PyeongChang 2018 Journal: A First-Timer Experiences Just How Big the Winter Olympics Are
With the time zone difference and the lack of sleep, it was hard to keep up with what day it was at the Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. But our first-time Olympics producer Mitch Goldich did his best to chronicle his experience. At least we think. Some days may have been blurred together.
It’s 6 a.m. in New York, the morning after the Eagles won the Super Bowl. I’m in a taxi on my way to the airport, to spend three weeks covering the Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. It’s my first time covering the Olympics, a major bucket list item for me, and I’m excited. I just need a little caffeine.
NIGHT (I think)
The Olympic theme song started playing when the plane touched down in Seoul. You know the song. It’ll be in your head all month. We took off Monday morning, flew over the North Pole and landed on Tuesday night. They’ve built a bullet train that will take us from the airport outside Seoul to PyeongChang on the other side of Korea. All in all, it’ll be about 24 hours door-to-door.
Don’t be one of those media people who complains about travel on Twitter. Don’t be one of those media people who complains about travel on Twitter. Don’t…
I didn’t know what to expect about our living situation. The SI staff would be staying at the YongPyong Villa Condo, but I knew little else. Except that I did receive an email that made it appear we’d be staying in suites with roommates, and Tim Layden had already offered to bribe me with Korean beers for the bigger room. But we arrived to discover that we all had our own living space, which is good because I have enough winter clothing to take up its own room. Though I had been excited to put “Tim Layden’s roommate for three weeks” on my LinkedIn profile. But this works.
I’ve made it to the Main Press Center. SI has an office in a building called MPC3. It’s really a giant walled-off tent with office cubes built into it. The building is a central hub for many of the press conferences, so I sat in on a couple the first day. I stood in a scrum as American biathlete Lowell Bailey answered questions about Russian doping. He was taking his time and choosing his words carefully, knowing that every comment at this point could become a story. (That was kind of the point of asking him.) I spent the whole time just feeling bad that he’s such an accomplished athlete and had to spend his first press conference at the Olympics talking about Russians doping. The issue is going to cast a pall over much of the Games.
We are still getting used to the shuttle schedules. There’s one loop that runs every 10 minutes at certain parts of day, but every 15 minutes at other times. You would think the frequency of stops would have something to do with the number of buses available at that hour. But I hopped on during the 15-minute stretch and I swear the bus driver was sticking to his schedule simply by driving slower. We were on the same 10-minute route, but doing it in 15 minutes. We had to be going 5 kilometers an hour, which led to an amazing exchange as a man in a heavy Italian accent shouted, “Why did you become a driver? What made you enter this line of work?” No response. All I could do was laugh. The world is bringing us all together.
Opening Ceremony time! I feel like every Olympics I assume going into the Games that I’m not that interested in the Opening Ceremony and then I end up glued to the TV anyway. This is a ticketed event, even for press, which means that I needed to decide in advance if I want to go. Count me in.
It got plenty of publicity before the Olympics that the stadium was being built to be used exactly four times—the opening and closing of both the Olympics and Paralympics—before being razed and turned into an Olympic memorial. My first thought was that of course that seems wasteful. But once I got there, I understood a little better. The stadium felt smaller than I expected, like a nice minor league baseball park. There were temporary space heaters and the concession stands were mostly pop-up tents on the concourse. It wasn’t like the South Koreans built a grand plaza with an intricate glass ceiling, or elaborate restaurants. People will always make the argument that the Olympics are a colossal waste of money, but knowing that this was temporary must have informed the design, and I feel like they did a good job, all things considered. Granted, that’s easy to say when it’s not your money.
I stood in the bowl of the stadium about an hour before the ceremony officially started and watched as the lights at every seat formed dancing snowflakes that fluttered to the sound of Korean pop music. A couple of sports had begun competition already, but it felt like the Olympics were finally starting.
