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Someone once said, “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

The Ladies Slope Style qualification round, that would have whittled the field of 25 to 12, was cancelled on Sunday, February 11 due to the strong winds at Phoenix Snow Park. Instead organizers went straight to a two-round finals with all 25 competitors on Monday, February 12, to start from 10 am. But even that was delayed for an hour with the hopes that the strong winds, that can throw off the balance of snowboarders, particularly if they’re in the air executing a complex set of twists.

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Jamie Anderson in her first run of the Ladies Slope Style finals.

At the end of the first round, only five of the 25 snowboarders were able to complete their runs. But it was in the first round when American Jamie Anderson got the best score of the day of 83.00, a score that was good enough for gold. Laurie Blouin of Canada and Enni Rukajarvi of Finland took silver and bronze.

While the spectators in the stands were cold, we didn’t get hit as much by the gusts of winds that were pummeling the slopes. We could see the wind cone in full extension most of the time, and the snow spraying off the slopes when the winds hit.

One of the favorites, Anna Gasser of Austria said, ”it should have been postponed. We tried to speak to officials but the Olympics put us under pressure to do it today.”

Another favorite, Aimee Fuller of Great Britain, echoed Gasser’s sentiments.

I don’t feel like I had a fair shot at putting down my best run, the wind just took me sideways on the last hit. Some girls were lucky. I think today was a matter of luck and the strong riders definitely showed. But at the end of the day not even the top riders have necessarily landed the best runs.

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Aimee Fuller in her first run of the Ladies Slope Style finals

I watched only the first round of the Ladies Slope Style, when Anderson had her gold-medal-winning run. But the fact of the matter is, of the top ten finishers half of them had their best run in the first run, while half had their best in the second, according to the official results report. No one really had two great runs.

Hailey Langland of America came in sixth and said that wind is part of the competition. “We are snowboarders and should be able to deal with it. The girls on the podium showed that and that is why they are up there.”

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Enni Rukajarvi in her first run which did not end well. She recovered in her second round capturing bronze.

According to a statement put by the International Ski Federation (FIS), they anticipated this situation and said that their decision to go ahead with the event on Monday morning was based on a “contingency plan put in place during the team captains meeting on Saturday, as agreed upon by the jury and the team representatives.” They also stated that “although the conditions made the competition challenging, ‘the nature of outdoor sports also requires adapting to the elements.’”

Time to give up on governing mother nature.

Biathlon 20

There were flags of many different nations: Norway, Japan, Russia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, France and many others. And despite the fact that the biggest flag I saw at the Biathlon Men’s 10k Sprint during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics was an American flag, Team USA has never medaled in a biathlon event. In fact, it is the only winter sport Americans have been shut out of.

This is a sport of the Europeans, with its roots deep in the ice and snow of Norway, where Norwegian soldiers since the 18th century would stay in shape by competing in a combined cross-country skiing and rifle shooting contest. While the biathlon appeared at the first Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix France in 1924, it didn’t become an official event for men until 1960, and then for women until 1992.

 

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Alpensia Biathlon Centre Course

 

There are several Olympic types of biathlon events: the individual, the sprint, the pursuit, the mass start and the relay. At the Alpensia Biathlon Center on Sunday, February 11, I saw the Men’s 10k sprint event. At -11 degrees Centigrade, it was bitingly cold. But the enthusiasm and constant noise of the spectators kept the biathlon arena warm and engaging.

Still, I had no idea what was going on. Everyone around me was following their countrymen in the event. I could not for the life of me tell what was happening, other than the skiing in front of me and the shooting I could see on the screen. It must be like a person who has never seen an American football game from a stadium seat trying to understand what is happening on the field in front of them.

But at least a football novice could see the field and the direction the offense was going in. Only after I got back home could I see the extensive track behind the arena where the competitors huffed and puffed their way over the hills and through the woods. Halfway through their trek, they stopped at the arena for two rounds of shooting, one standing and one prone (even to the ground). The shooting was viewable on the big screen and is a significant part of this competition, and yet I couldn’t tell exactly where the shooting was taking place.

 

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Vancouver gold medalist Tarjei Boe of Norway missing five times, adding another 750 meters to his race.

 

Clearly, when you’ve been pushing hard aerobically on the skis, settling yourself down for a good shot is a challenge. I imagine that calming your heartrate and mind down enough to shoot accurately is part of the challenge of this competition. And if you miss, it’s not good. With every shot you are off target in the sprint, you have to ski a penalty loop of 150 meters, which of course, adds to your time. Miss two or three shots, and your time continues to inflate.

As Finnish veteran biathlete and competitor in PyeongChang, Kaisa Makarainen, noted in this interview:

Even though you can have favourites, you never know what the result will be. You never know how the athletes will cope with the shooting, and then some of the best shooters are not so good on the skis, so it’s really dramatic.

