A day at the Olympics – It’s been a week since the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics, and although the world has since moved on to other issues, I wanted to take a quick look back on the games. One thing we can say is that they went reasonably well for Korea. Korea managed to snag 17 medals, the most they have ever won in any Winter Olympics, and four of those medals came in events that they had never medaled in before (skeleton, bobsleigh, curling, and snowboarding). It was also apparently one of the few Olympics to turn a profit for the host nation (more on that later).
Today’s entry, though, is going to be about our own Olympic experience, and I don’t mean how much time we spent sitting in front of the television and watching athletes compete (it was a lot). I’ve always wanted to attend an Olympic event, and with the games being held so close to us this time around, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity. HJ was not as enthusiastic about it at first, but in January I convinced her that we needed to go, and we got tickets for a men’s hockey game scheduled for 20 February. So, at six in the morning two Thursdays ago, our Olympic adventure began.
After showering, packing our small backpacks for the day, and bundling up against the cold, we made our way to Seoul Station, where we would be taking a train east. We arrived early and looked around for something to eat, settling on McDonald’s because it seemed to be the quickest option. McDonald’s is kind of like Budweiser for me—I have it so infrequently that every time I do have it I have since forgotten how thoroughly depressing it is. It filled our stomachs, though, which I suppose is the point.
Our train was a KTX-Sancheon, a newer type of the high-speed KTX. From what I’ve read, the name is a reference to a Korean trout that inspired the aerodynamic design for the nose of the train. Having seen it up close, though, I can’t honestly say that it looks anything like a fish to me. Whatever the case, when it pulled into the station, we got on, quickly found our seats, and settled back for the ninety-minute ride to Jinbu, one stop short of Gangneung on the east coast. That probably doesn’t mean anything to anyone who doesn’t live in Korea, but the idea of being able to get to Gangneung in an hour and a half is quite a novelty. I remember driving to Gangneung once—we got stuck in traffic and the trip ended up taking half the day.
It was 10:30 when we got off the train at Jinbu, which is the station nearest the Pyeongchang Olympic Park, although we still had a hefty bus ride ahead of us to get there. The station had been transformed for the games, with information booths and volunteers to guide people in the right direction. As I hit the restroom, HJ checked to see if there were any tickets available for events that day in Pyeongchang (our hockey match was scheduled for the evening in Gangneung). When I came out, she told me that the only tickets left were 180,000 won (nearly $170) a pop for ski half pipe. It would have been nice to catch an event during the day as well, but we weren’t about to spend that much money on tickets. So we went outside to a shuttle bus that ferried us to the Pyeongchang Olympic Park.
Anyone with a ticket for an event that day could get into the park for free; you have to pay a few thousand won to get in otherwise. We, of course, had our tickets, so we got in line to have our bags checked at security. I’ve read that one reason why the Olympics are becoming more and more expensive to host is the amount of money that needs to be spent on security, and they certainly weren’t taking any chances here. We had bottles of water and thermoses of hot tea, and we had to take sips of both to prove that we weren’t trying to smuggle liquid explosives or poisons in, I guess. They also rummaged very thoroughly through our bags. We had a bag of yakgwa (a sweet Korean cookie) that we had bought at Seoul Station, but fortunately it was still sealed, so we were allowed to keep it; the family in front of us had to give up quite a bit of unsealed food that they had brought along. We did not escape unscathed, though. HJ had bought two disposable cushioned mats for us to sit on, but according to the security personnel these were verboten. When we asked why, we learned that some people had been camping out in an attempt to take pictures of celebrities visiting the park, so anything that might be construed as paparazzi paraphernalia was treated as contraband. (For the same reason, no zoom lenses 300 mm or larger were allowed, but fortunately my lens only has a max zoom of 50 mm.) Turns out the security was more to guard against paparazzi than terrorists, which I guess is comforting.
The park itself was not terribly impressive, to be honest, or maybe my expectations were just too high. You can tell from the moment you walk in that the whole place is temporary, being as it is in the middle of nowhere. The stadium used for the opening ceremonies is located here, but I’ve read that it will be torn down after the games. This doesn’t surprise me at all, and strikes me as a smarter move than trying to repurpose it for an area that has no need for such a large venue. Better to tear it down than to let it sit there and decay.
For the time being, though, this was the heart of Olympicdom on earth. Upon entering the park, we were greeted by a large open space containing a double ring of the flags of all nations. There were a lot of people standing around here taking pictures, and the red-and-gray-clad volunteers seemed happy to take pictures of visitors in front of the flags.
A little farther on, there was a bobsleigh and a line of people waiting to give Omega some free advertising, as HJ is doing here (although I’m probably playing the larger part by posting this!). We did have our picture taken together, but that one is on HJ’s phone; I’m only posting photos from my camera, so there will be no photos of me in today’s entry (which is probably all for the best).
Before we move on, one thing I do want to discuss (since it is prominently featured in this photo) is the symbol for the Pyeongchang Olympics, which looks like a pavilion with a star next to it. These two elements are actually somewhat stylized versions of the first letters in each syllable of Pyeongchang. I’m not generally a fan of slogans, logos, and other such Korean marketing devices intended for international audiences, but I thought this was quite clever. In fact, although I don’t know if I captured any of it in my other photos, I noticed that there was a lot of use of Hangul-as-design at the Olympics. After decades of seeing English used as a fashion accessory, it’s kind of refreshing to see the Korean script of Hangul being used as a design element.
One of the highlights of the Pyeongchang Olympic Park was our visit to the “Superstore.” This is crass commercialism at its best, of course, but it also contributed to making the games the financial success it apparently has been. And I must admit that there was a lot of neat stuff in there. The first thing that caught my eye when we entered was a large fish tank filled with some unique fish.
That’s right: robot fish. So when the robots finally take over, they will have something nice to look at and might not spend all their time eviscerating humans. Smart move. HJ was soon attracted to something else, though: a game where you stood in front of a screen and tried to adopt various poses (usually based on an Olympic event) being demonstrated by one of the Olympic mascots. In the picture here, I believe HJ is imitating the pose of a super G skier tumbling down the mountainside. (I think it actually might have been figure skating.)
After trying a number of different poses, she was scored by the judges and ended up in 32nd place overall. She seemed to be a little disappointed by her performance, but I assured her that she had done quite well for her first Olympic appearance.
We spent some time walking around the store, which was filled with people, but elected not to buy anything, as we didn’t want to add to what we were already carrying around. We left the store and continued on through the park, arriving at the stadium where the opening and closing ceremonies were held. In front of the stadium was this colorful and weird sculpture, which I guess is supposed to represent the five colors of the Olympics (which in turn represent the continents and people participating in the games) coming together as one, but it looked more like what Salvador Dali might have come up with had you tasked him with designing an Olympic logo (and given him several tabs of acid to help with inspiration). To the left in the picture here is the stadium, with the superstore to the right.
Turning right after the superstore led us to a gradual incline that eventually brought us around to the rear of the stadium and the Olympic torch itself, which was probably the most impressive sight in the entire park. The design is quite interesting, and calls to mind the traditional Korean white ceramic “moon jars.” I know the stadium itself is slated to be torn down, but the torch itself stands right outside the stadium; I wonder if it is going to be left standing as a monument to the games. That would be nice, I think.
Once we had seen the torch, we had seen about all there was to see in the park. There was the awards stage, where athletes were awarded their medals, but there were no ceremonies while we were there. Instead, there was a quartet singing famous opera songs—and doing so quite well, I have to say. We spent a little time watching them, and then we headed back toward the entrance, through the circle of flags, and out of the park. We followed a side street that had been decorated with hanging lights and lined with speakers inexplicably blasting rap music. I think it was called “Festival Street” or something like that—all I really remember is that it started to give me a headache. I was more interested in some murals that had been painted on buildings lining side alleys branching off from this street, including a mural featuring the two Olympic mascots, Suhorang and Bandabi.
Now, you may notice that the way that I spelled the tiger’s name and the way that it is written on beneath the mural are different. For some reason, the organizers of the games decided that the one Korean vowel they were going to change from standard romanization was the long “u” sound. According to the Korean government romanization system (and the McCune-Reischauer system as well, in fact), the single vowel “u” is used to represent this sound. Why change this to “oo”? Did they think people were somehow going to mispronounce “Suho” or “Jinbu” (which was spelled “Jinboo,” by the way)? I might understand this if they wanted to use a single “u” for Pyungchang, as “eo” doesn’t look anything like the sound it represents, but as everyone knows, they did not do this. If you’re wondering why I’m getting so worked up about this very minor thing, it is because my Korean name is “Suho,” and I certainly don’t spell it “Sooho.” So I’m going to spell the tiger’s name “Suhorang,” and that’s that. Sometimes you just have to take a stand.
