Germany celebrates victory over Canada
German players celebrate their Olympic men’s hockey semifinal win over Canada on Feb. 23. Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

When the USA upset the Soviet Union in the semi-finals of the men’s ice hockey tournament at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, it was dubbed “The Miracle on Ice”.

Maybe we can call the 2018 version “Das Wunder auf Eis”.

Germany shocked Canada 4-3 on Friday, February 23 at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. It was the first time that Team Canada, both men and women, failed to win gold in an Olympiad since 1998.

“Crazy, just crazy,” said German coach, Marco Sturm. “It’s unbelievable, what the team achieved. We had never before been in a situation in which we had been under positive pressure before. We had to stay cool. This is unique. The lads need to savor it.”

Equally shocked were Canadians. Here’s the first line of The Vancouver Sun’s article, “Dark Day for Canadian Hockey.”

The worst possible outcome for an Olympic team without NHL players landed like a spear to the gut in an embarrassing night for Canadian hockey Friday at the Gangneung Hockey Arena.

Canada has won gold in ice hockey three of the last four Winter Olympics. In the past 29 meetings between the two nations, Germany had won only once, and had lost the previous 11 matches. Ice hockey is essentially Canada’s national pastime, and there are over 630,000 registered hockey players in that country. By contrast, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation, there are only some 20,600 registered hockey players in Germany.

This was a huge upset.

As German defenseman, Christian Ehrhoff, said in his interview with Pierre McGuire of NBC, “It’s unbelievable. I am out of words. Right now, it’s such a huge day for German hockey. So proud right now.”

“Is it fair to say this is the German 1980?” asked McGuire.

“I can agree with that,” replied Ehrhoff. “No one really had us on the list. For us we’re just living a dream, day by day right now. The ride continues. It’s just amazing. Everybody is already so proud of us already. Everything that’s coming now, it’s just a bonus. For us to guarantee ourselves a medal, it’s….wow.”

Team Germany celebrate victory over Team Canada 2
German players celebrate their semifinal win over Canada on Feb. 23. Brendan Smalowski / AFP / Getty Images

Germany was an overwhelming underdog, but they took advantage. And in hindsight, the circumstances that brought the men’s hockey players to the PyeongChang, may have worked in Germany’s favor.

The second biggest hockey league in the world is the KHL, and the bulk of the Russian squad is made of KHL players, which allowed their players to participate. That is probably a good reason why the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR) squad is in the finals of the men’s ice hockey championship.

The NHL, the biggest and best professional hockey league in the world, forbade their players from participating in the Olympics this year. That heavily impacted most of the other competitive hockey nations, particularly those from North American and Scandinavia. Germany, which is far from being considered an ice hockey power, which did not even qualify at the Sochi Olympics, only had 10 Germans in the NHL. So, as this article states, perhaps “the absence of the NHLers has not hurt the Germans as much as most.”

A lot of credit is given to the German coach for raising the level of play of the German team. Sturm, who played nearly 1,000 games in the NHL over 14 seasons with 6 teams, took over the German national team in 2015. According to this DW article, written after Germany upset #1 seed, Sweden (4-3), the German players have responded well to the retired NHLer who had lived in the States the previous 20 years. As they began to win, they began to attract more and better players, and come together as a team.

Compared to many of the teams that had previously relied on NHL players, like the Canadian and American squads that came together only weeks before, the German players, on the whole, have played together for years leading up to PyeongChang.

The Canadian team members were announced on January 11, a little less than a month before the start of the PyeongChang Olympiad, so there was little chance for the team to gel. Even though Team Canada had some momentum into the match with Germany, having shut out both Korea and Finland, anything can happen in short tournaments. Even miracles.

Ice hockey coaches are trained to be emotionless when talking about their teams, unmoving anchors in the shifting winds of a storm, particularly before their teams have won it all. But when McGuire ended an interview of Coach Sturm, saying, “We’re going to see you on Sunday afternoon in a gold medal game. Marco Sturm, Congratulations,” Sturm’s face exploded in glee, and he wrapped his arm around McGuire in a big hug, giggling like a schoolboy who just pulled off the greatest practical joke of all time on his teacher.

Germany is no joke. They play the Russians for gold.

IMG_6252
WOA President Joël Bouzou OLY (4-time Olympian), Prince Albert II of Monaco OLY (5-time Olympian), Iztok Cop OLY, Slovenia NOC Vice-President (6-time Olympian), and Lee Eun-Chul  OLY, Korea Olympians Association Vice-President (5-time Olympian)

Olympians know who other Olympians are. But the general public may really only recall the names of Olympians who are famous in their area. Over a hundred thousand Olympians around the world are relatively unknown outside of Olympic circles. And yet their experience and knowledge are rich, their lessons learned from years if not decades of intense competition can be invaluable.

