GANGNEUNG, South Korea — So an American in South Korea walks into a bar …
Well, I didn’t walk into it exactly. Bastion of agility that I am, I dodged at the last minute. The bar in question was a striped bar that goes up and down to regulate entry to a parking lot in the Gangneung Media Village. I was taking a picture of the label on my coffee at the time. It was from a coffee shop called “Awesome Coffee.” What else was I supposed to do?
In the seconds after the incident, I refused to look around and investigate the extent of my humiliation, choosing instead to bury my face in my phone. This incident embodies my first week at the Olympics, the majority of which I have spent feeling enthusiastically curious, incredibly stupid, or both.
I expected the language barrier to be a primary cause of misadventure here, but it hasn’t caused as much trouble as I thought. In the Olympic facilities, and in the towns around them that planned for foreign tourists, most signs include English. This isn’t to say there haven’t been incidents, like the time my brain suggested I thank a bus driver in Arabic – the most foreign language I sort of know. I have also been tempted to break into Spanish for reasons unknown.
In the second substantial plumbing-related incident of the trip, I pushed the wrong button in my shower and sprayed my whole bathroom with water. I accidentally poured my food waste in the trash can labeled with symbols I have since learned meant “no food waste.” I misinterpreted a signal from the overseer of our free breakfast buffet, who then charged after me because I had given her my breakfast ticket for the wrong day. I was loading my tray with eggs at the time. Everything turned out fine in the end.
But most of the feeling stupid can be traced to the fact that so much of my usual professional routine leaves so little to explore. Save the few new players or coaches each year, I’ve seen the same Nationals players and personnel every day for three years now. I go to the park at the same time every day, and know exactly what to do and when to do it. I even eat the same sandwich (almond butter) at the same time before every game. No, seriously, almost every game. I can count on one hand the number of days in three years I haven’t had that sandwich. But I digress…
Even though these Olympics are well organized and well labeled, the logistics still present challenges, too. I triple-check the bus routes about eight times before getting on a bus. At one point Friday, as I tried to get to the U.S. men’s hockey practice, I couldn’t tell whether we had reached my stop. I headed to the front of the bus, pointed, and said, “Hockey?”
“Hockey?” the driver replied. Desperately hoping “hockey” wasn’t the Korean word for “no, you moron,” I disembarked.
And unlike baseball and the Nationals, whose rules and history I know without needing to Google, almost everything I am covering here is new. While some of my colleagues will hone in on specific sports, my job here is to float around as needed. I know the basics. But I’m not equipped for nuance. Almost every assignment requires more in-depth research, and almost every assignment inspires a feeling of insecurity about what I know and what I don’t.
The easy cure for this is to ask questions. Athletes who find themselves in the spotlight once every four years are, by and large, more willing to elaborate than the highly trained, media-wary athletes back home.
I spent at least 20 minutes or so chatting with an American cross-country skiing coach and a few of his skiers about the importance of ski wax to their success. A biathlete gave me a tip on where to put a hand warmer so your hands don’t freeze in the cold. A luger lost 10 minutes explaining why cold weather makes things harder for them, and why skeleton and bobsled aren’t affected the same way.
Whenever I ask questions like that, I use the phrase, “If you had to explain this to someone who knows nothing about this…” in the hopes that not all of them realize they are talking to the person who knows nothing about this. You know, the reporter’s equivalent of “asking for a friend.” Keep that between us, please.
Despite it all, I did successfully make my way to my first actual Olympic competition Saturday evening: speedskating. I had studied the characters. I knew the history. I knew the format. I knew the story lines, and that no American was expected to contend. But about halfway through the proceedings, I realized I was lacking a key piece of information. I emailed my colleague Rick Maese.
“I have a stupidly dumb question,” I wrote, having not considered all podium possibilities before that very moment.
“Are these press conferences translated to English…?”
Previously, in the Olympic rookie chronicles: