Lee Sang-hwa and Nao Kodaira
Lee Sang-hwa comforted by Nao Kodaira, with bronze medalist Karolina Erbanova in the background

The final race had completed.

The South Korean champion, Lee Sang-hwa had the weight of the world as she sought her third consecutive gold in the 500-meter speed skating sprint in front of her home fans, but just fell short to Nao Kodaira of Japan. Circling the oval in tears, Lee came upon her rival, her Japanese friend, Kodaira, who put her arm around her shoulder, and created a lasting and powerful image of sportsmanship and friendship – words not often associated with Japan-Korean relations.

Koreans may have been celebrating the unification Olympics, waving the blue-on-white flags showing a single Korea, but the Japanese government wasn’t pleased, officially protesting the use of a flag that included two tiny dots to the east of the Korean peninsula. The Japanese government call them Takeshima and believe they are a part of Japan, but they are called Dokdo in Korean and in fact controlled by South Korea.

It was the Korean’s turn to be offended when NBC analyst, Joshua Cooper Ramo, covering the opening ceremonies at the 2018 Winter Games, described Japan as “a country which occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, but every Korean will tell you that Japan is a cultural, technological and economic example that has been so important to their own transformation.” The analyst was removed from the broadcast, but the pain remained.

That is until gold medalist Kodaira and silver medalist Lee came together.

The day after their battle on the ice, the two were huddled together near the medal awards stand, cheerfully awaiting their medals. They decided to kill time by going live on social media platform, Instagram, for twenty minutes. People then realized that Kodaira and Lee were indeed friends. In a comfortable mix of Korean, Japanese and English, the two fastest women speed skaters in the world gaily exchanged wishes from their fans, talked about food, music and how they would celebrate when the received their medals.

As you can see in the video of the Instagram feed, they are reading and translating the comments for each other. Early in the broadcast, Lee put her arm around Kodaira and said they were “tomodachi” – friends. We learned that Kodaira likes the Korean dish bulgogi, and that Lee’s birthday was only a few days later (February 25). She made a point to repeat that – “Nao, my birthday this Sunday. Presento onegai shimasu.”

Absolutely, this exchange was one of the sweetest moments of these Olympic Games.

Ester Ledecka on skis

She’s pulled off the upset of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Ester Ledecká, a world champion parallel snowboarder jumped into the Super-G alpine event with little aspirations of winning. She just wanted to have a great run.

Ledecká did, and to the surprise of everyone, the Czech snowboarder, ranked 43rd in the world in the Super-G, won the gold medal. How did she do it? In a rush to explain, there was very little expert commentary. The assumption was that snowboarding and skiing are very different – a lot was made about how Ledecká was the first person ever to appear in two different Olympic events in the same Olympics, and that the skills for both were quite different.

And yet, according to ski and snowboarding coaches I talked with, that is not necessarily the case.

Jon Casson, the director of sport education for U. S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), was in PyeongChang to cheer on the numerous Olympians he has coached, thought that skiing and snowboarding, on the whole, are quite similar.

My personal opinion is that I don’t think they are truly as dissimilar as the experts make it out to be.  In the end, it’s about pointing your equipment downhill and going as fast as you can. You stand on the equipment and you move your body.  Those movements put pressure on the ski or board and make it do something.  In this case, it’s maintaining as flat a base as possible and taking as direct a line down the hill as possible.  As the most dominant athlete in her snowboarding discipline, she understands this innately and can make her equipment do those things. 

In other words, if you say you’re super at skiing, and you feel you need to prioritize your training, you will only focus on your skiing skills. But someone like Ledecká comes along and shows that under the right conditions, your skills in one sport are transferable in others. This is when cetain other skills can make a difference.

Jon Casson
United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) Sport Education Director Jon Casson leads a coaching class at Copper Mountain.

According to wax technician extraordinaire Andy Buckley, who was also in PyeongChang, Ledecká had a skill above and beyond the other skiers. Buckley explained that in Super-G alpine skiing, racers do not get to do trial runs. Once the course is set, the skiers are given ample time to examine the course, but they can’t ski it until the competition. What Buckley said is that Ledecká had superior capability to “read the terrain, find the right lines, know where to go high or low on a gate.” a skill she picked up from both skiing and snowboarding.

And as Casson added, “Ester not only has the athleticism, she has the confidence to go fast or go big, and that transferred to skiing.”

Ester Ledecka on snowboard
Czech Republic’s Ester Ledecka wins gold in the women’s parallel slalom snowboarding at the World Championships in Spain.

So how did Ledecká seemingly come out of nowhere to win the Super-G?

  • She had mastered the movements of a snowboard, and how to manipulate it with her body, arms, legs and feet in perfect harmony to the snow-covered ground, and more importantly, she was certain in her belief that these skills transferred directly to skiing. And let’s not forget, she was indeed a skier, someone who came to PyeongChang with an intent to compete in both disciplines.
  • Ledecká was an expert at reading the terrain, a highly critical skill for a race that does not allow competitors to have trial runs, and thus feel and know the course in advance. She read it, kept it in her head to visualize, and executed.
  • And she was confident, with nothing to lose. She was in PyeongChang for the parallel snowboarding race, so why not go for broke on Super-G?

For Ledecká, the conditions were the perfect storm. And that storm begs a name.

Let’s call it Hurricane Ester.

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!