Anyway, we made our way back to the main street and then set about finding something to eat for lunch, as it was already past noon. My stomach was not feeling too well (McDonald’s revenge, perhaps), so we wanted something warm that would go down easy. We found it: dried pollack soup, or hwangtaeguk.
It was quite a filling meal, and in addition to the soup the banchan (side dishes) were excellent. I especially liked the kimchi—I honestly can’t remember the last time I had really good kimchi in a restaurant. Maybe I’m just not a fan of Seoul-style kimchi? Most of the kimchi you get in restaurants in Seoul is just meh.
After lunch we headed back toward the shuttle for the trip to Gangneung, passing along the way a “snow festival” that looked like it had seen better days. It was still quite impressive, with a lot of snow sculptures and architecture, but you could tell that they had already started to deteriorate.
A long row of flags lined the street running alongside the festival site, but these flags were not the flags of all nations. No, they were the United Korea flag, showing the entirety of the Korean peninsula in sky blue on white.
This flag is actually slightly different from the United Korea flag that the Koreas marched under in the opening ceremony—that flag lacked the rightmost blue dot, which represents the islets known as Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese, and the Liancourt Rocks in English. Since the islets are disputed territory between Korea and Japan, the IOC forbade their representation on the flag. In fairness, neither Ulleung-do nor Dok-do are as big in real life as they are depicted here; at this scale, Ulleung-do would be a tiny dot, and Dok-do would not be visible at all. But their presence here is symbolic as opposed to being an accurate representation of reality.
The trip to Gangneung didn’t take nearly as long as the trip from Jinbu Station, but it did require us to transfer buses two times. We took a short ride to a park-and-ride terminal (that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere), from where we took another shuttle to North Gangneung, and then one final shuttle to the Gangneung Olympic Park.
The Olympic Park in Gangneung is a lot more impressive than the one in Pyeongchang. (In fact, I couldn’t help wondering why it was called the Pyeongchang Olympics and not the Gangneung Olympics. Gangneung is a much bigger city, and all the skating and ice-based events (including curling and hockey) were held in Gangneung. The skiing and sliding events were held at various venues in Pyeongchang and Jeongseon.) It is much bigger, for one, and there seems to be a lot more going on there. We stopped in first at Team Korea House, where we had to wait briefly in line to get in. The first thing you see when you get inside is a display showing the gold, silver, and bronze medals, which is probably as close as I will ever get to an Olympic medal in my life.
I thought that there might be exhibits about the Korean athletes, but it turned out to be more of an introduction to Korea itself, focusing on some of the things that Korea is known for (or would like to be known for). On one side was a hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) dressing room and a K-Pop dance room. HJ got in line for the latter, but when she saw how challenging it was going to be—it was one of those dancing games where you have to follow the moves and poses on screen, but set to K-Pop—she wimped out. (I, of course, did not even entertain a whisper of a thought of trying it.) On the other side was a “Korean culture experience” room that featured Hangul and other elements of Korean culture, and the last room was called “Medical Korea.” This may seem like an odd thing to focus on, but Korea is actually a very popular destination for medical tourism.
There wasn’t much that we felt compelled to see or do in there—it seemed to be aimed more at foreign visitors—so we went back outside and passed by the Gangneung Hockey Centre, where we would be seeing the playoff match later. We didn’t actually know which teams we would be seeing until we actually got to Gangneung and decided to check. Since it was a playoff game, the participants weren’t decided in advance. We knew that our two options were Germany vs. Switzerland and Korea vs. Finland, but we didn’t know which was being held at the Gangneung Hockey Centre and which was being held at the Gwandong Hockey Centre (which is elsewhere in town and not in the Olympic Park). HJ was hoping for the former, as she didn’t want to see Korea get destroyed by Finland, but I was hoping it would be the latter. Sure, nobody expected Korea to win, but if we were going to see a match, wouldn’t it be nice to root for the home team? As it turned out, it was the Korea-Finland match that was to be played in the Gangneung Hockey Centre, so I got my wish.
