When I was in high school I remember my sister promising to take me to the Summer Olympics in Rio, knowing full well that she couldn’t afford it, neither of us spoke a lick of Portuguese or Spanish, we didn’t even have passports. But she talked this up to be a trip of a lifetime. When I ended up watching the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics years later in my apartment in good ole Connecticut, I realized (not for the first time, certainly) I could never take my sister seriously. From that disappointment came the desire to witness the Olympics in person.
This year I didn’t have to travel very far to see them. Pyeongchang is only an hour and a half from Seoul where I’ve been studying for the past 6 months. I wasn’t planning to go because the Olympics are expensive, but a dear friend quickly reminded me that this was a once in a life time opportunity: when would I be this close to the Olympics again? When she put it that way I couldn’t afford not to go.
We reserved KTX tickets and bought tickets to the only event that worked for her schedule: alpine cross country skiing. A sport which I didn’t know existed until we bought the tickets. The other option was curling and to be honest I could never psych myself up enough to get excited about curling (No shade, curlers. It’s a sport!)
On the day of, I left my house early and arrived 30 minutes before our train was scheduled to leave at 11. By 10:40 I received a text saying she said she was on her way.
10:54 “Two stops left!”
At this point I told her I would meet her on the tracks.
10:59 “Almost there!!”
I was pleading with the train attendants to just wait two more minutes.
At 11 the doors closed and the train began pulling away from the station.
At 11:01 my friend, red faced and with scraped knee, arrived just in time to watch the end of the train disappear into the foggy ether.
I’ll skip the events that happened next but just know that the next 20 minutes were a mix of sadness, disappointment, and frustration. Eventually we made our way back to the ticket booth and got standing tickets for the next train. It hurt to stand when we’d reserved seats on the first train, but hey, at least we were on our way.
Upon arriving at the snow topped mountain I realized that I was severely under-equipped to handle the weather conditions under which people usually ski. I thought all the foreigners from Nordic countries were glancing at me because I was a little out of place as a short black American girl at an alpine skiing event , but it might’ve been because they were laughing at my pitiful winter gear. Ya’ll, these people were covered head to toe in ski gear like they were the ones participating. Some folks also brought some huge bells and some other terrifying instruments which they used to accompany their thundering chants and applause.
Then there’s us, two Americans who know nothing about the sport, standing in -16 C degree weather in ankle socks and sneakers. Watching lanky athletes scoot like praying mantises through the snow was entertaining for about an hour, but by the halfway mark all that excitement (and water I guzzled on the train) entailed a trip to the restroom. In which the toilet wouldn’t flush. And there was no running water at the sink. Nor any soap.
Maybe the West is hypersanitised. After coming to Korea I’m used to not having liquid soap or sometimes no soap at all in the bathrooms, or no hot water. But no soap or water AT ALL? That’s just….I can’t even…What?
Someone explain this to me. I’m very confused. How could you not have soap or water or even hand sanitize in the restroom? At…the Olympics? The little sick masks are not going to protect you from fecal spread diseases, shade but no shade.
After my trip to the bathroom we were cold, hungry and had dirty hands, so we decided to remedy at least one of our plights and go to the concession session stand. Halfway through the line they announced that that’d run out of food.
And by the time we got our piping hot watery beverages the event has ended.
We spent the next 45 minutes to an hour standing in the cold waiting to squeeze onto a shuttle back to the train station. (And we got through relatively quickly, comparatively speaking.)
I’ve never been to any Olympic event before this one, so it’s hard to say whether Pyongchang was unprepared for the onslaught of spectators coming to see the games or if these kinds of things just naturally happen at massive events like the Olympics, but either way it was not the most pleasant experience. The most fun was buying souvenirs.
So, my advice if you really want to enjoy the Olympics?
1. Dress like an Olympian
2. Bring your own food, drinks, and hand sanitizer
3. Come repping your country, with organized chants
4. When all else fails, buy souvenirs and take touristy photos so people can at least think you had a good time.
See how happy we look?? (I’m numb up to my knees by this point.)