We recognize Doctors with the signifier MD. We recognize academic status with the letters PhD. Now, Olympians can be recognized with the post nominal OLY. The World Olympians Association (WOA), which works closely with the International Olympic Committee, has 148 National Olympians Associations which run programs and events in their countries to ensure that the spirit of Olympism is being propagated, that financial aid is being provided for programs in need of support, as well as providing benefits for Olympians.

In addition to helping Olympians make transitions beyond sports, the WOA wants to ensure that all Olympians are recognized and continued to be recognized, not only for their participation in the Olympics, but as role models who “personify the values of excellence, teamwork and discipline. They can serve as role models to help bring communities together, across all ethnic, religious and social divides.”

At a WOA party on February 15, 2018 at Slovenia House, held for Olympians past and present near the alpine skiing events of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, WOA president, Joël Bouzo OLY, explained that all Olympians should contact WOA so that they can be officially recognized as OLY, with permission to use OLY on their business cards, CVs or any way in which they present themselves officially.

Performing in sport is something we can transfer to other sectors. We think dedicating ten or more years of your life, for competition, to achieve the best of yourself, needs to be recognized. OLY is like a PhD. Use it. Put it on your CVs. Use it when you try to find a job. There are also Olympians who are business leaders and they will be identified through OLY, and can identify Olympians through OLY and help them with their careers. You deserve it, so use it.

If you are an Olympian, go to this link to sign up.

https://olympians.org/olympians/oly/

 

Ester Ledecka in shock
Ester Ledecka pulled off the shock of the Games with her gold in the Super-G. Photograph: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Here’s the call from a European broadcaster on the Super-G alpine skiing finals. The 26th skier, Ester Ledecká of the Czech Republic, who was ranked 43rd in the world cup circuit, was about to begin her run.

The announcers proclaimed the historic moment of witnessing the first woman to appear in two different snow disciplines – parallel snowboarding and alpine skiing – in one Olympiad – but there were no thoughts of her competing for a medal in the Super-G.

Until, she got halfway down the mountain.

Fantastic skiing from Ledecká. Where is she on the clock now. Oh! She’s got the green light! This will be a story! Ledecká! She’s five gates or six gates from home comes up with a massive mistake. It’s been brilliant until then! Ledecká – 1:21 and 12! What another recovery from the youngster! Ooohhhh! She’s taken the gold! She has taken gold!

Ledecká stood at the bottom of the hill, simply standing there, unmoving.

Ledecká, from the Czech Republic, cannot believe it! She cannot believe it! Nor can we! The world champion in parallel giant slalom snowboarding is in gold medal position here! Can you believe it! She had two massive errors, but she’s stepping on the top step of the podium by one hundredth of a second!

Austria’s Anna Veith, atop the standings in this Super-G competition at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, bowed her head in shock when she saw that the 26th skier down the mountain had snatched her gold medal away. American broadcaster NBC had no expectations that anyone so late in the day would challenge for the podium, so they had already ended their coverage of the Super-G.

But Ledecká, who did not bring her own skis for this event, reportedly (but not verified) on skis borrowed from giant slalom gold medalist, Mikaela Shiffrin.

“It’s definitely shocking,” said Lyndsey Vonn, the winner of 81 World Cup titles. “I wish I had as much athleticism as she has, where I could just hop from sport to sport and just win everything. Unfortunately, I’m only good at ski racing – and she still beats me.”

Next week all eyes will be on Ledecká when she competes in parallel snowboarding, the event she actually came to PyeongChang for. This week, she was just having fun.

A star was born in PyeongChong, and it has already gone super nova.

Olympic Athletes from Russia enter the Stadium
Olympic Athletes from Russia enter the Stadium under the Olympic flag.

Wait, the Russians are here?

The casual fan of the Olympics likely heard that the Russian team was banned from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. In actuality, the International Olympic Committee, based on reports of state-sponsored and systematic doping, decided to suspend the Russian National Olympic Committee, thus removing their eligibility to select and send their athletes to the Olympics.

Russians celebrate first OAR medal at 1500 mens short track finals
Russians celebrate first OAR medal at 1500 men’s short track finals.