One thing we noticed as we walked around the park was how many people from other countries were there—and how many of them were really decked out for the games. A lot of people simply wore shirts or hats with their country’s name on it, but some people went all out, like the American fans we saw taking a picture with one of the volunteers.
We saw another guy walking around in a vest completely covered in pins and badges, but I didn’t manage to get a picture of him. Apparently this is a thing, though; on the bus from Jinbu Station, I saw an American fan and a Japanese fan exchanging Olympic trinkets they had brought for that purpose. I guess people travel to the games and try to get as many badges, pins, and trinkets from other countries as they can.
As we neared the superstore, we saw a parade coming along the main path, led by trumpeters in traditional garb and including drummers, other traditional instruments, some dancers, and a float at the end with Suhorang waving to the crowd.
There were a lot of sculptures scattered around the park as well, such as this huge skating sculpture. Here, I think HJ is imitating a speed skater, as opposed to doing that thing that all the kids do these days and the name of which I cannot remember for the life of me.
You’ll notice the superstore in the background, with a huge Bandabi welcoming customers. What you may not have noticed is that all those people standing in front of the store are actually on a long, snaking line that wraps back and forth several times. Needless to say, we did not even consider trying to get in.
This is another sculpture, located toward the south end of the park. It was at this point that we turned around and walked back to the north entrance, where we had first come in. The hockey match wasn’t scheduled to start until after nine o’clock, which meant we had plenty of time to kill (we had originally hoped to fill that time with an event in Pyeongchang, as I wrote above). So we decided to take a taxi to the nearby coast and the famous Gyeongpo Beach. I’ve been to the beach a few times, but it’s been years since my last visit. The last time I was there was for a conference, and I sat on the beach at midnight and drank beer with a friend of mine whom I haven’t seen in years, either.
On the ride over to the beach, we talked with the taxi driver about the Olympics. When HJ mentioned that tickets seemed hard to come by, the taxi driver said that a certain government official (one whose name I will not mention here, but who stuck his foot in his mouth—twice—on Olympic matters before the games started) had coerced a lot of major companies to buy blocks of tickets, as the government apparently feared that they would not be able to sell enough tickets. As a result, there were a lot of empty seats when people from those companies didn’t show up. According to the taxi driver, heads would roll once the Olympics were over. The idea that the government would “encourage” companies to buy tickets en masse—regardless of whether those seats would eventually be filled—strikes me as plausible, although I wonder how many heads will actually roll. As I mentioned above, the Pyeongchang Olympics appears to be one of the very few financially successful games, and no doubt the mass purchase of tickets by companies was an important factor in that.
At any rate, when we arrived at the beach, we found it filled with people. The very first thing we saw was a sculpture of the Olympic rings, with a line of people waiting to have their photograph taken in front of it.
I thought it was more interesting to take a picture of the rings and the line; I didn’t notice until later that I also captured a sunglassed policewoman staring bemusedly at me.
If you’re wondering, the pile of wood at the right of the above photo is a sculpture; the beach was littered with these, presumably installed for the Olympics. I have no idea how long they are going to be up, but they did make for a very interesting stroll down the coast. I took photos of a bunch of them, but I’ll only share a few here, like the giant wooden skull near the entrance to the beach.
Of course, for as interesting as the sculptures were, the winter sea is also a sight to see.
The sight in the next photo was a bit of a surprise. As we approached it, HJ wondered aloud if it was a statue of Kim Jong-Eun, but I thought it looked more like Chairman Mao. As we got closer we saw that it was indeed Mao, and we walked around to see Karl Marx as well. The final figure in the trio is Lenin. We were a bit flabbergasted at seeing an installation so openly celebrating Communist and socialist heroes. It turned out to have been done by a Chinese artist, but still—not the sort of thing I would expect to see on a beach in South Korea, where Communism is still a very touchy subject.
I took the next photo from inside one of the sculptures, a piece called “Breathe” that was made from straw and looked like a cross between a Hershey’s Kiss and a smurf house. I call this composition: “On the Inside Looking Out.”