So the skill and the variation in results comes from that moment between decision to fire and firing. And while you can have favorites in the biathlon sprint, (in this event, Martin Fourcade of France and Norwegian Johannes Thingnes Boe,) you can never really be sure who will win. The Germans in front of me were not the flag waving sort, one of them appearing a bit irritated with the large Russian flag that a fan a row ahead of him was waving.

But in the end, it was a German, Arndt Peiffer, who won the gold, Michal Krcmar of the Czech Republic who won the silver, and Dominik Windisch of Italy who took the bronze. The shooting proved decisive, as Peiffer and Krcmar were the only biathletes to hit all ten targets, and thus raced only 10 kilometers.

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Pre-show entertainment at the Alpensia Biathlon Centre. It’s -11 degrees centigrade and they’re dancing in mini-skirts.

 

Opening Ceremony Swag 1The evening of Saturday, February 10 was freezing cold. The bone chilling cold and skin-shearing winds the organizers were anticipating for the opening ceremonies on Friday, February 9. The cold did not chill, nor the winds destroy during the opening ceremonies. In fact, with enough layers and a little help from the organizers, spectators were able to watch without a thought to the cold.

Thanks to the swag.

On each seat, there was a vinyl bag packed with things to keep us warm and to help us cheer.

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As you can see in the above photo, we had a blanket, a hat, and most importantly, a seat cushion and a heat pad that could be slipped into the cushion. Other heat pads, packs of squishy chemicals that warm up and stay warm as you hold and squeeze them.

I had unfortunately lost my hat that afternoon only to find a hat in the bag, which I immediately put on. Together with my boots, a thermal undershirt and underpants, a shirt, a vest, a ski coat, a neck/face warmer, I was sitting pretty on my heated cushion. I didn’t need the blanket, and thankfully, there was no precipitation to require the rain poncho.

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One of the gifts was to be used during key moments in the program, when the lights would go down and everyone could turn on their mini-torch, a replica of the PyeongChang Olympic torch. During one of the most powerful moments in the program, when performers launched into a moving rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine, spectators waved their torches, imagining that one day, the world will be as one.

Dignitaries at the Womens Ice Hockey match between Korea and Switzerland
From the fourth from the left in the third row) South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, Kim Young-nam, President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea and Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un are seen watching the two Korea’s joint women’s ice hockey team on Feb. 10, 2018. (Yonhap)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yong-un, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in were there. So was IOC president Thomas Bach and the North Korean cheerleading squad. Everybody who is somebody wanted to be there. I wanted to be there but alas….

Instead, I was on buses on my long journey’s home back from the short track speed skating competitions, fortunate that the buses had wide-screen TVs at the front, and had the ice hockey match of the year on.

It’s well known that the governments of North and South Korea agreed to jointly march in the opening ceremonies of the PyeongChang Olympics. But in the competitions, the South Koreans are represented by the South Korean flag, and the North Koreans by the North Korean flag…with one exception. The governments agreed to field a joint women’s ice hockey team composed of both South and North Koreans, and that a minimum of three North Koreans would actually have to play.

Sarah Murray during the historic Korea-Swiss match
Sarah Murray during the historic Korea-Swiss match

This understandably upset the coach, Sarah Murray, the members of the South Korean ice hockey team, and a lot of people who do not like North Korea. But the powers that be won out on this decision, and history was made on February 10, 2018 at Kwandong Hockey Center in Gangneung as Team Korea took the ice.

Unfortunately, that’s about all they did.

It could have been far worse. The 8-0 score at the end of the Korea-Switzerland women’s ice hockey match emphasized the total dominance that Team Switzerland had over the hosts. I only watched the end of the second period and most of the third period, and what I saw was a Korean team that could barely keep the puck on their sticks. Their checking was non-existent, their stick control was fleeting, their placement on the ice was haphazard, and what few shots they got off were weak. Even on their power plays, they look shorthanded.

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Shin So-jung, goalie of Team Korea

On the flip side, Team Switzerland, #6 in the world, skated with ease, setting up shots as if they were pros playing high school kids desperately trying to keep up.

The score could easily have been 10-0, heck 12-0, if not for the goaltender for Team Korea, Shin So-jung. While the crowd pleaded Team Korea to get a goal, the cheers should have been for some incredible stops by the Korean minding the net. She positioned herself well for most of the play, which was almost all in her end, and made some great stops, particularly with her leg pads. In the end, Shin had an incredible 44 saves on the night.

After the match, asked about her upcoming matches with Japan and Sweden, she said “I have to be better than today. I hope I can relax and try to give my best.”

But her counterpart on the Swiss side, Florence Schelling, was reported to say in a tweet the International Ice Hockey Federation, “Hats off to her.”

Team Korea will not win a match. With only two weeks of preparation to meld the new team members, Team Korea’s head coach Murray, has been critical of the last-minute decision to shake up the team dynamics. But she’s looking forward.

“We definitely think we have a chance in the next two games,” she said. “So we are forgetting about this game and moving forward. We got the nerves out.”

