PYEONGCHANG, South Korea >> Ten things to watch at the XXIII Winter Olympics that open Friday in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
It used to be Pyongchang in English, but locals thought it was too similar to the nefarious North Korean capital of Pyongyang so they added an “e” and capitalized the “C” for PyeongChang. (Most western media went for the e, not the capital C.)
But if you really want to forge an international identity, there’s nothing quite like the interlocking rings, which might explain why Pyeongchang resolutely continued to bid after losing by three votes to Vancouver in 2010 and by four to Sochi in 2014.
This marks a return of the Winter Games to remote, cold locales after four straight in either sprawling metropolises or temperate climates, or both. Salt Lake City, Vancouver and Torino didn’t need the Olympics for people to know where they are. Sochi is a summer resort city along the Black Sea.
Pyeongchang is in Gangwon Province in the northeast corner of the South Korean peninsula, a long forgotten coastal and mountain region that bumps up against the heavily-fortified Demilitarized Zone with the North. A high-speed KTX train was built to connect it with Seoul in the west, along with an upgraded road network of tunnels and bridges.
It also makes South Korea the sixth member of an exclusive global club to host the big three sporting events: the Summer Olympics (1988), soccer’s World Cup (2002) and now the Winter Olympics.
They hope it is worth the wait.
The signature moment of these Games might not happen on the slopes or rinks or jumps, but in a frigid outdoor stadium Friday as the final delegation of athletes marches in Opening Ceremony.
Not South Korea or North Korea, just a single Korea.
After years of negotiations, the IOC and the two governments agreed on a joint team in an attempt to ease the contentious politics of the peninsula. Beside a 150-member orchestra, North Korea is sending 22 athletes, including half of a unified women’s hockey team.
It remains to be seen whether it is a genuine gesture of goodwill that can thaw relations between two countries technically still at war, or merely a political stunt that will be extinguished with the Olympic flame in 17 days.
On Thursday, North Korea held an elaborate military parade in Pyongyang.
And remember, the two Koreas also marched as one at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. Eighteen years later, President Donald Trump and North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Un were trading threats about who has the bigger nuclear button.
“The Olympic Games,” IOC President Thomas Bach said Wednesday, “should be beyond political tensions.”
If you shelled out $1,000 for a ticket to Opening Ceremony, you might want to spend a few hundred dollars on a parka, too. The last two Winter Games used domed stadiums. Pyeongchang is not.
Wind chills dipped below zero earlier this week, and it was so frigid during an Opening Ceremony rehearsal that spectators were leaving before it ended. So frigid that batteries inside photographer’s cameras stopped working. So frigid there were reports of alpine skis warping after training runs.
The original plan was to put a roof on the 35,000-seat stadium and plumb it for central heating, but the budget was just $107 million. No roof, no heat. And why spend more for a venue that will be dismantled after the Paralympics next month?
The good news is, organizers won’t have to worry about mudflats on the cross-country course and puddles on the ski jump like they did in Vancouver and Sochi. Pyeongchang, meteorologists say, is the coolest place on the planet for its latitude on the 37th parallel, the same as the northern tip of Africa and the Utah-Arizona border.
Average temperatures for February are a high of 41 degrees (although the forecast for the first week is colder) and a low of 13, which puts it on par with the frosty 1998 Games in Lillehammer, Norway. It really gets chilly when the wind shifts, bringing air masses from Siberia and the Manchurian Plain.
There’s not tons of snow but, then, they don’t have to worry about it melting.
Shaun White was in the ICU of a New Zealand hospital four months ago, wondering if his Olympic snowboard career was over. He is 31, faltered at the 2014 Games in Sochi, had major ankle surgery the previous season and now had 62 stitches on his face plus lungs filling with blood from a horrific training crash.
It’s not over.
The San Diego native arrives in Pyeongchang as the favorite to win a third halfpipe gold on Tuesday, in sentiment and on paper. That’s what happens when you rip off a perfect 100 in the final run of a U.S. qualifier to clinch your spot in a fourth Olympics, and when you are the most recognizable winter athlete — the Winter Games’ Michael Phelps.
