How many venues could you do in a day? That’s me on the right inside the Olympic Park in Gangneung, home of the ice events. Photo © Jenn Virskus.

Pyeongchang Should Award an Olympic Medal in Spectating

It takes stamina, determination, and a serious budget to be a spectator at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

I landed in Seoul, South Korea, on Sunday, February 11 at 6AM. But the last several days have been such a blur, it’s hard to say whether that was last week or last year. I’m here to support a former athlete of mine, Lithuanian alpine skier Ieva Januškevičiūtė. Every day is long, and we spend most of it bundled up in as many layers as possible dancing in place trying to keep warm. As if it isn’t hard enough to travel halfway around the world, the frigid temperatures, biting wind, and climbing endless stairs to various Olympic venues really take a toll on the body.

I’ve only been doing on average one event per day, but some superfans (recognizable by their clown pants, wild sunglasses, tall hats, flags, and pompons in the colors of whatever nation they’re supporting) are doing up to three.

What’s the big deal you say? It doesn’t sound so hard to spend a day watching the world’s best athletes surrounded by a spectacular backdrop and a festive international crowd. Indeed, just like for the athletes, it’s an honor just to participate. But participation is more than just showing up. Getting here and getting around takes serious effort.

Do you have the strength, stamina, and determination to be an Olympic spectator at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics? And if they awarded a medal, would you have what it takes to take home the gold? Read on to find out.

Transportation

Getting to the games was easy. Getting around the games is another story. I had a direct flight from San Francisco to Seoul. Korean Air landed in the brand new Terminal 2 at Incheon Airport. I was in Sochi in 2014, and the cultural difference between Russia and Korea was so apparent from the moment I stepped off the plane. The Korean people couldn’t be warmer, more welcoming, or more willing to help.

I’d booked my KTX high-speed train ticket online, but it was from Terminal 1. Changing it at the airport was simple and easy, and the entrance to the train was only a few steps (and one elevator) from the exit of baggage claim. The two-hour ride to Pyeongchang station was very comfortable, and I took advantage of excellent Wi-Fi to work.

At Pyeongchang station, I was met at the train by our guesthouse owner for the 15-minute drive “home.” And that’s where my transportation experience turned from easy to slow, difficult, and frustrating.

The most written-about aspect of the Games has been the weather, but the most talked-about aspect of the Games among spectators, athletes, and media is the transportation. Unless you’re a member of the International Olympic Committee staying in the posh Intercontinental Hotel at the base of Alpensia Ski Resort and moving around with a private driver, nothing is close or convenient.

My guesthouse was a five-minute drive to Phoenix Snow Park where all the freestyle skiing events are taking place, and the owner offered complimentary rides to and from Pyeongchang station or Phoenix Show Park where we could access the free Olympic shuttle service.

The Olympic shuttle service is at once incredibly complicated and very well thought out, depending on where you’re going and when. From Phoenix, the busses only go every 30 minutes and officially take 45 minutes to get to Jinbu KTX station where you can get a bus heading to the other mountain venues, Pyeongchang Olympic Plaza (actually in the town of Daegwallyeong, or to the Gangneung ice venues. More busses run from Gangneung to the KTX station and Sokcho (any maybe more destinations I’m not even aware of). There is a separate system of busses for media and athletes that requires accreditation. The only positive thing I have to say about the shuttle busses is that they’re new, many of them have TVs showing the Olympics, and some of them have Wi-Fi.

Well, that’s one way to get around! Photo © Jenn Virskus.

The median door-to-door transit time between accommodation and venue is probably around an hour and 15 minutes, but if you’re staying in Gangneung and trying to reach the mountain venues, it will take two hours by bus each way. If you’re staying in Seoul, you have to count the time it takes to get to the KTX station, an hour and a half on the train, a 20 to 45-minute shuttle ride, and then the climb up to the venue.

If you’re staying in the vicinity of Pyeongchang, even a two-event day means getting up at 7AM and likely returning home close to midnight. If you’re staying in Seoul, it’s more like getting up at 5AM and getting home well after midnight.

Venues

The venues themselves are impressive, though difficult to access. At Phoenix Snow Park it’s a 10-minute walk up a half-dozen different staircases and a zigzag carpet path up the snow to reach the stadium for the mogul events. At Yongpyeong, you get off the shuttle, go through security and get your ticket scanned, then get on another bus for the five-minute ride to the stadium, where you then walk up the hill from the loading zone and up a few sets of stairs to the stadium. To reach Jeongseon Alpine Centre where the downhill and super G events are being held, you get off the shuttle, walk a hundred yards up the hill across the plaza, through security and ticket scanning, up three sets of stairs, and then either stand in line to take the chairlift, or walk about 200 yards up a steep carpet-covered incline and then climb about 15 flights of stairs to the top of the chairlift. After that, it’s only about three more flights of stairs to the stadium.

Swiss and American superfans at the women’s slalom at Yongpyeong. Photo © Jenn Virskus.

The ski jumping and cross-country complex is the most spectacular. The purpose-built ski jump stands high above the surrounding hills lit up with multi-colored lights at night. You can see the backside of the jump from the Sliding Center at Alpensia, and you pass the front side of it on the 20-minute walk (uphill both ways) from the entrance and security to access the cross-country stadium.

Long story short: It’s easy to meet your step goal hoofing it to and from the Olympic venues.

The stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies and the Olympic flame are in Pyeongchang Olympic Plaza, where the medal ceremonies are being held. There’s also a souvenir superstore, a cultural exhibition, and a bunch of corporate sponsor exhibits.

The backside of the Pyeongchang ski jump, as viewed from Alpensia Ski Resort.

The Gangneung Olympic Park, approximately three-quarters of a mile in length, is home to the ice events. Figure skating, hockey, short track, curling, and speed skating all get their own rinks. They are huge, new, and clean.

In Sochi, we went through security at least twice per day, if not four to six times depending on where we were going. You went through security to get on the train, on any bus, and into the Olympic Park or any mountain venue. In Pyeongchang, we go through security only to access the venues and the Olympic Park and Plaza. Sometimes, they screen passengers in the KTX station before entering the track, but not always.

Tickets for most events are incredibly easy to get, but they are costly — especially the speed skating where Korea shines. I don’t think any event has truly been sold out. One good thing about Pyeongchang compared to past Olympics, is that you don’t have to go through your country’s ticket reseller. You can buy your tickets with the mobile app and enter with a mobile ticket.

You thought I was exaggerating about the stairs, didn’t you. Nope. Taken climbing up to Joengensen Alpine Center for the women’s downhill. And this is only a small section of the climb. Photo © Jenn Virskus.

Accommodation

The cost of accommodation is absurdly high despite how many empty beds there are in the greater Olympic zone. I haven’t stayed anywhere that’s even close to full, but I have to wonder, if they weren’t asking $100 per night for a bed in a six-bed dorm room, maybe they would be?

The first guesthouse I stayed in called Namoova is what could be called a traditional Korean guesthouse. We had a small studio with a kitchenette and two futons in the loft. The shower in the bathroom was a handle attached to the sink that you had to hold. While the location was not great for the events we were going to, it was so far the most comfortable, despite the shower. The water was wonderfully hot though.

In the second guesthouse, a five-minute drove from the base of Yongpyeong Ski Resort where the alpine tech events are being held, I had a bunk bed in a dormitory and a locker. Breakfast is included — but you have to cook it yourself. They put out frying pans, a huge bottle of vegetable oil, and eggs. There is also coffee, toast, and cereal. You do your own washing up.

The organizing committee claims that 90% of all tickets have been sold. But that’s not what it looked like at the men’s giant slalom. If tickets, accommodation, and getting around were easier, would they have actually sold out? Photo © Jenn Virskus.

My guesthouse in Sokcho offered the exact same breakfast, but I had a private room and a double bed that felt like I was sleeping on a box spring. At first, I thought there was some mistake, but then I realized it was heated and so it was definitely the bed itself. The bathroom also had the shower handle over the sink but mounted on the wall, so I didn’t have to hold it.

All of the guesthouses have had heated floors in addition to the heated beds and toiletries are provided — shampoo, conditioner, soap and/or body wash, and even toothpaste. They also offer two to four towels per person, but they are the size of hand towels. This is apparently a thing in Korea.

Food

When I landed at Incheon Airport, I skipped Shake Shack, Jamba Juice, and Dunkin’ Donuts in favor of the Korean Street Food restaurant where I put my credit card into a machine to order a bowl of assorted fried dumplings. My second-grade teacher was from Korea and made us eat our afternoon snack with chopsticks every day, but I felt like a chopstick neophyte trying to eat my dumplings with stainless steel.

I went to the Korean barbeque restaurant at the base of Yongpyeong Ski Resort twice with two different groups of people. You pick out your own package of meat from the refrigerator, and they bring you a bucket of hot coals that goes right into the center of the table and a dozen or so side dishes.

In Gangneung, we ate on “Tofu Street” where they make a special kind of tofu with seawater. It has the consistency of burrata, soft and creamy. In Sokcho, I stumbled into a noodle house where I enjoyed a huge bowl of fresh spicy seafood noodle soup. The fish was so fresh and soft, it melted in my mouth like butter.

The one thing I’m missing is a restaurant culture. Food and restaurants seem to be purely utilitarian; you go to eat because you’re hungry, not so much for enjoyment and entertainment. And, as much as I do like the various rice wines I’ve tried, I was really missing a glass of crisp white wine with my grilled fish last night.

Overall, I have been enjoying Korean food — except inside the venues. There are two types of concession stands, K-Food and Western Food. Both serve awful processed, microwaved snacks. The pork steam buns and the sausage are good, but they run out of those pretty quickly. Actually, they run out of anything even remotely tasty pretty quickly. On the upside, a bottle of water is only $1.

Weather

Up in the Mountain Cluster, it’s cold. It’s really, really cold, even in the sun, and the wind just bites through to the bone no matter how many layers you’re wearing. Koreans really like to dance. We’ve been on the Dance Cam so many times because it’s just what you have to do to keep warm. I brought my skis, and I did ski one afternoon, but it was so cold, I couldn’t motivate to go outside during any of my other limited free time. Down in Gangneung, it’s a little bit milder, but the wind keeps us bundled up. I’ve never spent so much time in long underwear and Smartwool in a place that doesn’t have any snow.

So what would it take to get a gold in spectating? Three events per day, a stop at the plaza to cheer at the medals ceremony, a selfie with the official mascot, the Olympic flame, the Olympic rings, and Shaun White, a lanyard heavy with Olympic pins, dinner at the House of Switzerland, and partying into the wee hours of the morning at the Austria House or Casa Italia. If they gave medals for spectating, I might manage a bronze — I just don’t have the stamina for gold.