Heads retreat into shoulders like frightened tortoises, only spectators’ eyes are visible as they sink into the protection of their man-made blubber. It is the weather for penguins and polar bears — and winter sports enthusiasts.
The PyeongChang Winter Olympics has been the coldest in over two decades. It is the rarest of days when the mercury rises above zero.
In the opening week the temperature plunged to -25C. How cold can that be? Eyes tingle, gloveless hands quickly turn blue, clothes drying on balconies become rock-hard. Pens stop working, cables snap and smartphone batteries drain in minutes. A new-found empathy quickly develops for frozen peas.
Bone-chilling February winds have caused events to be rescheduled, but the elements have not inhibited fans.
There is fun to be had watching sport on teeth-chatteringly cold winter days like these.
Hippest of winter sports
It’s morning at Phoenix Snow Park, home of snowboarding and freestyle skiing, and a man dressed as a tiger is sipping beer. He is not alone. The beer taps are in full flow at the coolest party in town.
There’s a woman in Stars and Stripes leggings, others dressed in American flag onesies. Australians and Swedes are dressed in their countries’ colors, while Japanese, Norwegian and South Korean flags are on display, too.
The crowd gasps in unison at every acrobatic trick, and wince with every fall. They say “massive,” “neat” and “awesome” to compliment a performance. If a routine is not up to scratch? That’s a “bummer.”
A man with a voice loud enough to be used as a hazard warning booms: “USA! USA!” and others quickly join the chorus. This is the hippest of winter sports and Team USA fans are out in force.
Getting here is not cheap or straightforward. The 28-year-old says the trip will cost in excess of $2,000 and, like many fans, she is staying in Seoul.
Before the Games it was anticipated that over 20,000 passengers a day
would be traveling on train to the Games, with the $3.7 billion “bullet train” reducing what would be a three-hour trip from the capital to the mountains to just over an hour.
By train, plane or automobile, thousands from all over the world have converged to this corner of South Korea, in the north west of the country.
Lying on the snow as if he were on a chaise longue is Jasmeet Singh Chandok, from Mumbai.
He came to the Games, flying business class, with his friends for a few days to experience the atmosphere of a great sporting spectacle.
“We just wanted to see what it was like,” says the businessman. “There’s no coverage back in India. We have 200 channels but you can’t watch the Winter Olympics.”
Cowbells, loud music and tomfoolery are not appropriate at every Olympic venue. At some events, there is protocol to be followed.
From the baggy trousers, fancy dress and bandanas of the snow park, welcome to the more sedate world of curling, regarded as lawn bowls on ice.
Rarely will you see spectators carrying trays of beer here. If they’re having a frat party in the mountains then near the coast there’s a sense that curling fans are enjoying an amiable dinner party.
Conversation is allowed to flow, of course, but to be wild and riotous would be akin to eating a main course with elbows on the table.
At the figure skating hush descends around the arena before each performance, the tension palpable, and, much like tennis, leaving your seat during a performance is frowned upon.
If you want to show your appreciation for the wonder that is ballet on ice, throw flowers and cuddly toys towards the skaters as an audience would at the Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House — but only once the music has stopped, of course.
There are rules to be obeyed at the speed skating, too. In the corridors of the Gangneung Oval signs read: “Be quiet please! Flash off please! No whistling please! Enjoy the competition! Respect each other!”
But etiquette does not mean monotony, not with the Dutch peppering the arena with splashes of orange and a brass band playing on the middle of the ice between sessions.
The Dutch like speed skating. A lot. And no wonder. Four years ago In Sochi, the Netherlands won 23 medals, including eight of the available 12 golds, and so far in Pyeongchang the team has claimed six of the seven golds on offer.
Jacob De Groot, a journalist at Dutch daily De Telegraaf, explains that speed skating is part of his country’s history.
“If you look at the old paintings of the Dutch masters you see skating in them and when winters were still as they should be it was part of the season,” he tells CNN Sport.
Each winter sport is close to the the heart of a particular nation, be it for cultural reasons or continued success.
That is why hordes of Germans will watch luge, why British flags are enthusiastically waved at skeleton, and why Koreans attend short track speed skating events in droves but leave Alpine skiing to the Austrians and Norwegians.
But no group has caught the eye quite like the North Korean cheerleaders. Flanked by security wherever they go, they are the all-female troupe of 230 young women who have fascinated fans and journalists alike.
Dressed in matching uniforms, they are easy to spot, and to hear, and have faithfully followed North Korean athletes throughout; chanting, singing, dancing and waving flags.
There are those who hope that the PyeongChang Games will be remembered for creating a climate for apparent rapprochement between North and South Korea, two countries still technically at war.
But while there have been magnificent feats, both in sport and diplomacy, there have also been empty seats, even though organizers say they’ve sold more than 90% of available tickets — the cheapest on offer was 10,000KRW ($9) for ice hockey.
Friday, February 16, was the best day for ticket sales yet, said organizers, with nearly 108,000 sold.
‘A bit of shambles’
It was a sedate atmosphere at Olympic Park in the first week, even with a marching band in traditional costume popping up now and again.
But there is a reason why carnivals are held in summer. As the temperature has increased, so has the footfall and the queues for the souvenir shop and virtual reality tents.
For some, the organization has been frustrating.
Medical volunteer Dr. Tanya Lawson traveled from England to Pyeongchang only to experience a “bit of a shambles.”
“I should’ve been in the medical services, but I got put in ticketing,” the 60-year-old, fulfilling a long-held ambition to volunteer at an Olympics, tells CNN Sport.
“I then got moved to medical services but I can’t do anything because I’m not licensed to work in South Korea, but they didn’t make that clear before we started.”
She has yet, Dr. Lawson says, to receive the promised “passion tickets” — complimentary tickets to events for volunteers as a gesture of thanks — and so paid for her own ticket to watch the women’s giant slalom at the Yongpyong Alpine Center. She is the only spectator in an otherwise vacant row of seats.
“The transport has been a bit of a shambles as well, I’m an hour-and-a-quarter from where I’m working and it’s another hour-and-a-half to see anything,” she adds.
Ticket holders do have access to a free shuttle bus service between key venues but events are sprawled over the region, as is typically the way at Winter Games.
A journey from the ice events on the coast in Gangnueng to the technical Alpine events in Jeongseon can take over 90 minutes on a bus, while squeezing in snowboarding and bobsled into a day would result in a 60-minute bus trip.
But for the majority of people the positives outweigh the negatives. Dr. Lawson says she has met “some amazing people,” while Jenn Virskus, a Lithuanian American, says she “loves” the two-handed wave many of the young volunteers use to greet spectators.
Smiles and friendly gestures have helped transcend language barriers.
Not sure where your bus stop is? There is a story of a volunteer taking a 15-minute walk with a confused visitor to a bus stop even though his shift had finished.
Virskus, here to support the Lithuanian Alpine ski team, admits transportation was better in Sochi four years ago, but prefers the atmosphere in Pyeongchang.
“None of the volunteers in Sochi spoke English, and everything was expensive. A bottle of water here is about $3 which is OK. Overall, the people here are a lot nicer,” she tells CNN Sport.
Being the perfect host is difficult and demanding, especially on a grand sporting scale such as this, but at the “Peace” Games, even in below-freezing temperatures, the world has been warmly welcomed.