White won gold medals in 2006 and 2010, and qualified in both the halfpipe and slopestyle for Sochi. But he withdrew from slopestyle shortly before the competition, then bombed (for him, at least) on a mushy pipe and finished fourth.
He had ankle surgery. He face-planted on the lip of the pipe in New Zealand in October. He looked shaky in the second of four events that served as U.S. Olympic qualifiers — failing to advance from the preliminary round and finishing 14th.
He fell in his first two runs of the final at the next qualifier, in Snowmass, Colo.
That left him with one run, one shot. His coaches looked at him, shrugged and said he might as well “do the hard stuff” instead of playing it safe, hoping to back into an Olympic spot. The result was one of the greatest runs in the sport’s history and a rare perfect score from a panel of Olympic judges.
Frontside double cork 1440, cab double cork 1080, frontside 540, double McTwist 1260, frontside double cork 1260.
“I would love to feel like an underdog, but I don’t,” White said. “Ever since I can remember, I’ve been expected to do well.”
If White is the U.S. king of the Winter Games, there are two queens.
Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin are the greatest women’s skiers in U.S. history, one 33 and in the twilight of her career, the other 22 and just getting started. Shiffrin competed in Sochi four years ago, but Vonn was hurt — making this likely their lone intersection in the interlocking rings.
They won’t cross paths much on the slopes, either. Vonn is all about speed; Shiffrin excels at the technical events.
Vonn is the favorite in the downhill (which she won in 2010). Shiffrin is favored in the combined, giant slalom and slalom. That leaves the Feb. 16 Super G — the downhill and giant slalom hybrid — for them to battle it out. Vonn has 28 World Cup titles in the event. Shiffrin has none and rarely skis it, but her form this season is such that you wouldn’t want to bet against her.
“It’s so ingrained,” Eileen Shiffrin, Mikaela’s mother, told the Associated Press. “They always compare Mikaela to Lindsey Vonn. … It’s a normal thing for people to do. But Mikaela, right from the get-go, always said: ‘I’m not Lindsey. I’m not The Next Lindsey Vonn, I’m Mikaela Shiffrin. That’s who I am. That’s who I want to be.’”
They are called skikonge in Norwegian. Ski kings.
No nation embraces winter and winter sport like Norway, with about one-third of its territory above the Arctic Circle. And that is regularly reflected in the medals table.
The nation of 5.2 million has won more Winter Olympic medals (329) than anyone else, and that legacy figures to continue in Pyeongchang. Sports Illustrated forecasts Norway to collect 17 gold and 42 total medals here, ahead of Germany (35), Canada (30) and the United States (28).
Most will come in anything involving cross-country skis. In biathlon, Johannes Thingnes Bo could win all five individual events plus the team gold. In cross-country skiing, Johannes Hosflot Klaebo and Heidi Weng could win four each. In Nordic combined (ski jumping and cross-country skiing), Jan Schmid is a medal favorite in all three events.
And then there’s 37-year-old Marit Bjorgen. She has won 10 career cross-country medals and comes to her fifth Winter Games three medals shy of the all-time Olympic record, which, of course, is held by a Norwegian (biathlete Ole Einar Bjorndalen).
If there could be a Jamaican men’s bobsled team, why not a Nigerian women’s bobsled team?
Seun Adigun, born in the United States to Nigerian parents, dreamed up the idea in her family’s garage four years ago, building a bobsled out of wood. She had competed for Nigeria as a 100-meter hurdler at the 2010 Summer Games in London; now she’s responsible, with American-raised sprinters Ngozi Onwumere and Akuoma Omeoga as brakewomen, for Nigeria’s first appearance in the Winter Games and Africa’s first in the bobsled.
Ecuador, Eritrea, Kosovo, Malaysia and Singapore will also make their Winter Games debut, bringing the total participating nations to a record 92.
