiled up and quite muscular.

GREENE: Yeah. It was quite a scene.

LEWIS: It was quite the hit. Well, he actually qualified for the Winter Olympics, and, guess what? He walked into the stadium topless once again...

GREENE: What?

LEWIS: ...Despite the chill. Yeah (laughter).

GREENE: He qualified in both a winter sport and - a summer sport and now a winter sport, as well?

LEWIS: Yeah. Absolutely. And so he walked in as the flag-bearer. He'd been real coy. He'd been asked this week as to, you know, would he do that again, and he didn't say. But it was quite the, you know, quite the surprise to see him walk in in 20-degree weather wearing nothing but, you know, no top. (Laughter).

GREENE: I can imagine. Well, I just want to get back to that unified Korean team. I mean, a lot of people would never have seen this coming a few months ago.

LEWIS: Yeah. You know, I mean, the geopolitics between the North and the South are really well-known. There's been all this talk about even whether the North would even participate at all. But, you know, not only are they participating - we said they, you know, walked in jointly - you know, they're actually - they've got this consolidated women's hockey team. And, we should say, at the opening ceremony, Kim Yong Nam, who is the ceremonial head of North Korea, and Kim Yo Jong, who is the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, they actually exchanged pleasantries with the South Korean president as the joint team walked in. Again, it was a nice moment. And, we should point out, though, that they were sitting just a row away from the vice president, Mike Pence, who's been very critical of the North during his Asian swing this week.

GREENE: OK. So as we just heard from Russell there, a lot of politics to cover and, of course, a lot of sports to cover. The opening ceremony is over. The games are getting underway. That was NPR's Russell Lewis in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "OLYMPIC FANFARE AND THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.