United Korean Team enters together
United Korean Team enters together

February 9, 2018 was the first day of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and I have so many memories of my 10 days in Korea.

I remember….

.…how cold it was – minus 10 degrees centigrade with a wind chill of “can’t-feel-my-face” degrees. And yet, as if cooperating with the Gods of Olympia, no snow fell, no winds blew, and no need for all the heat packs I brought with me to the stadium.

…how astounded I was when Pita Taufatofua the shirtless Tongan and his oil-slick torso came striding in with his nation’s flag…apparently too hot to notice the cold.

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Pita Taufatofua, shirtless in Rio and in PyeongChang, the taekwando-cum-cross country skiier.

…how Trump made an appearance and the Olympics great again.

Trump in the House
Fake Kim Jong Un and Fake Trump walk right by my seat.

…how confusing it was, in those early days when the bus operators were moving the bus stops and changing the times, making me 100 minutes late for a ski jump competition despite leaving 90 minutes early.

Guides
Getting directions from electronic and human volunteers alike was often confusing.

…how nice it was to grab a burger at USA House and McDonalds, which was taking a bow at its last Olympics as a sponsor.

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…how surprised I was to note that Korea had to import zamboni drivers.

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…how enthusiastic the North Korea cheering squad were – their synchronized movements, the sameness of their uniforms and faces, their enthusiastic cheers and singing – they were the must-take photo op of the event.

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…how young Koreans clamored for unification with song and dance while old Koreans clamored for a nuclear strike on North Korea.

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…how thrilling short track skating is.

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…how cool it is to meet some of the legends of Olympic history.

Valeriy Borzov_WOA Olympians for LIfe
Valeriy Borzov, IOC member and fastest man in the world at the 1972 Munich Olympics

…how K-Pop girls can warm up a biathlon competition in freezing temperatures.

Biathlon 4

…how incredibly athletic figure skaters can be.

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Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot at the end of an exhausting spectacular gold-medal performance in pair figure skating.

…how much more amazing, I thought, it’s going to be in Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympics!

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The unified Korean team marching at the Opening Ceremony.

I still have chills thinking about my first Olympics – and it wasn’t just because of the minus-ten degree weather. I stood meters away from North Koreans. I met Olympic legends. I witnessed feats of athleticism and artistry amidst crowds of amazed spectators. I felt like a newspaper reporter again, writing over 30 articles in my 8 days in PyeongChang. Here are some of my favorites:

 

Biathlon 14
Freezing before the commencement of the biathlon competition.

Chance Meeting with the North Korean Cheering Squad

Meters from North Koreans on Opening Day.

USA vs Slovakia_Ryan Zapolski goaltender

USA vs Slovakia, USA goaltender Ryan Zapolski

Erin Hamlin
Erin Hamlin, women’s luge

I enjoy talking to Olympians, people who have dedicated a good chunk of their lives to unlocking the secrets to even higher performance. The TeamUSA site published this article that shares the insight of American Olympians who have competed in multiple Winter Olympics or Paralympics. The way I would summarize their advice:

  • Learn from Experience and Your Mistakes
  • Sometimes Ignorance is Bliss
  • Don’t Let the Moment Define You

 

Learn from Experience and Your Mistakes

Successful athletes will often view failures and mistakes as positives. Thomas Edison famously responded that he never failed when developing the light bulb. “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

Erin Hamlin is a three-time Olympian in the women’s luge at the 2006 Torino Olympics, 2010 Vancouver Olympics and, finally stepping up to the medal podium with a bronze medal at the Sochi Olympics had this to say about failure. “The more bad runs you have, the more ways you know how it didn’t work,” she said. “You can take that and figure out how to do it right.”

Ted Ligety_alpine skier
Ted Ligety, alpine skier

Sometimes Ignorance is Bliss

At some point, you can get too much advice on how to succeed at the Olympics, or in any high-pressure moment. Two-time gold medalist in alpine skiing, Ted Ligety, thinks that it’s important for people to not think too much, and trust in yourself and abilities may be the best advice for athletes stepping on the big stage for the first time.

“I wouldn’t have that much advice for myself,” said Ligety when asked what he would say to himself if he could go back to 2006. “Being a little naïve back then was a good thing.”

Don’t Let the Moment Define You

Oksana Masters
Oksana Masters

 

Oksana Masters is a summer and winter Paralympian in nordic skiing, rowing and cycling, and felt the pressure early in her career. “Oh my gosh, everyone single person is watching, and it’s the biggest race, and if you mess up, it’s over.” But her advice to others would be to just treat the big race as just another training session.