However, the IOC still created a process to review individual athletes from Russia, and then make a decision to invite them if they passed “strict conditions.” As a result, while 47 coaches and athletes were banned from attending, there are actually 168 Russian athletes at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. By contrast, Russia had 179 at the 2010 Vancouver Games and 225 in Russia a the Sochi Olympics.

 

Russia Fans at Snowboading Slop style
Russia Fans at snowboarding Slope style

 

In other words, the Russian team, under the name IOC designation, “Olympic Athletes of Russia” (OAR), is in force in South Korea.

And so are their fans.

Fans donning the white, blue and red of Russia are omnipresent, visible and audible. Smiling and proud, they are happy and proud to cheer on their Russian, waving Russian flags.

Russia Fans at Pairs Figure Skating
Russian Fans at Pairs Figure Skating

The Russian athletes are also happy for the fan support, but have had to be careful, as they can’t be seen publicly with symbols that associate them to Russia. As the AP reported, former NHL #1 draft pick for the Atlanta Thrashers and star for the New Jersey Devils, Ilya Kovalchuk, has had to warn fans to put away their Russian flags if they want pictures with the star left wing for Team OAR.

Olympics: Ice Hockey-Men Team Group B - RUS-USA
Ilya Kovalchuk (71) celebrates with defenseman Vyacheslav Voinov (26) and forward Pavel Datsyuk (13) after scoring a goal. USATSI

“We won’t chase (fans) away” if they’re carrying Russian flags, Kovalchuk said Tuesday. “If there’s an IOC rule then we’ll talk to them, explain it and take a photograph without the flag.”

There is no Russia House, a venue at Olympiads where athletes, media, family and friends can gather. But according to Reuters, Russia did create a place called “Sports House” in Gangneung, near the ice hockey venues, where supporters can “celebrate the athletic success.”

So yes, the Russians are here, and their fans are happy they are.

Yuzuru Hanyu PyeongChang long program

There is something otherworldly about Yuzuru Hanyu, the first man since Dick Button in 1952 to win back-to-back gold medals in the Olympic men’s single figure skating competition.

He is tall and thin, his long arms and legs moving with magical fluidity. I’m reminded of the aliens concocted by Seven Spielberg for the end of his film, “AI”, long, thin limbed beings that moved with fluid majesty.

Hanyu’s extraterrestrial trick is that he can make a dance ensemble of his entire body – his head, torso, legs, arms and hands seem to me to be in constant motion, sometimes quick, sometimes languorous, but always in concert.

There does not appear to be any wasted movement – the snap of his wrists on specific beats, to the whirling-yet-controlled dervish he makes of his arms as he rotates down the ice.

To my untrained eye, Adam Rippon was equally masterful in his movements, while Nathan Chen, while phenomenal in his stamina and command of the quads, would often skate for a full second or two with little body movement only to build speed for a big jump.

Hanyu rarely would waste an opportunity to move his limbs in meaningful ways, closer to what a trained dancer, whose every muscle is in tune with the music, can do on a wooden floor.

Yuzuru Hanyu PyeongChang long program 2
Yuzuru Hanyu competes in the men’s free skate on Saturday. | AP

What convinces people of Hanyu’s authenticity is his total body and emotional commitment to the drama – from his breathing at the start of his skate, to his ability to hit key beats in the music, and that devil-may-care grin at the end that says, “I had it all along.”

There were many incredible performances at the men’s single figure skating championships today at the Gangneung Ice Arena. But Hanyu’s ability to blend high-performance athleticism and sublime dance is out of this world.

Skeleton - Winter Olympics Day 7
Sungbin Yun of Korea celebrates winning the Men’s Skeleton in Pyeongchang, South Koreaon Feb. 16, 2018. Richard Heathcote—Getty Images

It’s not a spectator sport. Skeleton, like luge and bobsleigh, are viewed live from stands where you can catch a glimpse of a person very low to the ice whiz by you at 125 kilometers per hour.

To get a crowd to pack the stands at a skeleton event, particularly at these PyeongChang Olympics where no Asian has ever won a sliding event, you need a hero. And South Korea has one – Iron Man!

Yun Sung-Bin of Namhae, South Korea, a relative unknown outside sliding circles, even in his own country, was actually the favorite in the men’s skeleton event. He took the first of four heats with a top speed of 50.28 seconds, in his now famous Iron Man helmet. And when he set the course record at 50.07 seconds in his second heat, a superhero origin story was being scripted.

