The Olympics finally warmed up on Wednesday, and then the wind arrived.
This was the sort of wind you could hear coming before it hit you. Unless you’ve lived through a typhoon, it’s not something you’ve experienced.
In the coastal cluster, it was strong enough to tear off street signs and shred canvas tents. It drove loose earth before it like a sandstorm. This explains why all the open ground here is covered in bamboo matting held in place by metal spikes.
“I’m from Saskatchewan,” one colleague remarked. “And this has got Saskatchewan beat.”
The Olympics is being held in South Korea’s Gangwon-do province. Weather-wise, it is one of the most inhospitable populated places on the planet.
Though Pyeongchang lies on the same latitude as mid-California, its elevation and placing at the foot of a wind tunnel running down from Siberia make it remarkably frigid. This is the coldest place in the world at such a southerly position.
Gangwon-do is also one of the few places on Earth to experience hurricane-force winds (moving at speeds greater than 118 kilometres per hour) without the benefit of an actual hurricane.
It’s been blowing for days, postponing, delaying and otherwise marring several ski events in the mountains.
A few days of this was an anomaly. Now that the Games is nearing its second week, it’s becoming a serious problem.
The IOC has had its weather issues before (i.e. the blue snow trucked in to cover the slopes in sweaty Sochi). But this may be the first Olympics that cannot run owing to weather.
I am a large human. And I was just barely able to walk through the gales on Wednesday. It was so strong, you could lean back into it and not fear hitting the ground.
Around midday, city authorities pushed an “Emergency Alert” to all cellphones in the area warning people to go indoors to avoid the weather.
(As an aside, the South Koreans are a bit loose with these alerts – all of which are, obviously, sent in Korean. This was our third in a week. You’re thinking ‘imminent missile impact’ and they actually mean ‘conditions are rather dry, so don’t start fires’.)
Out on the streets, heedless visitors lurched around like drunks, blown across roads or left chasing glasses knocked off their heads. The omnipresent tuques disappeared. You could not hope to hold on to them.
The locals, more used to this sort of thing, had the sense to crouch in place when a bad gust kicked up and wait for it to pass. One man pulled up the hood of his coat, grabbed a light post and hung on.
If it’s bad for the civilians, it is much worse for the athletes.
Japanese ski jumper Noriaki Kasai is here at his eighth Olympics. He’s been on the job for a quarter century. So he’s seen some things.
“The noise of the wind at the top of the jump was incredible,” Kasai told The Asahi Shimbun. “I’ve never experienced anything like that on the World Cup circuit. I said to myself, ‘Surely, they are going to cancel this’.”
Surely, they did not.
The showpiece event here – downhill skiing – has been badly disrupted. Wednesday was meant to be the debut of the betting favourite for the global star of these Games, America’s multi-discipline phenom Mikaela Shiffrin. Instead, the women’s giant slalom was postponed until later in the week and NBC was left pulling out its hair.
These logistical issues are becoming nervy – the alpine disciplines are already scheduled to run every day until the end of the Games; many athletes were meant to vacate rooms up in the mountains for teammates once they had completed their events.
Having sampled the quality of Olympic furniture, you really don’t want to be sleeping on anything other than a bed.
As is their habit, the International Olympic Committee remains sanguine about developments. A meteor could hit the main stadium and they’d call it a wonderful opportunity to bring geology into the Olympic experience.
“Plenty (of time left),” said IOC spokesperson Mark Adams on Wednesday. “If the wind continues to blow for the next 15 days then it might be a problem. But at present everything is okay … I think the (International Ski Federation) are pretty happy.”
A couple of hours later, they cancelled all the alpine events for the day. Then they cancelled all outdoor events in Gangneung, suspended admission to the Olympic Park and closed all temporary tented structures. Sounds okay to me.
It’s anyone’s guess about the next fifteen days – even by normal meteorological standards, guessing at the weather here has been a mug’s game. It is supposed to get better on Thursday (and then get worse again on Saturday).
But I will guarantee you that no one is happy. Skiing’s governing body, the FIS, has taken an almighty drubbing here, notably for choosing to run the women’s slopestyle snowboard competition despite dangerous winds. Their excuse, in part, was that “the nature of outdoor sports also requires adapting to the elements.”
By this logic, more Olympic events should take place inside active volcanoes. All that adapting would make for some real excitement.
Broadcasters cannot be happy, nor can sponsors or advertisers or the athletes themselves. The Olympics is scheduled to provide daily peaks, evenly spaced. What we’re looking at now is a great glut of events in the second half of the Games, piled one atop the other.
Viewership numbers are notoriously hard to come by, or trust once you do, but they appear to be down. A good part of that in the west is down to timing.
But increasingly it may come down to unpredictability. Who’s going to drag themselves out of bed at 4 in the morning for an event that might not go off?
Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper Olympics without thematic problems. In every other way, Pyeongchang has been clockwork.
All it shows is that putting together a Winter Olympics is an exercise in Goldilocksism.
It’s often too cold or not cold enough, and very, very rarely just right.
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