A note about the cold: I, like everyone else, took pleasure in making fun of the media that flew to Minnesota for the Super Bowl and spent the week complaining about the cold weather. So I won’t complain, but I do think it’s important just to explain how cold it is, because you can’t really tell the story of the PyeongChang Olympics without an acknowledgement of the cold. It’s cold. It’s long-underwear-hand-warmers-toe-warmers-hats-scarves-and-multiple-pairs-of-socks cold. That said, if you knew you’d be outdoors for a while, you could prepare. The tough part is the unexpected cold—not knowing you’ll need to walk outside to get from this part of the building to that part of the building, which will happen with surprising regularity on this trip.
I had to spend half of the Opening Ceremony in a pressroom indoors because it was too cold for my laptop or the Wi-Fi. But I returned to the seats for the second half and found it pretty inspiring. Watching the torch make its way around the stadium, watching unified Korean athletes carry it up the ramp and seeing them light the cauldron. Even if you’re a cynic, it’s hard not to feel something. Sports are bringing the whole world together for a few weeks. Athletes have waited years and the stakes couldn’t be higher for them. This is going to be amazing.
Leaving the ceremony, the media shuttles outside were as crowded as you’d expect. Some were headed directly to the press center, others were dropping off at the transit hub near the press center, where I’d be able to catch a bus back to my room. I asked one of the many local volunteers if he knew where the next bus was dropping off. He took a second to search for the right word in English, put his hands in the air and just said: “Random!” I couldn’t even be mad; you don’t get that kind of honesty every day.
Hey, remember how the Wi-Fi didn’t work at the stadium last night? Turns out we were hacked. Good times! The Olympics are off and running.
The days already feel like they’re blurring together. There is just day and night. We discuss our naming convention with editors back home: Do we call this Day 1 or Day 2? Based on Korean time or New York time? Let’s just call it Saturday. (Or Friday?) Nobody knows.
This seems obvious, but the Olympics are so much better once there are sports on. Our office has two TVs, but neither have any commentary. You don’t realize how hard it is to follow the action without NBC’s helpful broadcasters until you don’t have them. (Remind me again how the ski jumping is scored?)
I’m here mostly as a producer. So I’ll get a chance to go cover events and write, but most of my time will be in the press center coordinating things with the office back home and our staff of writers on the ground, making sure other people’s work gets seen.
But after a few days in Korea, it’s time to attend my first sporting event—the U.S. women’s hockey team’s first game, against Finland. It starts at 4:40 p.m. local time, 2:40 a.m. back home, and I’ll be filing a game story. Easy, I figure, I’ve written game stories on all kinds of sports. Until I’m on the bus on my way to the arena and I’m hit with a sudden wave of impostor syndrome. I’m surrounded by actual hockey writers. I was fully prepared to write about short-track speed skating and curling, surrounded by others like me, who watch every four years, study up before PyeongChang and do their best to capture the scene for the world. But hockey is different. There are dedicated media people here who actually cover hockey full-time, year-round. I am suddenly worried I’ll be exposed. Better eat some food to get through it.
The concession stand had a few stadium staples to choose from. They had hot dogs, which appeared to be pre-wrapped with condiments already on them. So I thought I’d go safe with a grilled sausage and potato chips. Welp.
It turns out the ‘grilled sausage’ is just a hot dog with no bun and the potato chips are literally an entire sleeve of Pringles.
I started typing out my story during the game, while watching the U.S. fall behind 1-0 and then come back to win 3-1. I decided my lede would be about how most of PyeongChang woke up to an emergency alert about an earthquake 100 miles away, and how the hockey team also got a wake-up call 12 hours later. (I felt extremely clever.) Then the other writers and I scurried down to the mixed zone, the section each venue creates for athletes to speak to a scrum of reporters after each game, race or run down the slopes. I had a chance to speak to two players: Kendall Coyne and Monique Lamoureux-Morando.