Here is a shot along the beach facing south, giving more of the bigger picture. The swing seats on the right provided a nice resting alternative to benches, and we did indeed sit down on one of them for a few minutes, as walking through sand can be tiring.
Just inland from the coast is Gyeongpo Lake, and we crossed the thin strip of land dividing them to look out over the water. The hotel to the right is a new development since my last visit; the smaller buildings at the far end of the lake are a collection of smaller hotels, bars, restaurants, and night clubs.
One thing that the beach at Gangneung is famous for is sea pines, which I captured here.
After a long walk we finally reached the southern end of the beach and Sotdae Bridge, a pedestrian bridge that crosses over an estuary to a small neighborhood of restaurants, most of them serving sushi and sashimi.
We thought about having sashimi for dinner, but it was still a little bit early, so we turned inland and walked to a park commemorating Heo Gyun and Heo Nanseolheon, two important literary figures in Korea, and brother and sister. Below is a traditional house that was listed as the “site of Heo Nanseolheon’s birthplace” (“saenga teo” in Korean), which indicates that it is a recreation of the house and not the original house itself.
By the time we were finished looking around the park the sun was sinking toward the western horizon and we were very tired from all the walking we had done. We thought about stopping at one of the restaurants along the way back to the beach, but when we did go into one we were told that the entire place had been booked out for dinner. So we walked back to Sotdae Bridge and went into one of the sashimi places.
This is what is known as “tsukidashi,” or dishes that accompany the main course. That main course is generally sashimi, or what is called “hoe” (pronounced like “hway”) in Korean. Yet every Korean hoe restaurant I’ve been in has used the Japanese word “tsukidashi” to describe these dishes. At any rate, there is a lot of good stuff here, including oysters, shrimp, sea snails, cockles, sea squirts, and two pieces of sushi. There was also some nice, crispy tempura and other dishes that hadn’t made it out to the table when I took this photograph.
This was the main course, a lovely plate of raw rockfish. Normally, a meal like this is served in stages, with the tsukidashi coming out little by little and then the hoe coming out after significant progress has been made on the smaller dishes. We mentioned to the owner that we were hoping to finish by seven o’clock so we could get back to the Olympic Park in plenty of time, though, and he ensured that everything appeared with alacrity. This meant that we were sampling all of the dishes at once, but that was fine by me. We did indeed finish right around seven o’clock, and we had all the energy we would need to cheer for the Korean hockey team.
We hoped to be able to take a taxi straight from the restaurant, but when we discussed the possibility of calling a taxi with the girl who was serving us, she said that none of the taxi services were answering their phones—apparently they had enough business without reservations. She recommended that we try heading out to the main street and seeing if we could catch a taxi there. We did, passing the Sotdae Bridge once again, now lit up in the dark.
When we got to the corner, we waited for about a couple of minutes to see if a taxi would come by. I remembered seeing a taxi dropping someone off at that spot earlier, but for some reason there now seemed to be little traffic. I suppose we could have waited around, but we were itching to get back to the park, so we started walking back toward the entrance to the beach. Fortunately, we were able to catch a taxi along the way and made it back to Olympic Park well before eight o’clock.
As we began walking through the park, we heard amplified singing, but it wasn’t a concert—it was definitely amateurish and somewhat painful to listen to. Like moths drawn to a flame, though, we sought out the source, and we found ourselves standing in front of “North Face Village,” a combination store/attraction set up for the North Face brand of outdoor wear. By the time we arrived and entered the “village,” the off-tune culprits had been replaced by a pretty young girl who began to sing beautifully. She, the young man on the guitar who was accompanying her, and a crowd of people were sitting around a fire in the center of the village.
The man in the red jacket was the MC, and after the girl finished singing he introduced the young man on the guitar—a busker that the MC claimed he had encountered by chance earlier in the day. Even more incredibly, he said that the girl was an employee of the store (as was he, of course). The whole scene—the blazing fire, the cozy guitar-led sing-along around it, and the tents glowing a warm yellow in the background—seemed like a scene from a film or a commercial. After we left, we talked about the experience, and HJ and I were both convinced that what we had witnessed had in fact been a type of commercial, an elaborately staged “experience” to draw people into the village and the store. You want me to believe that the MC (who was a complete natural at the mic, by the way) just randomly ran into a busker and decided to bring him along? Where exactly did he meet this busker? He certainly wasn’t anywhere near the park, not with all the security. And the girl? No one who looks like that and sings like that is just an employee of an outdoor-wear store.