Kelly Clark is a four-time Olympian, who has won gold and two bronze medals in the halfpipe since the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, said that the competition in the Olympics is merely one moment in your long life. “We can get wrapped up in four years of intensity for 30 seconds [of performing on the Olympic stage], and we make it into something that defines us, we make it into a destination,” she said. “You don’t need to make it a destination or something where you need a T-shirt that says, ‘I survived the Olympic Games,’” she said. “Instead, think, ‘I got to do this wonderful sport.’”

Perhaps the most practical advice came from Masters about packing so much clothes for the Olympics. “You’ll never use them.”

Kelly Clark snowboarder

Defector shot crossing DMZ
Video footage of Defector Shot While Crossing border

Only months before the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, two North Korean soldiers crossed the highly secure demilitarized zone (DMZ) that maintains the nervous peace between South and North. That makes for a total of 4 soldier defections in 2017, compared with two over the previous four years.

On December 21, 2017 a North Korean soldier took advantage of a very thick fog to walk across the border.

More dramatically, on November 13, 2017, a soldier raced to the border in a jeep. Just prior to the border, the defector’s jeep got stuck in a grassy area, forcing the soldier to get out and run, just as North Korean soldiers with rifles appear on foot, firing at the 19-year old defector, and into South Korea. Shot four times but falling in South Korea territory, the defector was dragged to safety by South Korean soldiers.

 

Clearly, it is very hard to cross the DMZ from North into South. More importantly, only soldiers have access to the North-South border areas, so the general population has very little chance to cross there.

The majority of defectors from North Korea go north to China or Russia. Since 1953 and the end of the Korean War, it is estimated that anywhere from 100- to 300,000 North Koreans have defected overall. Russia has about 10,000, many who have escaped the logging camps in North Korea. China may have as many as 30- to 50,000 North Koreans blending into Chinese society. The majority of those defectors are women, who marry Chinese men, settling into a quiet life in order to avoid being arrested by authorities and deported back to likely punishment in North Korea.

Thousands of others have made the journey down to the southern part of China where they make their way Laos and Thailand, or through Mongolia, assuming that they can avoid the clutches of Chinese authorities ready to send them back.

North Korean boat washes up in Akita
Eight bodies found as second suspected North Korean boat washes up in Akita Prefecture

Japan has also been a destination since the late 1980s. North Koreans make their journey over 400 miles across the Sea of Japan to Aomori, Fukui or the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa. On November 27, 2017, a wooden boat in poor condition washed up on the shore of Akita, in the northern part of Japan. Eight bodies, thought to be North Korean defectors, were found inside the boat. Only the week before, eight men from North Korea arrived on Japanese soil by boat, alive. In fact, in 2017, 44 boats from North Korea have made it to Japan this year.

On December 5, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned the Russian National Olympic Committee from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, taking a significantly bolder stance than they did at the 2016 Rio Olympics when they only delegated that decision to the international sports federations.

As the actual team was not banned, individual Russian athletes will still likely be able to apply for participation on their own if it can be shown they were not involved in the state-doping program for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. If they are allowed to join the PyoengChang Olympics, they will participate under the banner of OAR (Olympic Athlete from Russia), and if they win a gold medal, they will hear the Olympic Anthem, not the Russian anthem.

Several days later, the head of the International Fencing Federation (FIE) and billionaire Russian national, Alisher Usmanov, wrote a letter to the IOC with an appeal. While Usmanov makes no defense of those athletes who have used doping as a systematic part of their training and development, he claims that those Russian athletes who are “clean” should not be treated unfairly.

Even though discrimination in any shape or form contradicts the principles of the Olympic Movement, the IOC’s decision certainly does put clean Russian athletes on an uneven playing field with athletes from other countries. Having gone through the purgatory of the Olympic qualifications, clean Russian athletes will (a) have to wait for months for the final decisions by the special commission of the IOC, (b) be deprived of the customary support of the NOC of Russia, and (c) most importantly, be denied the right to see their national flag and hear their national anthem.

What is interesting, and perhaps ironic, is the appeal to fairness:

One of the principles of Roman law states: “Nullum crimen, nulla poena sine culpa”. (“No guilt – no punishment”.) The innocent shall not be punished and put down to knees. This approach violates the basic human rights and undermines the trust in law and justice. Athletes dedicate their rather short life in sport for this one moment when they can see their country’s flag in the sky and hear the sound of their national anthem. This is the pinnacle of their glory, their personal conquest of Everest.

This very principle of fairness is what got the Russian sports machine in trouble. The well-documented state-sponsored doping regime in Russia may have very well resulted in the cheater assuming the medal podium. When a doper wins a medal, clean athletes are deprived of the glory of claiming gold, and the potential of financial gains among other things. Clean athletes who finish fourth, fifth or sixth are deprived of receiving any medal and thus public recognition.

I understand Usmanov’s appeal. And he is actually right. However, a little more empathy about how other athletes feel about the Russia doping scandal could have helped.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley

Members of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics Organizing Committee must be pulling their hair out.