It is a slippery slope, however. The “tourist athlete” has become an increasingly popular practice at the Winter Games — preying on relaxed nationality and qualification standards so the IOC can trumpet its participation numbers. Four years ago in Sochi, a wealthy U.S. couple essentially bought their way to citizenship from the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica, then gamed the cross-country qualification system to gain entrance into the Games.
Or there’s the four-athlete Mexican team. One is 38, used to ski for her homeland of the United States and married into Mexican citizenship. One grew up in Canada. Another has lived his entire life in the U.S. and speaks broken Spanish. And another, a 43-year-old cross-country skier, has lived in Texas for the past decade.
The International Olympic Committee and NHL couldn’t come to terms on the men’s hockey tournament, so the NHL opted to ban any player under contract — even those in affiliated minor leagues — from participating in Pyeongchang.
It makes for some interesting rosters, filled instead with promising amateurs and washed-up veterans.
But it also puts more focus on the women’s tournament and the growing rivalry between the United States and Canada. It goes like this: The U.S. women win everything before and after the Olympics, and Canada wins the gold medal.
The worlds are held annually, and the U.S. has won four straight and seven of the last eight. The U.S. beat Canada for the gold in the Olympic debut of women’s hockey in 1998, and Canada has won the four golds since. Three times, it beat the Americans in the final, including 3-2 in overtime in Sochi.
“It was certainly a tough loss for us, and we went and looked in the mirror,” said Reagan Carey, USA Hockey’s general manager for the women’s program. “We talked about what we needed for gold and went hunting for all the small differences and changes we could, so that we could make sure we had success here in 2018.”
The final is Feb. 21.
THE HOLY GRAIL
After winning ladies figure skating medals in 11 straight Olympics (and 14 straight if you don’t count 1964, when a plane crash wiped out the entire U.S. team), the Yanks have been shut out in the last two Winter Games.
And, if form holds, it will be three straight in Pyeongchang.
Their lone hope to salvage some semblance of international respect, then, rests with 24-year-old Mirai Nagasu and a single jump: the triple Axel, the Holy Grail for female skaters.
Nagasu is the third U.S. woman to land the 31/2-revolution jump in competition, joining Tonya Harding and Kimmie Meissner. Neither landed it in an Olympics, something only Japan’s Midori Ito and Japan’s Mao Asada have done.
Nagasu will get two chances, in the short program Feb. 20 and again in the free program two days later. She says she’s not holding back. She’s going for it.
“You know, it’s just one jump in the program,” Nagasu said, “but also at the same time it’s really cool for me because I am one of the few who has the ability to land it.”
With great morality, the IOC announced in December that it was banning Russia from the Pyeongchang Olympics due to its well-publicized doping transgressions in Sochi.
So what are 168, and possibly 45 more, Russian athletes doing here, including an entire men’s hockey team that many pick to win the gold medal?
Small detail: Russia isn’t competing per se but “Olympic Athletes from Russia” are.
The IOC thought it could play both sides by allowing “clean” Russian athletes to compete under a neutral flag, which purportedly eliminated anyone linked to the state-sponsoring doping program uncovered in Sochi. Except then the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned the IOC’s lifetime ban for 39 of them — prompting several dozen Russian athletes linked to doping to appeal to CAS for admission to the Games.
Whether 168 or 200 Russians are admitted, they’ll wear special uniforms and won’t hear the Russian anthem if they win. The Russian flag won’t be present at Opening Ceremony or during the Games, and athletes can’t accept Russian flags from spectators during victory laps.
But they can compete, and win, all the same.
The hypocrisy is not lost on Canada’s Dick Pound, a longtime International Olympic Committee and advocate for drug-free sport. During the IOC Session earlier in the week, he told his fellow members:
“I believe that in the collective mind of a significant portion of the world, and among the athletes of the world, the IOC has not only failed to protect athletes, but has made it possible for cheating athletes to prevail against the clean athletes. We talk more than we walk. … With respect, I don’t think we can talk our way out of this problem.”