No matter how poorly Team Korea does during the Olympiad, it will continue to capture the imagination of the Korean Peninsula. Who knows what will happen if they score a goal? If they win a match, it may be pandemonium.

Mens 1500m short skate finals 10

Hwang Daeheon and Lim Hyo-jun lined up in the center positions 3 and 4 in the midst of a huge finals group of nine skaters. With so many skaters jockeying for a podium finish, you knew a tumble or two was coming in this sport of short track speed skating, where margins are razor thin.

It’s Saturday, February 10, 2018, the day after the Opening Ceremonies of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics and I’m in attendance at the Gaengneung Ice Arena for the women’s 500-meter, women’s 3000-meter relay qualifiers, as well as the men’s 1500-meter qualifiers and finals. The anticipation of a South Korean winning gold was so great that you may not have noticed that US Vice President Mike Pence was in the house. But you couldn’t miss the North Korean cheering squad, a red mass of continuous cheering and singing that electrified the arena.

The 1500-meter race takes 13.5 laps, and over 2 minutes. That’s a long distance for short track, so the nine skaters start kind of leisurely. But a few laps in, the intensity grows. The Dutch skater and 28-year-old short track veteran, Sjinkie Knegt, takes the lead.

At the tenth lap, 21-year-old Lim takes control. He slides in front of his elder teammate and world #1, Hwang, and a lap later he jumps inside the leader, Knegt, and takes the lead. At that very moment, it appears that Hwang is clipped from behind by French skater Thibaut Fauconnet, as he and the French skater take a hard tumble into the corner. One Korean down, but one Korean up.

With two laps to go, the question is, can Lim hold the lead. You only need to wait seconds to find out in short track. Lim crosses the finish line and raises his arms in victory just ahead of Knegt, setting a new Olympic Record at 2:10.485. After enduring numerous leg injuries and seven surgeries during years of training, first as a swimmer and then a skater, on this day, Lim lept over his higher ranked teammate, Hwang, into the South Korean pantheon of champions.

As an aside, the bronze medalist of the men’s 1500-meter short track finals was Semen Elistratov, a member of the OAR, aka The Olympic Athletes of Russia, and the first OAR medal of the Games.

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

US Vice President Mike Pence was gone. The North Korean cheerleading squad had departed. After all, the start of the unified Korean women’s team ice hockey match was about to start nearby, and that was the geo-political moment of the night. As a consequence, they missed the first gold medal awarded to the host country at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and it was Lim Hyo-jun.

To be honest, I’m rooting for the USA and Japan when I can, but when you’re in an arena and the hometown is going crazy, you can’t help but get swept up when you’re in a crowd of thousands of strangers united in their unadulterated joy.

Great start to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics!

Lim accepts gold medal

All pictures/videos taken by the author.

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It’s only 80 kilometers away. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is as far away as many of your car commutes, and yet in the gaiety of the Olympic Games, you forget that military on both sides of the DMZ are at the ready just in case.

And like the DMZ that separates North and South Korea, there is a social DMZ that separates those in Korea who seek reunification, and those who seek to destroy North Korea. That drama played out on Friday, February 9, 2018, hours before the commencement of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

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From the morning, demonstrators carrying flags of South Korea and the United States played loud music and made strident speeches, denouncing the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, and very specifically requesting the United States to give a friend a hand. As the poster says:

“We, the South Koreans urge the United States to conduct an immediate preemptive strike on North Korea!”

These anti-North Korean demonstrators were dressed in heavy down jackets, and the average age was easily over fifty.

Also from the morning, about half a kilometer away, demonstrators sporting the blue-on-white reunification flag of Korea were advocating for unity and peace. These group was decidedly younger, many of them appearing to be in their twenties, most of them synchronized in matching white down coats and blue hats. Their posters were decidedly more conciliatory in tone:

White poster: We support peace (between N and S Korea), and joining under one-Korean flag. Welcome North Korean team! Congratulations on the Joint North-South entrance in opening ceremony! This is the Realization of the Peace Olympics.

Blue poster: We enthusiastically welcome our North Korea family.

Pro United Korea Protest_PyeongChang_posters

And so, a little over three hours before the 8 pm start of the opening ceremonies, the two sides were drawn irresistibly together. As I turned to leave the anti-North Korean protests, which featured impassioned ripping apart of images of Kim Jong-un, I noticed up the path I was walking the blue hats of the pro-unification supporters. I did a 180, wondering what would happen….the scene from West Side Story as the Jets and the Sharks approach each other for their rumble, coming to mind.

When the blue hats reached the rotary, the younger members in their white coats gathered in the middle rotary….and did what they do best. Sing and dance. The rumble was on.

Thankfully, this was a peaceful rumble. People on both sides stayed on their own side. The Opening Ceremony started on time without controversy, and athletes from both South and North Korea entered into a raucous stadium together, waving the blue-on-white.

On the whole, surveys indicate that slightly more South Koreans are against the unified team, than for it. The emotions run deep.

But for one night, there was unity.

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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.