Here’s the funny thing, though—for as cynical as I may sound now, and even though HJ and I both agreed that the whole thing had to have been staged, at the time we didn’t care. Was it fake? Yeah, sure. But it was also romantic and heart-warming, an oasis of warmth and light (and not just in the physical sense) in the midst of the surrounding darkness. We enjoyed it even as we knew it wasn’t “real.” In the end, if it made people happy, does it matter if it wasn’t spontaneous and thus “authentic”?
Truth be told, the Olympics as a whole are like this. The whole world comes together for a few weeks and pretends that it isn’t being torn apart by strife and conflict, that people aren’t killing other people because of what they believe or what they look like, and that we really can join together in unity and celebrate the triumph of human will and spirit. I know that the Olympics are problematic. I know that there is rampant corruption, widespread doping, and political bickering and infighting. But maybe, just for a little while at least, I want to believe that those ideals espoused by the Olympics really are within our reach—even if the reality I see around me says differently.
And lest I get carried away with my lofty ideals, here is a photograph of the only branded restaurant in the Olympic Park.
You can see the tower on the right in the background of the previous picture, although you might have mistaken it for another piece of architectural art. Well, I guess it still might be. For as crass and blatant as this is—it appears to be an architectural realization of a burger, fries, and soft drink—I still think it looks kind of cool. I think it is also probably the first time I have ever seen people waiting on line to get into a McDonald’s.
We made our way back toward the superstore, hoping that the line had become more reasonable, but our hopes were dashed—there was still a long, snaking rope of people waiting to get in. We did get in line, but after five minutes we came to our senses and walked off. With the time we had left before the hockey match, we decided to walk down toward the southern end of the park and check out the “live site.” This is a great, open area with two gigantic screens displaying live events, and when we got there we saw a small crowd of people watching speed skating, which was taking place in the arena a few hundred meters to the north. I suppose if you are waiting for another event and have time to kill, there are worse things to do, and we stood there among the gathered few and watched the races for a little while. Toward the back of the site there was a long, curving building that contained exhibitions from various regions in the province, but we did not go into any of them.
As nine o’clock drew closer, we decided to saunter back toward the Hockey Centre. We passed the broadcast booth for the Today show (pictured above), and then made our way toward where they were scanning tickets. One poor foreigner was trying to buy “tickets, any tickets” from passersby. Too bad those companies who were forced to buy blocks of tickets weren’t there—I think they could have made a tidy profit from scalping.
Once inside the arena, we bought two cups of hot chocolate (which turned out to be remarkably unimpressive) from a concession stand and then went in to find our seats. We were in the second to last row at one end, which seems pretty far away, but we still had a good view of the ice. This is the view from our seats, as we watched the Zamboni prepare the playing surface. Note the nearly empty section of seats behind the net at the other end—that section remained just as empty throughout the entire game. There was another smaller section to the left of us (not visible in the picture) that was completely empty, lending credence to the idea that it was bought out in a block.
And this is the opening face-off, won by Finland—as were over three-quarters of the face-offs for the entire game.
The mood was tense as play started, or maybe that was just the girl sitting behind me, who apparently had never seen a hockey game in her life and alternated between high-pitched shrieks of “No! No!” every time a Finnish player touched the puck and whining like an emo banshee about how good the Finns were. Across the aisle to my left was a very enthusiastic man who proclaimed everything the Korean team did to be “nice!” And, without fail, every time a Korean player touched the puck in the Finnish end, he would yell out, “Shoot!” He even did this when, at one point, a Korean forward snagged the puck behind Finland’s net. It got so annoying that I took to following his proclamations with shouts of “No, don’t shoot!” in situations when it was clearly not an ideal time to shoot. Neither Mr. Nice nor the players took any notice, but it did make me feel a little better.
It was clear from the start that Korea were outmatched by Finland, and after only a few minutes of play an unfortunate penalty gave the Finns a power play. They dutifully scored, and Korea fell behind 1-0. It could have been worse, but when the horn sounded to end the first period, the future did not look too bright. Although Korea were only down a goal, they had clearly been outplayed, with five shots on goal to the Finns’ 14, and losing face-offs 13-2. Racking up two penalties didn’t help matters, either.
