Athletes of North and South Korea enter the stadium with Korean unification flags during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Photo: Kyodo
Tim Noonan
Tim Noonan

Coldest Winter Games might be the coolest as South Korea grabs gold in its Olympics screen test

Thirty years after hosting the Summer Games, a more confident, competent and charming country emerged during Pyeongchang’s Olympic fortnight

After two weeks of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the only significant complaint about these Games has been that they are cold – the coldest ever.
Well remember this chill, folks. When the torch is lit 20 years from now in Nairobi, Kenya, for the 28th Winter Olympics – a testament to our zany and wildly unpredictable weather patterns – you’re going to miss Pyeongchang.
The Olympic flame burns in the cauldron at the Olympic Stadium. Photo: EPA

Like Albertville and Lillehammer before it, the world knew virtually nothing about Pyeongchang. It’s not even a town, it’s a rugged and somewhat remote county in South Korea that recently adapted CamelCase spelling so Pyeongchang could become PyeongChang in order to not confuse the world with Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

Still, whatever you want to call it and however you want to spell it, one thing is incontrovertible about this frigid north Asian Alpine outpost: it is now, and forever will be, an Olympic Games locale.

Some places, like Salt Lake City, Vancouver and Beijing, are hardly defined by hosting the Winter Olympics. But now that the Olympic torch has burned in this once sleepy hamlet, Pyeongchang is happy to be indelibly etched in the annals of sporting history. It’s a very cool and well deserved legacy for this county and country.

However, there is one legacy even more significant – they absolutely nailed the hosting of these Games.
The opening ceremony gets underway. Photo: Kyodo

The first criteria is the simplest: the eye test. With its endlessly radiant and crisp blue skies, these Games looked healthy and invigorating. The night time vista, with all of the venues essentially in one rolling shot, was even more impressive.

This looked like a major international event. The crowds were good, not great, but the medal ceremonies at Olympic plaza were festive and jammed affairs precisely choreographed to the nanosecond.

On the ground, the weather was the only thing that was cold and inhospitable. According to a friend, “Massive friendliness and everyone seems to love the Koreans. There are gazillions of volunteers always waving, singing ‘hello’, ‘good morning’ and ‘have fun’.”

Of course, not everything is perfect. Thanks to the outbreak of a norovirus, a contagion that causes painful inflammation of the intestines, people are not shaking hands or hugging as much. But aside from the things they can’t control, like Mother Nature, this has been a mostly joyous and efficient Games, which is a perfect antidote to the organisational chaos from the recent 2016 Summer Games in Rio.
The ski jumping tower is framed in the Olympic Rings on a stormy night. Photo: AP

Like any big event and country there is always a backstory and for South Korea that story begins with their somewhat unhinged stepbrother up in the attic. Much of the consternation and uncertainty was over what sort of antics the nuclear armed dictator of North Korea Kim Jong-un would get up to.

The hope, at least in the South, was that once the Games began the focus would switch to the athletes and events and for the most part it has. The world is seeing up close how pragmatic South Koreans are. They know they are caught in the middle of juvenile jousting between US and North Korean leaders. But life goes on and in a most modern and international way at that.
A total of 300 drones fly in the night sky over the Pyeongchang Medal Plaza. Photo: EPA

Thirty years ago when the Olympics were held in South Korea for the first time, the country was emerging from decades of darkness. Years of military rule and a presidential assassination in 1979 were part of the troubled past the government was trying to distance itself from. They were promising a new era of economic growth and democracy and hosting the Summer Games would be the most visible and tangible proof of that.

Whether they achieved that in the short term is debatable at best as reports of massive government abuses were rife leading up to and even during the Games. But in 1988, the government of South Korea started actively issuing passports and encouraging their citizens to travel more. Today, the South Korean passport is one of the most powerful passport in the world.
Performance during the Opening Ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium. Photo: EPA

A technological and automotive giant, South Korea is on the cutting edge of redefining automation and efficiency in modern living. It’s that efficiency the International Olympic Committee so desperately craved.

Well, they certainly got it and while the cost of hosting for South Korea was a healthy US$13 billion, not everything in life is a ledger sheet. The global exposure for the country has been invaluable. Yes, it’s cold right now. But only in the weather charts.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Coldest and the coolest Games