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This is not a drill: Emergency cellphone alerts at the games become annoying

GANGNEUNG, South Korea >> The clink of skates on ice, the multilingual cheers of fans, the rousing national anthems — every Olympic Games has its familiar sonic pleasures.

Except this one.

The official sound of the 2018 Winter Olympics is quickly becoming the screech of emergency alerts on people’s cellphones.

Such notifications from local and regional governments are common throughout South Korea. They bear warnings about air pollution, extreme weather, earthquakes, fires and other possible danger. They are very helpful — if you know Korean, because the messages are written in it.

But for most of the thousands of international athletes, journalists and spectators visiting for the games, the alerts are a mystifying source of panic, confusion or plain annoyance.

“We were scared in the beginning,” Francesca Bettrone, a long-track speedskater from Italy, said. “I still don’t know what they say.”

There have been at least 14 emergency alerts sent to cellphones over the past week, and those around the Olympic Park here received eight separate, bleating alerts on Wednesday alone.

After the fifth or sixth alert on Wednesday (it was easy to lose count), a couple of strangers waiting in line for food at the speedskating arena began trading tips on how to alter the settings on their iPhones to block the emergency notifications.

They could have simply followed the lead of Marten Liiv, a speedskater from Estonia, who never purchased an international data plan for his phone.

“I’ve heard all about them, but I don’t get them,” Liiv said with a shrug. “I’m lucky, maybe.”

An email to the Pyeongchang Olympics Organizing Committee seeking a response to whether they had planned for the stir the alerts have caused was not immediately answered.

It hasn’t helped that phone alerts, and the prospective scary message they could be carrying, had been on people’s minds after a mistaken text alert last month in Hawaii about an inbound ballistic missile. With nuclear tension related to North Korea still running high on the peninsula, some athletes said the emergency notifications had sent their imaginations into overdrive.

“It was a little bit like, What is this?” Thomas Ulsrud, a Norwegian curler, said about an alert he received this week in the athletes’ village. “We’re in the same building as the North Koreans, so it was like, What is going on here now?”

The emergency alerts sent Wednesday warned of extreme winds in the area and the possibility of forest fires. Those arriving early for the Olympics received alerts about the cold and the smoke from an isolated fire in Gangneung, where several events are held.

Some athletes remained calm at first about the jarring alerts — until they started interrupting their sleep.

“It woke me up, and I didn’t know what it was, so my phone got thrown across the floor,” said Peter Michael, 28, a speedskater from New Zealand. Michael said he waited to hear if there was a fire alarm or something else to indicate what was going on. Moments later, he went back to sleep. “I figure if it’s something really bad, someone can come get me,” he said.

Just past 5 a.m. on Sunday, phones blared simultaneously around the athletes’ accommodations as people were informed about an earthquake that had occurred about 100 miles from Pyeongchang.

“I was sleeping, and I thought, Why is this keeping me awake?” Bart Swings, a Belgian speedskater, said with a mock sigh. “First, I can’t read it. Second, my phone was on silent. But apparently that doesn’t matter.”

“The alarms have useful information,” Swings added, “but maybe they should put it also in English during the Olympics.”

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