I suppose I should be honest about my expectations going into the game: I expected Korea to lose, and I expected it to be a rather bloody defeat. I was rooting for them, of course, and I wanted to see them do well, but I told myself that I would be happy with a single goal—as long as they didn’t get shut out, it would be OK. After watching the first period, though, I wasn’t optimistic. Yes, Korea did have five shots on goal, but none of those shots were really threats—they were almost entirely long-distance desperation shots that failed to produce any rebounds or other chances.
Things indeed looked grim in the second period, with another power play goal early on from Finland followed by a full-strength goal to make it 3-0 before the halfway point of the game. But the Koreans didn’t give up. They played hard, and they brought the game into Finland’s end—which, thanks to a bit of luck, happened to be our end of the ice.
Then something magical happened: Korea scored, and the crowd went wild. I know it’s a cliché, but we did really go wild. Everyone jumped up and began screaming—even the wailing of the banshee was lost in the ecstasy. Amazingly enough, that was not all the home team had in store for us; only a couple minutes later, they scored again, and suddenly the score was 3-2. When the second period ended, Korea had skated Finland to a draw, matching them shot for shot (each team had 12 shots on goal) and goal for goal. Korea still got the short end of the face-off stick, 17-7, but as the horn sounded a Finnish player got a penalty for roughing, which meant that Korea would start the third period with a power play. Wait a minute, I thought. Might we actually have a chance here? The rational part of my mind told me that it was still going to be an uphill struggle, but the hockey fan part of my mind was ready to throw my arm over Mr. Nice’s shoulder and exhort the Korean team to shoot at every opportunity.
During the break between periods, a fan was interviewed by a roving reporter, and he prognosticated that Korea would score two goals in the third period and win the game. I though that was a little optimistic, but why not? Surely it wasn’t impossible. Not everyone had that same faith, though, apparently—I was absolutely stunned to see people getting up and leaving the arena in droves after the second period ended. Why? Why would you watch two periods and then leave just as the home team is on the verge of a comeback? It boggles the mind. But the banshee was among those to leave, though, so I guess it all evened out in the end.
I was on the edge of my seat at the start of the final period, but Korea squandered their power play, and a few minutes later they gave Finland a power play of their own—which the Finns did not squander. The clock seemed to speed up, and the game felt like it was slipping away. With two minutes left to go, Korea pulled their heroic keeper, former Canadian Matt Dalton, and went on a man-advantage with an empty net. They failed to turn this advantage into any scoring chances, though, and spent the majority of that final two minutes scrambling in an attempt to keep the puck out of their own net. With six seconds left to go, Finland scored the final goal, and that was it.
In the end, the second period was a flash of brilliance that unfortunately could not be sustained. In the third period, Korea were outshot 10-2 and lost face-offs 11-3, and of course they were outscored 2-0. But they have a lot to be proud of. In the end, the Finns were held to a single goal at full strength—three of their goals were power-play goals, and the final goal was on an empty net. That’s an achievement in and of itself. And the second period truly was brilliant, even if it didn’t turn out to be enough. When the teams had shaken hands and the Finns left the ice, the Koreans brought out flags and skated around to a standing ovation, which I of course joined.
Very few people who stayed to the end of the game were in a hurry to leave, except for maybe the Finnish fans, and some of them stuck around as well, applauding the hard-fighting Korean team. HJ and I went down closer to the ice as the Koreans lined up and bowed to the fans on all side.
Finally, they turned toward their bench and bowed to their coach. We saw him on the big screen as tears of pride began to roll down his face, and I have to admit that I felt a little emotional, too. Korea, of course, are no hockey powerhouse, and they got crushed in group play (they made it to the playoffs because every team was in the playoffs), but in their final game they played their hearts out and gave us something to cheer for. What more can you ask for?
As we left the arena, HJ and I discussed the game and our experience. HJ couldn’t stop talking about how exciting the game was, and how exciting it was to see hockey live. We’ve been to live football (or soccer, if you must) and baseball games, and she hasn’t found either sport all that exciting, but hockey was apparently different. I was pleased, of course—at heart, I will always be a hockey player (never a good one, though, mind you) and a hockey fan, and I think it would be great if we could catch some games in the future.
It was about a quarter to midnight when we found ourselves back out in the night and following the flow of the crowds past the live site and out the south gate. There were signs pointing toward shuttle buses going to Gangneung Station, but there was also a sign saying that the distance could be walked in fifteen minutes, while the bus would take a half hour. That seemed a bit odd, but we trusted the sign not to lie to us, and we still had plenty of time before our train, so we decided to walk through the bracing night. It turns out that the walk is quicker because it cuts through a park, while the buses have to go around. What they don’t tell you is that the park is built around a hill, and the path goes up and over that hill, so we had a bit of a hike to end our day. It was an interesting walk, though, with lantern sculptures depicting various aspects of traditional Korean culture, like these two performers.
It was about five minutes after midnight when we arrived at Gangneung Station. Our train—the last train for the day—left at one o’clock, which meant we had plenty of time to kill. There was a midnight train, but we didn’t know exactly when the game would end (it could have gone into overtime) and we didn’t know how long it would take to get to the train station. And I don’t think I would have wanted to rush out of the arena right after the game anyway; I’m glad we stuck around to applaud the players and see their final bows.
There was a small convenience store in the station, and while HJ went to get us seats in the waiting area, I bought two warm quince-and-ginger teas to soothe our sore throats (from all the shouting and screaming, of course). Then we sat there, quietly drinking our tea and looking up at the architecture of the station.
When I was finished with my tea, though, I began to grow restless, and I went outside to see if there was anything around that might be open. I did a circuit of the neighborhood and, perhaps not too surprisingly, found nothing suitable. So I went back to the station and killed the remaining time by doing chess puzzles on my phone (the only “game” I allow myself on my phone).
Soon enough, though, it was one o’clock, and we boarded the train bound for home. Shortly after we found our seats, a boisterous group of Germans got onto the train and sat down in front of us. I asked them how they did, and they informed us that Germany had beaten Switzerland 2-1 in overtime (I watched Germany’s gold medal match against Russia last Sunday; it was quite a game, but a heartbreaker if you were rooting for the Germans). Naturally, they were elated about this, but I was surprised when they pulled out a large plastic bottle of soju and started pouring it into paper cups. They drank quite a bit and got very noisy and rambunctious, and any hopes I had of catching a little sleep on the train were dashed. They were so loud that, at one point, an attendant came over and politely—too politely, in my opinion—asked them to be quiet. They promised to keep it down, but then immediately got noisy again once the attendant left. I imagine that the Korean staff didn’t want to make a fuss during the Olympics with so many foreign visitors in the country, which is why the Germans were able to get away with drinking soju on a train and annoying everyone else in the car. They did get off a half hour outside of Seoul, but by that time I was well awake and annoyed, and I did not get any sleep in that last thirty minutes.
We arrived at Cheongnyangni Station in the north of Seoul at 2:30. Although we used to live in the area and visit the station often, this was the first time I had been there since we moved south of the river. We didn’t stick around, of course, and quickly walked out the front entrance into the cold. We had originally considered crashing at a jjimjjilbang (sort of a spa-sauna kind of thing, and generally open 24 hours a day) and then catching the subway back home in the morning, but we were both incredibly tired and we knew we would get no real sleep at the jjimjjilbang, however tempting the idea of soaking in hot water and crawling into a dry sauna sounded after a day spent in the cold of Pyeongchang and Gangneung. We didn’t have to debate the matter long, though, as we were approached by a taxi driver asking us where we were going. I will admit that I have a stubborn skepticism of taxi drivers waiting at stations, and I asked him if we would be on the meter, even though I know that this is law now and every taxi operates that way. The ride would still be very expensive, of course, as the rates are different in the middle of the night. It would have been cheaper to go to a jjimjjilbang, but our exhaustion made the decision for us.
So, after a very long but very fun day, we took a taxi home, and we were in bed by 3:30. I woke up the next day feeling like I had a hangover, despite not having touched a drop of alcohol, and I realized that I was severely dehydrated. I ended up being useless for much of the day, but it was still worth it. Hmm. Maybe it’s time to start planning for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo?