PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — In the athletes walked, some arm in arm, some clapping, jumping and dancing, exuberant in their march in the final stage of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, the closing ceremony at the Olympic Stadium here on Sunday night. Some donned their medals and waved miniature versions of their country’s colors as the lights in the stands danced to display all of the flags while drones in the sky above put on a show.
Flag-bearers for all participating countries, save Russia, still banned by the International Olympic Committee from marching with its flag as a result of state-sponsored doping, formed a circle in the middle of the stage, a prelude to the parade of athletes. The group was highlighted by the faces who splashed onto the worldwide sport scene over the last three weeks, including American flag-bearer Jessie Diggins, who helped capture the first Olympic medal in the history of US women’s cross country skiing, and Czech Republic flag-bearer Ester Ledecka, the two-time gold medal winner in two different sports here and the first woman to achieve that feat at a Winter Olympics.
The athletes marched together into the stadium, representing a record number of competitors at a Winter Games (2,920) and the highest percentage of women participating. Speed skater Seung-Hoon Lee, who won a gold and silver at his third Olympics, was the flag-bearer for the host country while, notably, the unified flag for Korea, under which the North and South Korean athletes walked together in the opening ceremony, was carried on Sunday by a Games volunteer.
The closing ceremony, titled “The Next Wave,” was an eye-popping and delightful display of music, choreography and lights and fireworks, including an explosive, base-thumping and crowd-pleasing performance by K-Pop star CL that stole show. With the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, and the first daughter of the United States, Ivanka Trump, among those in the audience, the ceremony bookended an Olympiad that was pegged as “Passion, Connected,” a fitting and concise description of a Games that seamlessly wove together competition clusters across a mountainous and breathtaking region with unmatched hospitality.
“Thank you for sharing it with all of us,” IOC president Thomas Bach said to the host country that opened its doors to the world for these three weeks. “Thank you for your competitive spirit.”
Although the United States leaves Pyeongchang with its fewest medals in 20 years, Americans, particularly on the women’s side, still produced replay-worthy moments that will forever serve as markers in the country’s Olympic history: The women’s hockey team won its first gold since the 1998 Games in as dramatic a fashion as could be dreamed up for a movie script; Diggins and Kikkan Randall combined to capture gold in the cross-country ski team sprint; Chloe Kim dazzled with a daring gold medal performance in the country from which her parents immigrated to the US more than two decades ago; Mikaela Shiffrin and Jamie Anderson earned two medals each, in skiing and snowboarding, respectively; the men’s curling team stormed the world stage to snatch gold away from a global powerhouse — and other highlights.
“It’s been so empowering,” said women’s hockey team captain Meghan Duggan. “I’m so proud to be a woman in this society and climate these days. I think this has been a fantastic Games for Team USA, certainly been a fantastic Games for women. As always, I’m really proud to be a woman, be a female and represent our team and our country.”
But, as with the end of any Olympiad, myriad questions remain as the focus moves toward the next quadrennial. Will these Games, touting peace and a unified Korea in the opening ceremony, parlay into genuine and substantive diplomatic talks between South and North Korea and the relevant global players in the efforts for actual stability? Will the IOC satisfactorily get a handle on Russia’s doping? And what will happen if Russian athletes continue to test positive for doping? Will the US Olympic Committee examine how it and its country’s governing bodies operate as sexual abuse allegations continue to come to light?
And from a pure sports perspective: How will the USOC and those governing bodies respond to a low medal count? What will become of American figure skating after a largely dismal showing here? Will the NHL allow its players to compete in Beijing in 2022? And will Americans, finally, be more engaged with women’s sports after the US women commanded far more star power and proved dominant in Pyeongchang?
“All of us here and all of the women on Team USA really take that to heart and really go out there knowing that we’re trying to perform to represent women as best we can,” said bobsled pilot and silver medalist Elana Meyers Taylor. “Hopefully the little girls will look up to us and say they can achieve anything.”
On Sunday night, as the Olympic flame in the cauldron at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium was extinguished, Beijing 2022, host of the next Winter Games, made its way into the spotlight with a splashy light show.
But as the last three weeks give way to the next Games host, South Korea will remain a special place for these athletes — along with their innumerable support staffs — who realized lifelong dreams here, whether simply competing as an Olympian for the first time or turning in golden performances.
“To be honest, I will always think about Korea until the end of my life. They are very great people here and it was great preparation. I was in all three ski resorts, so I had a chance to see all the hills, and it was amazing,” said Ledecka, the Alpine skiing and snowboarding sensation. “I’m grateful for Korea.”Rachel G. Bowers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @RachelGBowers.