GANGNEUNG, South Korea — As expected, I spent my Valentine’s Day evening watching North Korean cheerleaders push determinedly through a song as Will Smith’s visionary classic “Gettin’ Jiggy wit’ It” blared over the loud speakers at an Olympic hockey area. My Valentine’s Day dinner consisted of a Kind bar, some Pringles, two cough drops and some Reese’s Pieces. It was the most unforgettable Valentine’s Day of my life. I know, I know.
My day began at pairs figure skating, where, on an unseasonably warm morning, I watched history happen over coffee in a can, inside a half-full arena.
While my colleagues and peers at other papers have spent a great deal of time writing about and assessing the importance of the North Korean presence here, I had been largely insulated from it since the Opening Ceremonies. Until Wednesday, I hadn’t seen those cheerleaders who have gone viral. Until Wednesday, I hadn’t seen a North Korean athlete compete. Before I arrived here, a friend pointed out that I would be getting the opportunity to do something at these Games that most people never get the chance to do — see a North Korean person in the flesh. I hadn’t thought of it that way.
Perhaps because so much of our world is connected now, the notion of a place so disconnected stokes as much intrigue as concern. When we flew into Seoul, coming down from Siberia, our plane routed around North Korea, though it was on the way. When we looked at our maps apps in the car on the way here, the maps were populated with all the roads in Russia and China and South Korea. In North Korea, only a few cities, marked by dots, showed up.
The idea of people from a country that isolated competing at the highest level of international sport has fascinated me since I heard the North Koreans would be here. I know they’ve been here before. It still fascinated me.
They have a formidable figure skating pair in their delegation, Tae Ok Ryom and Ju Sik Kim. They skated their program to a song loaded with guitar riffs, and did not stumble. They skated with emotion palpable in their movements and visible in their faces. They finished with fingers pointed to their North Korean cheering section, dressed entirely in red, which cheered anew each time an element of their program replayed on the video board. Fans from around the world tossed stuffed animals in their direction.
Their performance was not only appreciated, but competitive. When their score appeared on the video board, a few journalists issued audible gasps that were hard to separate from those issued around the arena. They moved temporarily into second place, and finished in 11th, meaning they beat out half the field.
“They were awesome!” said U.S. skater Alexa Scimeca-Knierim after she and her husband skated to 14th place. She was genuinely excited, and not because she was surprised to see them perform so well. She and her husband, Chris, had competed against them before.
But while so many public conversations about the North Koreans at these Games are calculated, couched, and carefully executed, Scimeca-Knierim’s unfiltered enthusiasm mirrored that in the arena. People understand a tough journey. The journey to become a North Korean Olympic athlete cannot be easy. Many people, it seems, are just plain rooting for them. Something about that moves me.
A few hours later, by pure schedule chance, I ended up at the Korean women’s hockey game against Japan. The U.S. men would later open their tournament at the same arena, so I headed over early to get some work done first. I didn’t get much work done at all.
Instead, I got sucked in to the strange scene, which was punctuated by the juxtaposition of uniformed, robotic North Korean cheerleaders sitting in front of a South Korean dance team as it performed — the former dutifully dedicated to unison, the latter decidedly improvisational. I saw the “wave” pass from fans to those cheerleaders and on again. I am one of the few people in the world who have seen a group of North Koreans execute a perfect wave. As strange as it sounds, that might be the most memorable moment of my Olympics so far.
And then there was the noise. I have been to many women’s hockey games in my life. I have never heard a game as loud as that one. I’m sure U.S.-Canada will be that loud. I’m sure the Olympics are loaded with noisy hockey contests, and I hope I get to experience that. But at this game, flags waved and chants rained down and a few of the South Korean volunteers started smacking their legs in disgust or covering their eyes when a scoring chance evaporated. At times, cheerleaders and non-cheerleaders alike called out in unison.
Between the second and third periods, the North Korean cheerleaders were singing a song and swaying side-to-side when Smith’s hit started playing. They didn’t stop swaying, creating an unorthodox mash-up that might just be the most unexpected live performance mash-up sequence of all time.
The Koreans ultimately fell 4-1, overwhelmed by the Japanese attack and a few too many penalties. But long after the game was out of reach, the home crowd was still riveted by every shot, fixated on every pass, hoping for one more magic moment before the end. They didn’t get it, nor did they get jiggy wit’ it, but there’s just no denying the romance of it all.
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