The mixed zone is tricky because it’s typically a hurried experience, you’re competing to get questions in and everyone shares the same quotes since we all jam our phones into the athletes’ faces and record it. I was tempted to ask the players if they had push alerts about the earthquake when they woke up. It really would have made my story so much better if they had. But unfortunately, I didn’t ask. There was limited time, and I was worried that the answer might be no and then they would just move along and I wouldn’t have much of anything usable to go along with my story angle. Plus if they gave me a particularly good anecdote about it, the other writers there could have used it too. So I asked each of them one question about the team’s response when they fell behind 1-0. I should have asked about the earthquake alert.
One more thing about being at the Olympics: You miss stuff. During the hockey game, American Chris Mazdzer won an unexpected silver medal in luge. I’m told it was a wild scene on TV—and I missed it. There was just no way to follow the action from the hockey arena besides Twitter. I’m not complaining about being at the Olympics, but they force you to pick and choose your spots instead of channel surfing and flipping around. Oh well.
I had to be on a bus at 4 a.m. to make the timing work, but I knew it would be worth it. One of the nice things about covering the Olympics for an outlet like SI is that I have talented coworkers setting up cool assignments and I can occasionally tag along. Our video team had gotten in touch with a Korean-American chef who agreed to give us a food tour out by the coast. The plan was to reach the Jumunjin Fish Market before sunrise, watch them auction off the daily catch and then take in a couple of incredible meals. I’ve already written at length about the glorious, gluttonous day when I ate crab that had been dead for three hours and kimchi that had been aging for three years.
Two once-in-a-lifetime meals, back-to-back, four hours apart. I need to lie down.
I smell like meat. My hair, my backpack, my clothes—all of it reeks of smoke and pork shoulder. As I wrote in the piece above, the final meal was at a Korean BBQ you can’t find on Google or Instagram. It was a tiny room and the whole place filled with meat smoke. At the time, it was great. The only complication was that I wanted to go to short-track that night.
The PyeongChang Olympics don’t take place entirely within one contained city. There are clusters of venues—one up in the mountains (where my condo and SI’s press office were) and a coastal cluster 45 minutes away, where they put all the arena sports. Since I had already gone to the coast for the fish market, I stuck around for the afternoon and killed time working in a press center near the arenas. I don’t have much to add, except an apology for the people trying to work when I showed up reeking of Jeju Black pig.
I was excited to check out short-track in person. It’s always been a favorite of mine on TV, and I wanted to write about Maame Biney, the teenager who became a sensation during the Trials, and whom I had interviewed before the Olympics. I couldn’t make it to Biney’s first race, but she qualified for the semifinals. In many ways, this felt like a real “Welcome to the Olympics moment” for me. I woke up around 3 a.m., spent the whole day traveling around and then went to an event at night… knowing that I was an hour shuttle away from home and had another event I wanted to cover early the next morning. I briefly thought about skipping it, but that just doesn’t seem like what you do at the Olympics.
Biney’s night ended quickly. She came in last in her semifinal, and was finished for the evening in about 44 seconds. I went down to the mixed zone and it was a pretty powerful moment, which I wrote about in SI’s round-up of parting thoughts from our staff on the ground. Her lip trembled and she wiped away a tear as she talked about her dad and her coach, and how she’d be back in four years. It was a real disappointment for her on a very big stage, but she handled it with so much poise. That’ll stick with me for a long time.
I stuck around to watch a few more races, including a gold medal for a South Korean. Short-track is probably the favorite Winter Olympic sport here, and the crowd made it feel like an intense college basketball rivalry game. I want to go to short-track every night.
I’m at the skeleton/bobsled/luge track. One of the stories I wanted to write when I arrived was about Simidele Adeagbo, an All-American in the triple jump at Kentucky who switched to skeleton and was going to be the first athlete ever to represent Nigeria in the Winter Olympics. I had circled the dates on my calendar for the first actual heats, but decided I’d also head over to the track for the first day of training runs.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with regard to fan attendance (or even friends and family) or if the athletes ever spoke to the media afterward. Turns out it was practically empty.
There were some photographers, but no fans and almost no noise. The path for spectators to walk next to the track was totally clear. As the racers took turns sliding down, you could hear the sound of the sled zipping along the ice as it approached. Everyone at the Olympics always seems so busy, and perpetually on deadline, but this was a cool, quiet moment.
Chris Mazdzer, the silver medalist in the luge, whose race I missed while covering a hockey game, is turning into kind of a big deal. Tim Layden set up an interview with him for the magazine, right at the ski resort by our condos. The video team also came along and we decided yours truly could go tubing with him. I swear the race was closer than it looks.
But the highlight of the day was watching Chris interact with a couple that spoke little English but wanted a picture with him. I assume they could tell from his jacket and from our photo shoot that he was an Olympian, but the look on their faces were priceless when he stood in for a photo and then unexpectedly pulled a silver medal out of his pocket. Chris played it off cool, but you could tell how excited he was to be able to surprise them like that. I’m happy for him that he’ll get to enjoy being an Olympic medalist for the rest of his life. And I’m happy for the couple that got a cool photo out of it too.
It’s not that cold anymore. The first week was brutal. Every day was a slog, and the weather took a toll on every aspect of everything. I can’t tell you how many times I put long underwear on in a bathroom stall before going outside. (It was probably five or six.)
Then, one day, it just wasn’t cold anymore—relatively. It was still freezing, especially at night, but I ditched the hand warmers and stopped wearing quite so many layers. One night I got back to the central bus hub late at night and a light dusting of snow started to come down. It was actually really nice, and nobody seemed to mind.
I wrote a story about a Korean skier, who had been profiled in SI after he came in last place at the Olympics in 1960. It was called to my attention that the article is framed in a museum at the PyeongChang ski jump venue, and we were able to track him down. He’s 88 now and has a story about how the article in our magazine has affected the last 58 years of his life.
The press center had a language desk and they were able to help set me up with a translator, so we did the interview over the phone together. It was just one of those moments that made the whole world feel impossibly small. Here was a man who had been interviewed 58 years ago in California by a writer from the same publication where I now work. And here I was talking to him through a translator over the phone within his home country.
It makes you wonder which stars of these Olympics will be giving interviews 58 years from now.
OK, now the nights are really a blur. I remember watching the U.S. women’s hockey team win a gold medal on the TV in my office. The cross-country skiing gold from Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall was a great moment too. It’s overwhelming how much is going on here, and it’s impossible to be everywhere at once.
That’s the biggest takeaway, and it’s an obvious one: The Olympics are gigantic. Before I left, people told me to take care of myself, to get enough sleep and exercise, and take time for myself. (Ha. That does not happen.) But even though I didn’t go out of my way to make time for myself, I will remember some of the quiet moments that found me. Walking alone at the skeleton track. That night it snowed a little as I walked back to my room. Watching the sunrise above the Jumunjin Fish Market.
I had a moment of rage—who knows what night it was—leaving one of the arenas. I got turned around and completely lost trying to find my bus, despite never even leaving the parking lot. I found myself circling temporary buildings, following fences toward openings that didn’t exist, asking volunteers for directions and receiving contradictory bits of advice. It was during the cold week and I swore into my fleece-lined balaclava.
But for every moment like that—there were a couple—there was a moment like the U.S. men’s curling team winning gold, or Ester Ledecka’s stunning win in the super-G, or SI’s photo shoot with the women’s hockey team, where I got to shake hands and congratulate them on their gold medals. Some of them thanked me on their way out the door, even though I hadn’t done anything but stand there. Really, I wanted to thank them for what they had done in the middle of the night on an ice rink 10,000 miles from home.
The Olympics always deliver. They are an endless collection of moments that mean so many things to so many different people. It’s true whether you’re watching them on TV for the millionth time, or covering them in person for the first.