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.

Shin So-jung goalie korea
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.

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.

Volunteers at Tourist Information Center
Volunteers at Tourist Information Center

It’s very early in the Olympics, I was told. We need to be patient as they work out the glitches in the processes. Very wise words indeed, but it was still very frustrating to figure out the transportation system – the network of buses that are supposed to cart the thousands of spectators, officials, workers and volunteers around to the various venues.

I was told that it would take about 15 minutes to go from the Olympic Plaza where I was to the Alpensia Ski area where the Normal Hill Si Jump Qualifier event would take place at 9:30 pm. Thus I arrived at the appointed bus stop at 8:20 pm. I wanted to make sure I had time to pick up my ticket there and walk around the surroundings.

I was early and the actual location of the bus stop was unclear. Vague instructions and maps cycled through a slideshow on an electronic screen at the bus stop area. Questions to people standing around yielded shrugs. When a person in the volunteer uniform walked by, I grabbed them and asked, but very few could communicate in English, even fewer could explain where the bus to Alpensia was supposed to pick us up.

I had been given instructions to take Bus TW7 or 8 at the Tourist Information Center a few hours earlier. There was a lot of asking back and forth as they came to a consensus to my question – a fairly straightforward one I thought. You can see three people peering over a map trying to explain this to me. The English level capability of the volunteers was low, which I understand as English capability in bulk is going to be hard to find in countries in North Asia.

So in my scramble to find someone who could explain where I could pick up the TW7 or 8 bus, one told me that I had to walk about 10 minutes in a totally different direction. I started down that road for about 3 minutes until I realized that it contradicted the instructions I got at the Tourist Information Center. I went back, and realized there was a bigger crowd all waiting to go to the Alpensia Si Jumping venue.

I found one group of young bilinguals also waiting, and they mentioned that TW means Transportation for Workers or Volunteers. I wanted TS 7 or 8, which is Transportation for Spectators. And as we watched bus after empty bus pull up to our location and move on, the natives began to get restless. It was 8:45 pm and Koreans began yelling at anyone who appeared to have some affiliation with the organizers. That is why people in the volunteer uniforms began to steer clear of the crowd. I suspect that something a volunteer had told me in broken English about 15 minutes previously was that these buses weren’t running. But no one was there to state this explicitly.

The crowd moaned and groaned. No buses. Taxis were impossible to find. Families with crying kids, middle aged men who may have had a bit to drink, and elderly women alike were in a state of paralysis with no idea whom to talk to. And then suddenly the crowd began to move, so I followed along.

I wasn’t sure if they were leaving or not, so I peeled off when we came near the Olympic Stadium to see if there were any English-speaking officials or volunteers around, but I couldn’t find anybody. So I rushed back to find the crowd. And the thinning crowd eventually ended up about 200 meters away from the original spot – at a TM bus stop – Transportation for Media. Apparently when I had arrived, a bus had picked up the bulk of the spectators headed for Alpensia. But about 20 of us were left waiting. And waiting. And waiting. It was already 9:30. The competition had already begun. People were giving up. Finally, at 9:35, I gave up to and started walking back to my room.

And then people started rushing back. A bus had arrived. And it was heading to Alpensia! It was 9:40 and people were shouting for the bus driver to go. But he said the appointed time was 9:45. So we grinned and bore it.

We arrived at 10:00. It took about 10 minutes to get my ticket, go through security, walk to the seating area and finally settling into the bright light of a ski jump competition. Twenty minutes of it.

And it was fun!!!

The journey, however, wasn’t. Going home was also confusing, involving a long walk (30 minutes to the bus area) and another long walk after the bus stopped (30 minutes to my room.)

All up, the four hours since I left my room to when I get back, I spent only 20 minutes watching the competition.

But then, they say, it’s not about the goal, it’s about the journey….

Leaving Alpensia 2
The long march out of Alpensia to the bus stop.

Alpensia Ski Jumping Venue !

The ski jumps tower in the distance, lords over the landing space where jumpers hope to slide gracefully into the open to loud applause.

Live, ski jumping is a difficult sport to watch – TV producers have developed ways to make the experience of the ski jumper up close and personal. From my relatively good seats, you can see the ski jumper prepare himself on the large screen that was to the left of the launching slopes. After that, since you’re in the cold arena with the ski jumpers, your eyes turn to the glaring whiteness of the slopes. It takes some getting used to, but eventually you get used to spying the tiny athlete, skis extended in V-formation, flying through the air.

Junshiro Kobayashi of Japan_Alpensia Ski Jump
Junshiro Kobayashi of Japan

Yes, you can see this far better on the TV, especially the large screen monsters we all have today. But seeing it live is to hear the raucous cheers of fans. Who else go to ski jumping competitions in the cold except ski jumpers, family members and friends, Olympic teammates?

And yet the people who were there, and it was a significant crowd for a qualifier for the Normal Hill ski jump competition at the Alpensia Ski Jumping venue, the day before the official start of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Lots of ooohs and ahhhs from the crowds as jumpers approached a visibly green line in the snow that I would assume indicated the best distance or qualifying distance of the event. (Forgive my ignorance, ski jumping fans!)

For some reason, there was a crowd of Korean women not far behind me who went wild for the Polish jumpers, waving the Polish flag and screaming when David Kubacki launched in the cool, night air.

Fifty ski jumpers qualified on February 8, 2018. They go once more into the fray on February 10, 2018.

Roy at Alpensia Si Jump Venue_Normal Hill Qualifier