PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Leave it to Minnesotans to accept a weather-related challenge, even at the Olympic Games.
With temperatures loitering in the single digits for more than a week, that standard Midwestern question — cold enough for ya? — was being asked in many languages all around Pyeongchang. The frigid weather remained the hottest topic surrounding Friday’s Opening Ceremony, even after a norovirus outbreak and the arrival of athletes from North Korea. On Thursday morning, as the first Olympic competitions began in the city of Gangneung, the temperature in the mountains was 9 degrees, with a windchill of minus-4.
Some countries were urging athletes to skip the Opening Ceremony. South Korean media reported that tickets were being returned by spectators, wary of the biting wind that makes for especially bitter conditions in Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium. But after two Winter Olympics that were glaringly short on winter, Minnesota’s athletes responded: Bring it on.
“We’re racing on a golf course [in Pyeongchang], and it’s super cold,” said Jessie Diggins, a cross-country skier from Afton. “I could not ask for more. This is awesome.”
That word was oft repeated throughout the day Wednesday, as 2,925 athletes from 92 countries flowed into a polished and prepared city. Despite all the conversation about the weather, it didn’t cool the enthusiasm for the first Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Pyeongchang’s two sets of venues — one nestled into the mountains, the other hugging the coast in Gangneung — dazzled. A legion of 15,000 volunteers ran things with military precision.
On Gangneung’s tidy streets, vendors sold sweet buns and skewered meats from tents, their grills sizzling in the frosty air.
South Korea has been eager to impress the thousands of visitors coming for the second Olympics in the country’s history, after the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. In addition to an operating budget of $2.6 billion, it has spent another $10 billion on venues and infrastructure, including a new high-speed train line from Seoul.
So far, it has avoided the kinds of major issues that dogged the 2016 Rio Summer Games and the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
While there have been some political controversies — not everyone is on board with the decision to march with North Korea under a single flag at the Opening Ceremony — there is no Zika virus, no unfinished accommodations, no filthy water and no rampant street crime. And the cold weather has created good conditions at snow and ice venues, in contrast to the warmth that left athletes competing on slush in Sochi and at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Hannah Brandt of Vadnais Heights, who plays for the U.S. women’s hockey team, already has picked up some Korean words — including chubda, which means “cold.” Her sister, Marissa, was born in South Korea and is playing for its women’s hockey team. The two have enjoyed walking around the athletes’ village, sampling Korean snack foods and trying on the hanbok, the traditional garment worn by Korean women.
“The people are awesome,” Brandt said. “They’re so friendly and nice. I’m excited to meet more of them. It’s cool to be here to experience the culture firsthand.”
There had been some concern about slow ticket sales, but they were said to be picking up Wednesday, with 78 percent of inventory sold. The crowd for the first competition — Thursday morning’s opening session of mixed doubles curling — started out a bit sparse, then steadily filled in with South Koreans wearing tiny flags on their heads like antennae.
On Wednesday night in Gangneung, much of the focus was on the news that Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, will attend the Opening Ceremony.
In a snug restaurant, people dining on boneless chicken feet and spicy sea-snail salad watched extensive TV coverage about the North’s participation in these Olympics.
Its decision to send 22 athletes calmed fears of North Korean aggression during the Games, and the two countries will march together at the Opening Ceremony under a unified flag.
Many South Koreans remain suspicious of Kim’s motives and have mixed feelings about the symbolic gesture.
That didn’t seem to affect the mood they showed their guests, many of whom arrived at the airport to applause from a gauntlet of volunteers.
“We’ve been really well taken care of,” Diggins said. “I’m really impressed. All the volunteers are beyond nice, and so willing to help. It’s just been a really cool atmosphere so far.”
Or, more accurately, a cold one. As local officials helpfully urged Olympic visitors to “remember to wear warm clothing,” they displayed the gear they planned to hand out to the 35,000 people expected for the Opening Ceremony. They already know how bitter it can be in the open-air stadium, a temporary structure located in the mountains; at a pop-music concert in November, six people were treated for hypothermia.
Spectators will receive warming packets for hands and feet, a stocking cap, a poncho and a seat cushion. The American athletes will have a little more protection from the elements. The jackets they will wear — designed by Ralph Lauren — have a touch that the technologically minded South Koreans could appreciate: battery-powered heaters.
The Minnesota contingent was excited to try them out, though they insisted they didn’t need such gadgetry.
“Ralph definitely took care of us,” said women’s hockey player Gigi Marvin, a Warroad native. “But we’re going to be totally OK. I mean, it’s warmer than it is in Warroad.’’