The best ticket at the Pyeongchang Games? It's at the short track
GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- In the eighth heat of the women's 500-meter event Saturday night, South Korean favorite Choi Minjeong sat in third (only the first two finishers would qualify for the next round) with about two laps to go. The anxious noise of roughly 12,000 fans inside Gangneung Ice Arena began to build into a shrill panic. But the 19-year-old world champion kept waiting. Then, in the penultimate lap, Choi launched a breathtaking outside pass going into a turn, tracing an effortless, wide arc around her competition.
It was the kind of maneuver only the best and most confident short-track racers are capable of, and the crowd erupted with delight. Teenage girls jumped up and down. People instinctively rose to their feet. The fact that the three women Choi left in her wake soon wrecked into the side padding barely registered over the cheers for Choi, who finished with a new Olympic record of 42.870 seconds.
There is a lightness in the midsection when one sees a perfectly executed pass in short-track speedskating -- the stalk, the set-up and then, when the tension of the buildup feels as if it might strangle you, the quicksilver acceleration into space. Upon watching Choi's move, it seemed that 12,000 people experienced that sensation, that weightlessness in the gut, in unison. It felt as if, for a moment, there was no gravity left in the arena and the whole place might come off its foundation and rise, hovering in the night above Gangneung like an immense pearl, a visiting spacecraft from another world.
Like Copacabana for beach volleyball at the 2016 Rio Games or the cycling Velodrome at the 2012 London Olympics, discerning fans and journalists knew Gangneung Ice Arena was going to be the mecca of the Pyeongchang Olympics. It was going to be the short-track speedskating site where home fans would dispense with Olympic piety and celebrate on their own terms, where the host country would dominate the event and create a cauldron of pressure and raucous, joyful noise.
On its opening night at these Games, short track proved to be much more than the best party around for the next fortnight: You come for the celebration and get a bit of religion too.
South Korea is fanatical about the sport. Forty-three of South Korea's 54 Winter Olympic medals and 22 of its 27 golds have come in short track, and, on both counts, it is far ahead of any other country.
In a sport in which jostling and crashes are part of the fun, South Korean fans haven't responded kindly when their athletes are on the losing end of controversial decisions or high-speed mishaps. Elise Christie, the British speedskater who set a new Olympic record in the 500 just a few minutes before Choi's brilliant race broke that record, received death threats in 2014 after she collided with South Korea's Park Seung-Hi in the 500 final in Sochi.
"I don't think I've ever felt so nervous on the start line," Christie said to journalists after her heat this past weekend.
"It's amazing to skate for 12,000 people in a place like this," said Sjinkie Knegt of the Netherlands, who captured the silver medal in the men's 1,500, just behind South Korea's Lim Hyo-Jun, winner of his country's first medal at these Games.
The athletes have been thinking about competing in front of this passionate Korean audience for some time. Last September in Park City, Utah, John-Henry Krueger, who was eliminated in his 1,500 semifinal heat opening night, talked with excitement about the knowledge of Korean short-track fans. "Certain moves are going to be made, and they're just going to go wild for them," he said. "They bring the best energy every time you race in front of them."
The atmosphere hasn't disappointed.
The opening night festivities started about 20 minutes before the first heat, when Dynamic Duo, South Korea's most popular homegrown hip-hop act, mounted a small stage at one end of the arena and ran through a medley that included "Uptown Funk." At intermission, there was a brass band that, at one point, attempted a rendition of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg's "The Next Episode." South Korean President Moon Jae-in, anticipating his country's first medal, arrived about halfway through the event with American Vice President Mike Pence in tow.
No one could take their eyes off the contingent of North Korean cheerleaders, who have made various appearances at events here in Pyeongchang. During one intermission, I walked to the corner of the stadium where the cheerleaders were seated. They sat, wearing red from the neck down, swaying and clapping in unison, leading songs and chants, smiles never wavering.
Security guards futilely tried to clear the section, putting their hands over people's cell phone lenses and politely shoving loiterers along. I managed to stay long enough to ask one photographer what the cheerleaders had just finished singing. He said something in Korean, and I asked him to write it down for me in my notepad. He wrote in Korean and, underneath, in English, "ban-gab-seub-nida."
He looked back up at me, "They're singing, 'It is nice to meet you.'"
Certain moves are going to be made, and they're just going to go wild for them. They bring the best energy every time you race in front of them.U.S. skater John-Henry Krueger on the knowledge of Korean short-track fans
The only thing missing from the show was Viktor Ahn. The Court of Arbitration for Sport's decision to uphold the ban of 47 Russian athletes and coaches on Feb. 8 has eliminated what would have been one of these Games' great spectacles: the sight of Viktor Ahn, born Ahn Hyun-soo in Seoul, racing against (and in front of) his former countrymen.
An injury and a falling out with the Korean Skating Union in 2010 left Ahn, who won three golds and a bronze at the 2006 Torino Games, in search of a new country. In 2011, he controversially joined the Russian Federation and took on his new name. He won three golds and a bronze in Sochi, an Olympics from which South Korea's men came home empty for the first time. Along with Apollo Ohno, Ahn is the most decorated short-track Olympian, with eight medals (he has six golds to Ohno's two).
Ahn, who has never failed a drug test, would have competed in Pyeongchang as an Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR), racing in a stateless limbo, able to represent neither the country of his birth nor that of his adoption.
He seemed very much on people's minds. Lim Hyo-Jun, the 1,500 gold medalist, and bronze medalist Semen Elistratov (OAR) both spoke about Ahn after the final. "Viktor told me I could do this," Lim said, appearing moved by what he had just accomplished. "I want to thank him for this win, too."
But nothing could hinder the drama of the races themselves. All of short track's high-wire pleasures are on display: The sheer violence and suddenness with which the crashes occur; the loud bang-thud of racers skidding out into the side padding that encircles the rink; the strange silence that begins each race and lasts while the skaters position themselves and strategize the frenetic final laps; the gasp of the crowd each time it happens, the speed of it all. And positioned against all that frenzy, the tranquil command of South Korea's Hwang Dae-heon, the gold-medal favorite who dominated the heats of the 1,500, serenely gliding past his peers and earning cheers each time. (After he crashed out in the final, I saw him stride past the press, stunned, face and body rigid, beads of sweat suspended on his face, staring into the middle distance.)
The night peaked with the first semifinal heat of the women's 3,000 relay, a 27-lap race navigated by four women from each nation. Early on, the historically dominant South Korean women had a fall, just rescued when one of them grasped the hand of her sprawled teammate to complete the tag. But time had been lost, too much it seemed. Yet lap by lap, the South Koreans gained ground, erasing a quarter-lap-or-more deficit and catching their Canadian, Hungarian and Russian rivals.
Every lap after the fall was louder than the next. I'd describe it as a roar, but it was an octave or so higher than that, a noise from the back of the throat where the inhalation of a gasp becomes the exhalation of a shout. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I couldn't believe what I was feeling. I suddenly found myself wanting this comeback to happen as badly as any South Korean. My hands flew up to cover my mouth, and as the South Korean women surged into the lead, I started to cry. They finished with a new Olympic record.