On December 5, the IOC banned the Russia national team from the upcoming winter games. In reaction to losing representatives from one of the biggest and best national teams, president of the organizing committee, Lee Hee-beom, was quoted as saying, he didn’t expect the IOC “to go this far.”

Then on December 8, U. N. Ambassador from the United States, Nikki Haley, apparently raised the possibility of Team USA declining their invitation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics due to fears that North Korea will create such an environment of uncertainty about safety that Americans would not be safe in South Korea.

Haley’s comments prompted perceived backtracking by officials as White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was quoted as saying that “no official decision has been made” about America not going to PyeongChang.

What’s interesting is how the press kind of over-reacted to Haley’s comments, in my view, reading a bit too much into the tea leaves. According to SB Nation, Haley’s quote was actually a very indirect reference to the Olympics.

Haley saying that U.S. involvement is an “open question” was part of a larger quote — one that could hint at the topic never being raised in the first place.

“There’s an open question. I have not heard anything about that, but I do know in the talks that we have — whether it’s Jerusalem or North Korea — it’s about, how do we protect the US citizens in the area?”

By saying “I have not heard anything about that” Haley’s answer seems to imply that no discussion is taking place on whether the U.S. will skip the games. Her saying it’s an “open question” is making the rounds, however, and that’s what people are picking up on.

Earlier in the month, National Security Advisor to the US government, H. R. McMaster said, “Yes” to the question if Americans should feel safe about going to the Winter Olympics in Korea next year. But one word alone from McMaster will not diminish the fear.

McMaster tweet

In recent months, France, Austria and Germany have also expressed concerns about safety in Korea, and raised the possibility of not going to the Winter Games in February. And with Russia out and America hinting at an exit as well, the PyeongChang is looking, quite possibly, at winter of discontent.

TOPSHOT-FSKATE-JPN-HANYU

On October 31, Evgeni Plushenko stated that Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan would likely win gold in the men’s individual figure skating competition at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

On November 9, Hanyu fell awkwardly after attempting a four-revolution jump during a training session, and announced the next day that ligament damage to his ankle would prevent him from participating in the NHK Trophy competition that weekend, a tournament Hanyu had won the previous two years, as well as the Grand Prix Final, which Hanyu has won the past four years.

You can see the painful fall below at about the 30 second mark of the video below.

 

The question is, more significantly, will the reigning Olympic champion be able to defend his championship at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics? According to this analysis from The Sports Examiner, men’s figure skating has seen a revolution in the quadruple jump that will continue to put pressure on Hanyu.

Yuzuru Hanyu has prided himself on trying to keep up with the recent quadruple jump outburst in men’s figure skating, an explosion in numbers and types of quads since 2015 for which the Japanese star credits China’s Jin Boyang as having been the spark.

When Hanyu won a second world title last year, he alluded to the quad exploits of Jin, Nathan Chen of the United States and Shoma Uno of Japan – all of whom have pushed the jump revolution – when he said, “I am trying to keep up with many of the strengths of the other skaters.”

In this article of Globetrotting, Philip Hersh explains that it may not be necessary for Hanyu to keep pace with the other quadruple jumpers as his overall game has made him a champion in the past, and in fact, his desire to try new things may get in the way of an Olympic championship defense.

The trick will be convincing Hanyu to rein himself in. His desire to meet the quad standards set by rivals speaks to a fierce and admirable competitive spirit.

“Yuzu told me that what motivates and inspires him is trying new things and challenging himself,” Tracy Wilson, who helps Brian Orser in coaching Hanyu at the skater’s Toronto training base, said in a Tuesday text message. “He told me that he wants to push the sport and this approach keeps it interesting for him.

“This has been his stance since the beginning of last season when he decided to add the (quad) loop. He didn’t need the loop last year and did it on his way to record-setting performances.”

Hersh emphasized that if Hanyu is able to recover in time for the 2018 Winter Games, he may need to ignore his competition and their adoration for a particularly arduous technique called the “quad lutz.” If Hanyu recovers his time and finds the right balance of athleticism and form, he could be the first man to win consecutive gold medals in individual figure skating since Dick Button did so in 1952. If not….

Hanyu said at Autumn Classic he was bothered by knee problems that affected his quad loop.  He kept working on the lutz, and it was one of the two quads he landed cleanly last month in Russia (in what International Skating Union fact sheets said were five planned attempts; one became a triple, another a double.)

At this point, apparent risk for continuing with the quad lutz substantially outweighs the reward, which seems essentially to be personal satisfaction for Hanyu. Persisting may not only endanger him but the sport itself, for a 2018 Olympics with Hanyu in subpar condition – or without him entirely – would be diminished.