Goodbye, Pyeongchang: Three Olympic moments we won't forget
The Games may be over, but, for many, the memories will last a lifetime. From political manouevring to national upsets to accidental encounters, Nathan VanderKlippe, Grant Robertson and Cathal Kelly recall the iconic stories that defined the event
My moment of Olympic stardom
About a week in and already deep into an Olympic daze, I went staggering through a door at the curling centre. On the left was the media pen. On the right was the athletes-only backstage area.
I was headed to the mixed zone, but turned right instead of left.
In Sochi, I would have been shot in the back. In South Korea, a country of aching politeness, no one said anything. One teenage volunteer waved her hands in a small, panicked motion, but I assumed she was greeting me with special vigour.
Thus unimpeded, I burst – Kool-Aid Man-style – through a double doors and walked into a live studio interview with the South Korean curling team. Klieg lights, sound booms, the whole bit. It was the closest I will get to being big in Asia.
The interview stopped. Everyone, including the players, turned to stare. I stood there stupidly.
Finally, after two or three hours, someone in a headset said, apologetically, "You are not supposed to be here."
That was my permission to leave. The same volunteer who'd tried to warn me on the way in said, "Hello!" on the way out, as if seeing me for the first time.
Few of the memories you take home from an Olympics have much to do with athletics. There is plenty of emotion and incident on the field of play, but it is of a piece. After the distance of a few months, it all feels the same.
The true beauty of being allowed to attend these events is getting to go somewhere that is strange to you and making it just a little bit familiar. By the end, the goal is being able to say one phrase correctly. Korean has a lot of syllables. Imagine if the word 'syllables' had a half-dozen more syllables. That's Korean. I never got there.
The South Koreans didn't seem to mind. They were, to a man, woman and child, the most generously tolerant hosts I have known. Unlike, say, the Super Bowl, the security was a cozying blanket rather than a steel cordon. I've yet to see a gun in Pyeongchang. That set the welcoming tone.
I learned many new things – that they can put the elevator call button in your apartment, that scissors are better than knives when it comes to cutting steak, and that if you overindulge in the soju, there is no quicker fix than a 'bower' – a simultaneous bath and shower.
(I got that last one from a Canadian photographer who claims to have invented the bower, and remain dubious.)
We muddled about their country for a month, yelling in English or German, moaning about the bus schedule or freezing to death halfway up a mountain, made feverish and insatiable by the discovery of hot, canned coffee, and the South Koreans' good cheer never once cracked.
(Well, there was that one time in the mess tent, on Feb. 14, when the MC said, "It is Valentine's Day! And you are all alone! Because you are losers!" I believe that was a translation issue.)
Mostly it was a lot of smiling and bowing (a gesture which, as a weak-necked foreigner with a tendency to throw the head forward like a bowling ball, it is not advisable to emulate). Most of us retreated to a jaunty thumbs up, which outrageously delighted every Korean I threw it at.
One person clapped.
Every Olympics has two goals – run on schedule and do not let anything blow up on live TV. For some locales, there is a third – charm the world. The South Korean people – not just the ones working here, but everyone you encountered – managed it with their enormous warmth.
I have only one regret about the Pyeongchang Olympics – that I did not find the time to visit the nearby "Penis Park," which is pretty much what it sounds like.
It's another of the educational opportunities I've missed on these dream junkets. Next time.
Dictator's sister was riveting – and an enigma
I can tell you virtually nothing about Kim Yo-jong, save this: She is the sister of North Korea's supreme leader; she is unquestionably the most compelling figurehead that menacing state could send abroad; South Koreans believe she is pregnant; and she has perfect rhythm.
On Feb. 10, Ms. Kim sat in the stands as a handful of North Korean women played hockey with South Koreans whose ranks they had been forcibly ordered to join by politicians looking for a spectacle of unity, no matter the on-ice results.
The game play was forgettable.
Ms. Kim was not.
For nearly 20 minutes, I stood across the arena from her, watching in hopes of divining something – anything – about the family she belongs to, and the regime they control.