In a sport where you race on your belly face forward down a sliding track negotiating 16 curves at high speeds on a low-tech sled without brakes or steering, the skeleton athlete navigates this hard and icy course with a turn of your head, and a dip of your toe in the ice, working your core muscles and shifting your weight beyond the visible ken of the spectator in order to stay central and not allowing centrifugal force to send you flying off the curve.

Scouted late in his student career, Yun was persuaded to try skeleton when he was 18, which he found so terrifying that he called his mother in tears saying he didn’t want to do skeleton anymore. What his mother and other family members said to him is not clear in this article, but they got Yun to get back on the sled and slide.

Yun Sung-Bin in his Iron Man helmet

Since then, Yun has been a rising star. In fact, Yun is world #1, having won the overall 2017-2018 World Cup, the first ever from Asia. So Yun was certainly the favorite to win gold. But because skeleton is not so well known generally, and because short track skating and speed skating get over-weighted attention in South Korea, Iron Man still flew under the radar.

But when he lined up for his fourth and final run, Iron Man was top of mind in South Korea. It was February 16, the first day of the annual lunar New Year holiday season, a time of family. So 7,000 filled the spectator areas along the 1,376.4 meter track, giving nary a thought to the -2 degree Centrigrade temperature.

Because Iron Man was in the house, and he was hot.

On his fourth run, Yun was primed for victory. At the end of Heat 3, he had a 1.02 second lead on Martins Dukurs of Latvia. As I understand it, a second advantage in skeleton is huge. For example, at that stage, Dukurs led Dom Parsons of Great Britain by .04 seconds, and Parsons led Nikita Tregubov by only .03 seconds. Clearly those subtle flexing of abdominal muscles and gluteus maximus make a difference.

But there was nothing subtle about Yun’s final run. He blasted through the start, already increasing his lead as he approached the first curve, and finishing by re-setting the course record at 50.02 seconds, and winning the gold medal over Tregubov by a margin of 1.63 seconds.

Here’s the excited call of the NBC announcer:

He’s powering ahead. There’s only one thing that will stop him. It’s curve nine. He’ll have to do a little bit of work…but he makes it straight through! Ah, the pressure! He’s carrying it so well! Around 15! He’s home now! He’s done it! He’s done it! South Korean supremacy – Sung-Bin style! Yun Sung-Bin wins the greatest gold of all! Host nation gold in PyeongChang!

USA vs Slovakia - getting heated
USA vs Slovakia – getting heated

I kind of felt bad for Slovakia. They had a good group of fans, dressed for battle in their colors and flag, and singing songs as they entered Gangneung Hockey Stadium. But it felt like the stadium was partisan USA.

They played American country music. The MC interviewed the wife of Team USA player, Bobby Sanguinetti, who shouted Go Team USA! Between periods, an American singer named Ayla Brown, a competitor on American idol, performed “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” between the first and second periods.

Slovaki Fans
Slovakian Fans

On top of that, whenever the Slovakians got a cheer going, their voices would get swallowed up by raucous shouts of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

During Team USA’s first power play early in the first period, forward Troy Terry dropped a pass for Ryan Donato, son of former NHL’er Ted Donato, who wristed a shot into the Slovakian net to give Team USA a 1-0 lead. The crowd exploded.

There was only one way to quiet the seemingly American home crowd – answer right back. And Team Slovakia did so elegantly. Twenty-five seconds later, forward Andrej Kudrina deftly changed the direction of a pass at the side of the net, and watched the puck slip by USA goalie Ryan Zapolski, the cheers of the Slovakian fans loud and clear.

Ryan Donata Scores winning goal for USA

The second period was scoreless, despite the fact that Team USA had two more power play chances. USA had an overall 31-22 shots on goal advantage on Slovakia, partially driven by the fact that the US had five power play chances to Slovakia’s two. And yet, Team USA could not break the tie. They had opportunities. To me they seemed to pass one too many times, or wind up for big slap shots, instead of flicking quicker, more accurate wrist shots.

But then Donato stuck again. Early into the third period, Donata got the puck from the side of the net, his back to the goalie. With ballerina like moves, he spun his body, keeping the puck nestled into his backhand, and then swiftly sliding the puck forehand in the goalie’s five hole, giving the Americans the lead again.

USA vs Slovakia_Ryan Zapolski goaltender
Ryan Zapolski, USA goaltender

The KHL goalie for America, Zapolski, stood tall and held the Slovaks scoreless the rest of the period, giving the Americans their first victory of the tournament, 2-1.

The “home crowd,” as it were, went home happy.

USA Slovakia_end of game
End of Game handshake

All pictures taken by the author.