PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The lead character in these Olympics isn’t Chloe Kim or Shaun White, sorry to say. It isn’t the rogue Russians competing without Russian colors or the mesmerizing (read: kind of creepy) North Korean cheerleaders, eerily singing and waving in unison. No, the lead character is the cold. And by cold, I mean people from Duluth, Minn., would huddle around a fire and reach for hand warmers. Siberia’s really not that far away.
Except, as I write this Wednesday evening over here, it’s near 50 degrees. The cold has been shoved aside and upstaged. There is a new character. It is the wind. And by wind, I mean an unrelenting breeze that has set off car alarms, impaled sand into skin, toppled concession stands and forced officials to shut down an entire cluster of venues — sending everyone inside, lest they blow from PyeongChang to Pyongyang.
“You’re going up the chairlift and you see these little tornadoes,” Sarka Pancochova, a Czech snowboarder, told reporters, “and you’re like, ‘What is this?’ ”
What it is: a circumstance that could carry the carefully crafted Olympic schedule from Kansas to Oz. The first alteration was the men’s downhill, a marquee Olympic event that becomes flat-out dangerous in gusts. That casualty came Sunday. Conditions weren’t safe. Officials resuscitated the downhill Thursday. But it was wedged between runs of the women’s giant slalom, which was blown from Monday to Thursday. Mikaela Shiffrin, the Americans’ best hope in the Alpine events, was supposed to have two races completed by Wednesday evening. She had zero.
But it’s not the cancellations that have been controversial.
“The No. 1 thing is safety, and the next thing is to have a good, fair race,” Paul Kristofic, the head women’s Alpine coach for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, said after Wednesday’s slalom was kicked to Friday. “And neither of those were really achievable today.”
The controversy, then, was left to the events that were actually contested in these gales or the previous cold or even some visibility problems. In the biathlon, the only Winter Olympic sport involving guns (thank goodness), the breezes blew bullets wide of their intended targets. The women’s slopestyle snowboard competition bordered on an abomination — certainly not moral but logistical and meteorological. The final was cut down from three runs to two, and it was mayhem.
A snowboarder who propels herself a few stories into the air becomes, when faced with a gust, a kite. Of the 50 runs taken by the world’s best in the final, 41 ended either in a crash or an athlete bailing on a trick and casually skidding to the bottom of the course.
One interpretation: “It’s not like what we’re doing is safe, anyhow,” said American Jamie Anderson, who happened to win gold.
Another: “The nature of outdoor sports also requires adapting to the elements,” the International Ski Federation (FIS), which oversaw the competition, said in a statement.
And one more: “Before my first run, I was just up there crying,” said Austria’s Anna Gasser, a pre-event favorite. “It is crazy that we did it today.”
And that’s before the winds really picked up Wednesday.
(Update: Somehow, the Nordic combined competition — normal hill/10-kilometer version — completed its ski jumping leg Wednesday without a single competitor being blown into the crowd. But the cross-country skiing portion was delayed by the wind. Go figure.)
The serious stuff for the public — and not just the athletes — came on the day the women’s slalom was postponed at Yongpyong Alpine Centre — where fans dutifully filed in, sat for more than an hour, then filed back out, mobbing buses down the hill. The venues in Gangneung, a city on South Korea’s east coast, are all indoors, hosts to hockey, figure skating, speedskating and the like. And yet late Wednesday afternoon, officials issued the following statement:
“Due to high winds in the Gangneung area, all activities in the common domain of the Gangneung Olympic Park have been temporarily . . . suspended to ensure the safety of all personnel. Spectators are being encouraged to stay indoors and general admission to the park has been suspended for the remainder of the day. Venue Media Centres that are in temporary structures are also closed until the high winds subside, with media continuing to work from the press tribune areas.”
(Update: I’m typing this in what is very much a “temporary structure,” even if it’s as big as the White House, and not long ago a wind sent a ripple — Who’s kidding who? It was a tidal wave — across the roof, which is made of, I don’t know, plastic or something. I would like to say such an occurrence is not frightening. I would be lying.)
Speaking of media, one peculiarity to covering the Olympics is that, at all times, a media person must wear a credential, excepting bed and the shower (although, come to think of it, I’m not sure about that). The credential, which is a laminated piece of paper roughly four inches by seven inches, hangs around my neck on that classic media staple, a lanyard.
The credentials have a tumultuous relationship with the wind. By this point, it is surprising there hasn’t been a death by lanyard. Which, for a sportswriter, might be a noble way to go out. “He died doing what he loved, walking to the top of the PyeongChang Sliding Centre to cover one last luger, when a gust caught his credential and tangled his lanyard around his neck, cutting off the oxygen supply to his brain. He was 47.”
Forget the media, though. We certainly don’t matter. But Shaun White most decidedly does matter. And in one of the few seminal moments the weather has allowed thus far at these Games, White sent a historic run down the PyeongChang halfpipe in winning snowboard gold Wednesday. The weird thing? He could hardly see. Not because of the wind or the chill but because of the ordinary, bleak gray skies.
“I’m basically flipping through the air, looking for blue lines to land on,” White said.
Which is, at this point, an apt description for all of us at these Olympics. At some point, the winds will die down, and the cold will simultaneously relent, and the Olympics will be handed back to the athletes. But for now, the lead character is the wind, and the rest of us are just flipping through the air, looking for blue lines to land on, trying to survive a lanyard attack.
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