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This must be what it’s like to enter the Stadium at a Super Bowl. The feeling that this event is special, and that you’re kind of privileged to be able to attend.

You snake through the line, thankful the freezing winds off the mountains are not blasting through the valley. You go swiftly through security, have your ticket scanned, and begin the walk to the Stadium. You pass by exhibition areas of some of the TOP sponsors, like Coca Cola and Omega. You make your obligatory stop at the gift shop given the name to suit the moment – The Super Store. And then you file into the Stadium.

It’s not a massive stadium. In the shape of a pentagon, all spectators look down on an oval arena. When I got to my seat in the fairly narrow seat rows, doing the movie theater shuffle – “excuse me ma’am, sorry sir,” I removed the bag full of PyeongChang Olympic swag that was on everyone’s seats, and sat down.

If you came to see everything close and personal, then you shouldn’t have gone to the event. Even the big screen televisions were relatively small and on the whole not helpful. Understandable in a way since the Stadium will be torn down right after the Olympics – temporary venues are significantly cheaper to build than permanent ones.

Most of the spectators were seated an hour in advance of the start, and the pre-ceremony MCs got us started by having us practice a count down from ten to one in Korean, and practice K-Pop dance moves to keep us warm. There were volunteers in red scattered throughout the Stadium to model the dance moves. The one about 15 meters from where I was sitting was particularly committed. He danced enthusiastically during the entire march of nations, which lasted about an hour!

Volunteer Dancing All Night
Volunteer dancing all night

On occasion I could see to my distant right a group of women clad in red – the famed North Korean cheering squad. But just to keep geo-political balance, a man who looked suspiciously like President Donald J. Trump would parade by the walkway in front of our section.

Trump in the House
Trump in the House

For much of the ceremony, there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. My seat was directly across from the entry part for the marching athletes, so it was central. And yet when it came time to light the cauldron with the Olympic flame, I had to crane my neck all the way to the right. I got to see how beautiful Yuna Kim was as she skated at the top of the Stadium this morning when I watched the clip on YouTube, but what I was able to see was a slightly blurry view through my iPhone which I was able to position so that I could see what was happening on the phone’s screen.

I couldn’t really see the lighting, but I could see the burst of fire, the explosions of fireworks, and the cheers of the crowd in an intense personal way that cannot be experienced on the screen. And then began the incredible in-Stadium fireworks display that stuns you with its proximity.

And then the ceremony was done.

 

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My seat in proximity to the Olympic Cauldron

 

I filed out with the masses, fairly quickly. I wasn’t so cold, as I was bundled properly, but I was hungry and fish soup awaited on the first floor. As I slurped a late snack, I noticed a commotion. The North Korean cheering squad had made their way down the stairs and were lined up in rows. While hugely popular in North Korea, it is unlikely they have ever been surrounded by so many South Koreans and foreigners with cameras and phones.

People who never imagined to be so close to a North Korean, let alone dozens of young attractive North Korean women, snapped and selfied away. I noticed just before they left, and somehow while holding my soup bowl in one hand, I took two quick pictures with my SLR in the other. Fortunately, one was in focus, proof of my personal encounter with the enemy.

Chance Meeting with the North Korean Cheering Squad
Chance Meeting with the North Korean Cheering Squad

All pictures and videos were taken by the author.

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Tonga enters the Stadium
Pita Taufatofua of Tonga enters shirtless…again.

Definitely, the biggest question of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics was not whether more people would be added to the OAR team, or whether protests would break out in the middle of these South Korean Games, or how the Olympic cauldron would be lit.

The biggest question was certainly – Would Pita Taufatofua, the taekwando-cross-country skier, enter the Stadium shirtless, as he did to universal glee at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.

The Tongan did not disappoint. Fortunately, the temperature was only -2 degrees Centigrade, far below predictions of -15, so the oil-slathered Taufatofua could milk the crowd for ecstatic squeals of delight.

But there were cheers a-plenty during the march of the nations.

Nations with large teams like Norway, Germany, the UK and Canada got cheers, as did the nations with small teams, like Ghana, Singapore and particularly Tonga.

Olympic Athletes from Russia enter the Stadium
Olympic Athletes from Russia enter the Stadium

The intriguing cheers came with the OAR crashed the house. Although it wasn’t finalized until the last day, 169 Olympic Athletes from Russia were allowed to participate in the Winter Olympics. They marched under the Olympic flag, and any medals won will not count in the overall Russia medal count.

The largest team with 244 athletes, the USA entered the Stadium at a half run, and bounced along to the PSY hit song from 2010, Gangnam Style.

But the biggest cheers were heard for the hometown favorites, the 145 members of the United Korean Team where a North and South Korean held the blue–on-white unification flag together as they entered the Stadium to tremendous applause.

 

All photos and videos taken by the author.

PyeongChang Winter Olympics Newsletter KTX

I’m sitting in seat 5A of the third train in the KTX and after kilometer of kilometer of open spaces, ice-pocked rivers, massive housing blocks, we’ve entered darkness. And it’s a long darkness.

But that’s OK, because I have my handy dandy PyeongChang Winter Olympics Newsletter in the pocket in front of my seat, and it has the facts I need. The KTX is the new high-speed train line from Seoul to Gangneung, which will make it fairly easy for Koreans and visitors alike to get to the Olympic venues. And in answer to the question “Would you introduce the newly launched KTX railroad line connecting Seoul with Gangneung?” there is a nugget of trivia that I needed at the moment I read it – that part of the engineering marvel of the new KTX line is a 22-kilometer-long tunnel in Daegwallyeong. That’s the longest tunnel in Korea, and the eighth longest in the world.

This newsletter is intriguing, at least to me. There is a bit of the normal evasive mumbo jumbo that bureaucracies spin. For example, in answer to the first question – “What do the Korean people think about Korea’s hosting of the Olympics, the world’s premier sporting event?” the answer starts off with a 90 degree turn.

KTX

Let us begin with a brief introduction to the Republic of Korea. The country became a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1996, and its economy now ranks near the global top 10. Surprisingly, however Korea was the most impoverished country in the world 70 years ago. It gained independence in 1945 but went into war in 1950……

It goes on like that for another three paragraphs without answering the question. Maybe the attitude of the Koreans towards the Olympics are like citizens in so many countries – mixed to negative.

But I suppose that answer would be a downer at the start of a newsletter promoting the pride Koreans have in showcasing the biggest Winter sports event in the world.

This four-page document is not all sugar and spice, however. In companies I’ve worked, in the face of intimidating change, corporate communications will often suggest creating a set of FAQs called “Rude FAQs.” In this case, the effort is put into thinking of the most direct questions an ordinary employee would think of (the directness of which can seem rude in the genteel world of let’s-all-get-along corporate cultures.)

So after the first nine, rather bland questions in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics newsletter come three fairly direct questions, real questions:

  • Q9. South Korea’s “Peace Olympics Initiative” led to North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games. Is there any concern about the possibility of the North’s exploiting the Games as a propaganda opportunity?
  • Q10. Isn’t the North trying to gain time for its nuclear armament by participating in the Games, and doesn’t its participation constitute a violation of the sanctions imposed by the international community on North Korea?
  • Q11. Aren’t some South Korean media outlets and politicians worried about North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics?

And the answers were on the whole pretty solid. Here’s the response to the last question, #11:

Considering the fact that North Korea’s latest missile test was held just months ago, their sudden change in attitude is surprising, and indeed, voices of concern have been heard in some quarters.

The government is paying keen attention to these concerns out of the belief that they all emanate from a wish for the successful hosting of the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games. The government is convinced that the North’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics will contribute to the success of the Games for the following reasons:

  • First, the PyeongChang Olympics will aid the promotion of inter-Korean reconciliation as well as ease tensions and build peace on the Korean peninsula.
  • Second, there were concerns a few months ago over whether the PyeongChang Olympics could be peacefully held, but those concerns have now evaporated. Moreover, global leaders are supporting inter-Korean dialogue and the participation of North Kore in the PyeongChang Olympics.
  • Third, the North’s participation has further increased international interest I the PyeongChang Olympics, adding to its potential for success.
  • Fourth, efforts for detente on the Koran Peninsula will mitigate geopolitical risks, providing a boost to the Korean economy.

 

Unification flag Koreas
By Various – Outline drawn by Ksiom, Blue color from the Olympic rings., CC BY-SA 3.0,

It seems hard to believe that a nation would willingly drop usage of their flag to appease another nation, but that is what both North and South Korea are doing at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

The North Korean rocket tests in 2017 were raising tensions around the world, particularly in Asia, but South and North Korean leaders came to an agreement in January to unite the teams of the two border nations, so that they march together on opening day under the same flag.

The flag is starkly simple, a blue silhouette of the Korean peninsula on white. There are variations that include various islands, but the one that will be seen at the Winter Games will be one that includes the oval of Jeju Island near the southern tip of the peninsula.

North and South Korea have united under one flag at three previous Olympics: at the 2000 Sydney Summer Games, the 2004 Athens Summer Games, and the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. But since then, they have marched under their own flags, most recently at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.

North and South Korean Flags

There is precedent for this symbolic unity.

East and West Germany were put together under a single team at the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Winter and Summer Olympiads. Their flag was made up of the tri-colors black, red and yellow with the Olympic rings in white centering the flag. The national anthem was Beethoven’s Ninth – Ode to Joy.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in December, 1991, twelve nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union were banded together under the name “The Unified Team,” also known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). These countries were banded together in this manner because the now independent nations did not have enough time to establish National Olympic Committees with the International Olympic Committee in time.

At both the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics and the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, members of the Unified Team marched under the Olympic Flag, which was composed of the Olympic Rings on white background. Their national anthem was the Olympic theme.

It’s been eleven years, but North and South Korea will again march under the same flag. The Olympics of Ancient Greece were said to be about taking a pause in the political belligerence of mankind.

Of course, not everyone’s happy about it, as protests against North Korea’s role in the PyeongChang Olympics grow in South Korea. As this AP reports states:

Discontent has grown in South Korea in recent days over plans to include North Korea in high-profile roles during next month’s Games — complaints that prompted protesters on Monday to burn a North Korean flag and an image of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, in public.

May the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which will bring enemy brothers together, show us a better vision of ourselves.

protests against north korea
South Koreans burn a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in front of the Seoul railway station on Jan. 22, 2018. They were protesting a visit by Hyon Song Wol, head of North Korea’s art troupe. (Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)
Chloe Kim
Chloe Kim

Someone in Seoul recently wrote to me that many South Koreans are not so excited in the Winter Games to be held in their home country because there are no Korean superstars like Yuna Kim at these Games. I’m sure that will change if it hasn’t already.

Having said that, one of the biggest young talents coming to PyeongChang is a first-generation Korean. She will, however, be competing for the US. Her name is Chloe Kim. She is one of the best snowboarders in the world, becoming the youngest gold medalist at the Winter X Games at the age of 14. A year later she became the first person under 16 to win three gold medals, as well as the first woman to complete back-to-back 1080 spins in a competition, the only person other than the legendary snowboarder and teammate, Shaun White, to do so.Kim began snowboarding at 4

Born in California to Korean-born parents, Kim began snowboarding at 4. According to this SI article, she moved to Switzerland, where her parents met, for a couple of years of elementary school, where she added French and learned how to ply the halfpipe.

A Korean who won’t be returning is Viktor Ahn. With 3 gold medals and a bronze at the 2002 Salt Lake City and 2006 Torino Olympiads, Ahn (formerly known as Ahn Hyun-Soo) is one of the most decorated Olympians in South Korean history.

Unfortunately, following the 2006 Torino Games, the relationship between Ahn and his coach of the very successful Korean short track men’s team became tenable at best. Eventually, Ahn was put in a different group coached by the women’s track team, and the relationship became, apparently, unrepairable.

In 2008, Ahn fractured his knee while training, taking him out of action, and making it impossible for him to defend his world championship titles in 2008 and 2009. So when trials began for the 2010 Sochi Olympics, Ahn was not able to qualify due to the lack of points from not participating in the prior World Cups, so Ahn, somewhat surprisingly, was left off the South Korean squad heading to the 2010 Vancouver Games.

President Vladimir Putin Honours Russian Olympic Athletes
Putin and Ahn

In a tremendous shock to Korea, Ahn became a Russian citizen, and joined the Russian national team in time for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where he had a successful comeback – three more gold medals and a bronze.

It goes without saying, with the Russia team under the dark cloud of state-sponsored cheating in addition to his “defection” to Russia, Koreans may have been looking forward to welcoming or heckling their for me star back to Korea. Unfortunately, that dramatic storyline never emerged.

While the IOC has approved over 160 Russians to compete at the Pyeong Chang Olympics, that list did not include Ahn, the taint of Russian medal winners who trained during the height of the state-sponsored doping machine prior and during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Ahn is despondent, as he explained to RT:

This is really a very difficult situation. The IOC hasn’t specified any reasons for my exclusion from the Olympics. I don’t understand why they have made such a decision. I really can’t say anything right now. I’m still waiting, but if the situation is not resolved we will take action. During my entire career journey in short track, I’ve never given a reason to doubt my honesty and my integrity, especially when it comes to my victories which I achieved with nothing but my strength and dedication.

 

Hyon Song Wol
Hyon Song Wol of the North Korean delegation

K-Pop’s really popular all over Asia. But how about NK-Pop?

Thanks to a recent rapprochement by the two Koreas, North and South Korea will unite under the name “Korea” at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. In addition to a figure skating duo which had actually qualified for the Games, an additional 22 athletes will be added to the roster of participating athletes.

A stunning turn of events only weeks before the commencement of the Games, the governments of North and South Korea are working to de-escalate the tension that has risen in the second half of 2017, as test missiles from North Korea flew menacingly close to Japan, and antagonistic words between the American and North Korean leaders were exchanged.

South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, has been actively seeking to bring North Korea to the table, and to the PyeongChang Olympics. On January 18, 2018, weeks before the Winter Games start on February 8, the two sides negotiated the presence of not only athletes and officials in PyeongChang, but also a wide variety of teams that would serve to promote North Korean arts, sports and of course, the government leadership. That includes a team of taekwondo athletes, which of course won’t compete because it’s not the Summer Games, but instead will perform in demonstrations.

Participants at the PyeongChang Winter Games will be graced by the presence of the so-called “Army of Beauties,” a hand-picked cheering squad of 230 women who will chant, sing and cheer at the Games opening ceremonies, among other events.

The Samjiyon Art Troupe, an all-purpose group of 140 singers, dancers and orchestral members will also perform during the Olympics. This particular group is led by Hyon Song Wol, who is the leader of the Moranbong Band, an all-female band that is more well known, and has been performing pop rock since 2012. It is reported that North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, helped establish the band.

Hyon is no ordinary musician. She was a member of North Korea’s delegation visiting South Korea for the rapprochement talks, and is perceived to be close to Kim Jong-un. There have even been rumors that she was romantically involved with Kim before he became North Korea’s supreme leader.

Rumors don’t stop there regarding Hyon. It was believed in 2014 that Hyon was dead, executed by the hand of the State, for the charge of – wait for it – starring in a pornographic films. The rumors of her demise were apparently greatly exaggerated. Today, Hyon appears to wield significant political influence. And at the opening ceremonies of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, Hyon and the Samjiyon Art Troupe will take the spotlight on the biggest stage in sports.

Imnam Dam and Peace Dam
Google Maps view of the DMZ

It was 1986. Preparations were under way for South Korea’s coming-out party – The 1988 Seoul Olympics. And on the other side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), North Korean began preparations of their own, breaking ground for a dam to be built on the Bukhan River, a short 19 kilometers from the border. Completed in 2003, it is called the Imnam Dam.

Perhaps fears of North Korean terrorism during the South Korean Olympics were top of mind for South Koreans, so they began to imagine the worst. As the New York Times explained in an article in 2007, then President Chun Do-hwan did imagine a scary scenario – the new dam in the North producing a monstrous flood, pounding waters headed straight for the South.

In response to the so-called water-bomb scare, South Korean television networks broadcast artists’ conceptions of monstrous walls of water unleashed from the North Korean dam, wiping out most of Seoul, 120 miles downstream, with the impact of a nuclear explosion during the Olympics.

A year later, in 1987, the fears were too hard to resist, and the South Korean government gave the green light to their own dam project, today called the Peace Dam. Located about 16 kilometers from the border to the north, the Peace Dam took a while to build, and in fact was finally completed in 2005, seven years after the Seoul Olympics. But it stands today, 125 meters high and 600 meters wide. There is actually no reservoir at the Peace Dam. Its sole purpose is to be peace of mind – a wall just in case the feared flood from the North ever comes racing down the Bukhan River – peace of mind in this case that cost USD429 million.

Peace Dam
Peace Dam in South Korea

It actually seems like a bit of expensive folly, and to be fair, the South Korean government suspended construction work on the dam after a few years. But when satellite photos apparently showed signs of cracks in the Imnam Dam in the North, fears of the deluge arose anew in the imaginations of the leaders. Work resumed, and the Peace Dam was finished.

Actually, it is another dam in North Korea that is causing grief – The Hwanggang Dam on the Imjin River, which is 42 kilometers from the DMZ. Over the past several years, there have been 8 cases where North Korean officials released massive amounts of water, causing significant flooding in South Korea. It’s not the “nuclear explosion” impact that was feared in the 1980s, and yet 6 South Koreans were killed when water was released from the Hwanggang Dam in September 2009.

The South and the North have an agreement that the North would provide notice to the South when they intend to release dam waters, commonly after significant rainfall, but in practice, the North Koreans rarely do.

In the end, should they have bothered building the Peace Dam? I guess one could say that they were dam-ed if they did, and dam-end if they didn’t.

“Like the two Koreas, the two dams are twin brothers, born at the same time, facing each other across DMZ,” said Lee Tae-ik, an official at Korea Water Resources Corporation, which maintains the South Korean dam. “The Peace Dam is an inevitable child of a divided nation.”

Billy Fiske in RAF uniform

He was 16, and he was an Olympic gold medalist. At the age of 20, he won his second gold medal. At the age of 24, Billy Fiske had an opportunity to head up another US bobsleigh team, this time at the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Winter Olympics in Germany.

Fiske turned down a possible third gold medal, and he never said why. But according to The Guardian, his friend, Irving Jaffee (a two time gold medalist in speed skating at the1932 Lake Placid Games), believed it was because “Fiske objected to the treatment of Jews, like Jaffee himself, in Nazi Germany.”

As a teenager, Fiske went to Trinity College in London, England, to study economics and history, as well as drive his Bentley down the English country roads as fast as he could. In 1938, Fiske moved back to England, where he made friends with members of the British air force at the White’s Club in London, and married an English girl named Rose Bingham. He returned to New York. But when Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later, Fiske felt he had to return to England.

Fiske had to deceive in order to make it to England because American passports did not allow citizens to engage in foreign militaries, and it was Fiske’s aim to join his friends from the White’s Club. Pretending to be Canadian, Fiske returned to London where he enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF). According to HistoryNet, “Fiske duly pledged his life and loyalty to the king, George VI, and was formally admitted into the RAF. In his diary, a joyous Fiske wrote, “I believe I can lay claim to being the first U. S. citizen to join the RAF in England after the outbreak of hostilities.”

In fact he was the first. He was also one of the first Americans to perish in World War II.

Billy Fiske fifth left
Billy Fiske fifth from the left

The Battle of Britain began on July 10, 1940 when Luftwaffe arrived in London in full daylight to bomb the British capital. As a newly trained pilot in the 601 Auxiliary Air Force Squadron at Tangmere, “there was some apprehension in 601 about ‘the untried American adventurer,” as quoted in HistoryNet. Ten days later, the rookie fighter pilot was in the air in a 601 plane to make patrols, apparently learning quickly how to maneuver the plane effectively.

Three weeks later, Fiske, on August 16, 1940, Fiske was trying to get his plane back to the base after an attack by Luftwaffe. Shot up and badly damaged, Fiske glided his Hurricane fighter plane back to the airfield, hitting the ground hard and exploding into fire. Dragged out of his plane, Fiske suffered severe burns and was rushed to a hospital. But the shock from the burns was too great, and the Olympian and American RAF fighter pilot, Billy Fiske, died the next day at the age of 29.

Horace Ashenfelter ahead of Vladimir Kazantsev in 3000meter steeplechase
Horace Ashenfelter ahead of Vladimir Kazantsev in 3000meter steeplechase

It was 1952 at the Helsinki Olympics, and the Cold War was heating up.

Making their first appearance at the Olympics were the Soviet Union. And in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, the favorites were Russians Vladimir Kazantsev, and Mikhail Saltykov, both world record holders with times under 9 minutes. Horace Ashenfelter, an American whose best at the time was nearly 18 seconds slower than Kazantsev’s best, was not given a chance to win the steeplechase competition.

And yet the American press played up the geo-political theme, particularly since Ashenfelter was an FBI agent in the US government. As Red Smith wrote in his column on July 26, 1952,

It was evident at Wednesday’s steeplechase heats that the final would bring about the carnival’s first head-on, man to man clash between an American and a Russian. A lot of people had been waiting for such a match ever since it became apparent, long before the games opened, that the 15th Olympics would be chiefly a Russian-American struggle. Before the heats, however, nobody had dreamt that the match might come about in the steeplechase. All the tall tales about a generation of supermen rehearsing behind the iron curtain had made special mention of Vladimir Kazantsev of Kiev, who had been charging over the obstacles at speeds the outside world had never seen.

With such a foe looming, Ashenfelter was given little chance. In the book, The Heart of a Champion, he was teased about his likely fate at the hand of the Russians:

“Horace, how is it going to feel to be out there running on the track when Kazantsev is in taking a shower and on his way home?” Another team-mate said, “I’ll bet Horace will have only three laps to go when Kazantsev is getting his gold medal.”

And yet, Ashenfelter was never fazed by the challenge. As stated in this interview, Ashenfelter was in prime shape and had nothing to lose.

I’m a pretty confident guy, actually and – put it this way – he had to beat me. It was the first time and only time where I had about three weeks of controlled training and rest. I had fine tuned my weight and weighed 128 pounds which I carried on five feet nine frame as compared to my normal weight of 140. I was in outstanding shape and had no bad luck occur. I was just going to stay with the pace as long as I could and to make the pace if I had to – I didn’t mind that.

He got suckered by his coaches as his plan they had was for him to stay with me. That meant that he was running on my right shoulder the whole race and adding three or four yards to each lap. I ran him a little bit wide on the corners and we bumped several times as he was running that close to me. That didn’t bother me but it may have bothered him – I don’t know. I knew I had a lot left at the end.

The American press lapped up the victory. As Smith wrote in his column, “The G man, reluctant to keep his back turned on a Commie, trotted back and slapped Kazantsev on the blouse of his britches.”

It was not known at that time that Kazantsev was also a KGB Agent, but one could imagine that Red Smith’s rhetoric would have been even more provocative.

As for Ashenfelter, he could care less about the Cold War drama on the track. “He was just an opponent. The media writes what they think and what they believe will attract readers.”

On January 6, 2018, Horace Ashenfelter passed away at the age of 94.

 

National Stadium design_Kengo Kuma 2
Kengo Kuma’s design for the Tokyo 2020 National Stadium

 

936 more days to go until the Opening Ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Here are a few of my favorite stories and thoughts on Tokyo2020.

 

2020 Mascot Candidates
Tokyo 2020 Mascot Candidates