I came away with this: Ms. Kim has an oddly structured clap, a fingers-back tap of the palms that might be useful in protecting a clunky ring had she been wearing such a thing.
And when she claps, she is flawless.
Ms. Kim was seated a few rows from one of the squads of North Korean cheerleaders dispatched to put a comely smile on a regime that occasionally carries out execution by anti-aircraft gun. They sang, they swayed and they chanted, each to a different tempo. (They clapped, too, employing a similar technique.)
Ms. Kim kept pace with them all, her palm-taps never missing a beat.
Next to her were North Korea's nonagenarian titular head of state and the presidents of South Korea and the International Olympic Committee. None of them put their hands together.
Ms. Kim clapped alone.
She didn't notice or didn't care. Every time the cheerleaders performed, her hands moved, with a cadence that never missed.
Was she carried away by the moment, swept up by the thrilling vision of two Koreas skating in one uniform under one roof?
Was it an autonomic response from a woman steeped in a militarized society whose totalitarian rigours affect even those at the top?
Or is Ms. Kim just musically talented, the powerful sister of a young dictator who, perhaps, beat-boxes in her spare time or smashes a mean drum beat?
I don't know. I would wager no one does.
All of which is one way of answering a bigger question.
Do these Olympics, and their fleeting show of unity, mean anything?
Could we have just witnessed the opening act of a new era on the Korean peninsula?
Or was this just a show, politics and sport combining for a brief flourish of entertainment with nuclear undertones?
I don't know. I would wager no one does.
Larocque earned the right to not wear her medal
The most intense, hard-fought battle of the Olympics was the women's hockey gold-medal match. Although Canada had won the previous four times in the Winter Olympics, no game against the Americans was ever easy.
So when Canada lost – in a shootout – it could be expected that some players would not be happy. It wasn't even a shock when Canadian defenceman Jocelyne Larocque, so upset with the loss, stood on the ice, angry and defiant, and took off her silver medal.
Ms. Larocque could not bring herself to wear it, since the medal served only as a symbol of her disappointment. The women had gone to the Games to win gold. Now they would have to suffer another four years before they could win it back.
What happened next, though, did surprise me. I've seen a lot of things in sports, but never something as cold and callous as this.
After the game, in the bowels of the arena, I happened across a conversation an official with the International Ice Hockey Federation was having with Ms. Larocque, ordering her to put the medal on. This was the Olympics, he explained, and there were "legal" reasons why she had to wear it.
As he talked, Ms. Larocque stared at the floor, holding the medal in her hands, trying not to cry. When he finished, the IIHF official darted out of the room, and Ms. Larocque left, even more crestfallen than before.
Some Canadians disagree with me – and I have heard from them via e-mail – but I admired Ms. Larocque as she stood defiant, refusing to wear the silver medal and refusing to accept losing. People called her a poor sport, but I don't see it that way.
The women's hockey players sacrifice careers and risk injury to chase Olympic gold. They are not paid as well as men and their injuries hurt just as bad, as do the losses. If Ms. Larocque didn't want to wear the medal, then good for her. She earned the right to do what she wants. She earned it during thousands of hours of practice, she earned it in the gym and she earned it by devoting her life to playing for her country. She is not a rich hockey player – such as those in the NHL – she is only a player who hates losing. And for me, that was something to admire.
But I will never forget hearing the IIHF admonishing one of its players. It's rare that you see the bureaucracy of the Olympics rear its head, but this was a moment where marketing and rules and optics took precedence over true competition. It was ugly.
Facing heat from the IIHF, Ms. Larocque apologized the next day in a statement that looked as though it was written by an army of public-relations people at Hockey Canada. It was just damage control. If there was ever any evidence that the IOC and IIHF were thin-skinned, and Hockey Canada was spineless, this so-called apology was a sign of that.
All Ms. Larocque did was decide not to wear her medal, because it hurt too much. But people just wanted her to shut up and smile and put it on. I'm glad she didn't. She stayed true to who she is. The loss will burn in her mind for four years and will inspire her for the next Olympics.
The day I saw the IIHF official more concerned with marketing and public relations trying to give orders to an athlete is a moment I will never forget. I hope I never see it again.