Pyeongchang 2018

Moral victories not enough: Diggins fifth in skiathlon

Moral victories not enough: Diggins fifth in skiathlon

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The U.S. racer Jessie Diggins finished fifth Saturday in the women’s skiathlon. That marked the best individual finish for an American in an Olympic cross-country ski race since 1976, when Bill Koch took silver — still the only medal the United States has won in the discipline.

It is a measure of the expectations the American team has for these PyeongChang Games that, afterward, Diggins — golden glitter on her cheeks — was pleased but hardly elated.

Moral victories are no longer good enough.

The Americans are here for medals. Diggins’ performance Saturday hints at what should — should — be to come.

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Unified: Korea marches together at 2018 opening ceremony

Unified: Korea marches together at 2018 opening ceremony

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — On a divided peninsula marked most in its recent history by war and division, the 2018 Olympic Winter Games opened Friday night as a tribute to the powerful symbolism of the five rings, the two Koreas punctuating the colorful parade of nations by marching into Olympic Stadium together.

On a chilly evening in a stadium just 50 miles from the demilitarized zone that since the armistice in 1953 has buffered North from South, athletes and officials from the two Koreas reprised a march behind a blue-on-white flag representing a united Korea.

The two sides had marched together at the opening ceremony at three prior Games, starting in 2000 at Sydney. For the first time at an Olympics, though, North and South will compete together — unified — in women’s ice hockey. Compare: at the 1988 Seoul Summer Games, the North boycotted.

As International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach said in the lead-up to the ceremony, “The Olympic spirit is about respect, dialogue and understanding,” adding that these Games “are hopefully opening the door to a brighter future on the Korean peninsula, and inviting the world to join in a celebration of hope.”

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Of course the IOC won on the 'invites' issue

Of course the IOC won on the 'invites' issue

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — For all the angst over the timing of the decision the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport issued Friday morning in denying the appeals of 47 Russian athletes and coaches to take part in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, which — um, start Friday night — the decision itself was actually straightforward and, to be honest, easy.

As noted repeatedly in this space,  the International Olympic Committee was winning, and one could expect the IOC to keep winning.

Which it did once more Friday, temporarily perhaps putting the Russian doping saga on hold while the focus shifts to the lighting of the cauldron and, you know, the Olympic Games. 

If you're worked up about the Russians, what about A-Rod?

If you're worked up about the Russians, what about A-Rod?

Once more, the Russians. Cue the righteous if not hypocritical sanctimoniousness rooted in moral judgment for any and all of you gearing up, or already worked up, over the prospect of 169 Russians, or thereabouts, headed to PyeongChang to take part in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.

Russia! Bad! Go away!

U-S-A! U-S-A! Win, win, win! Two-four-six-eight, who do we appreciate — yay!

Are we all, each and every one of us, clear on the concept? OK.

To continue the compare and contrast, this space hereby offers for consideration:


That would be Alex Rodriguez, the former New York Yankee third baseman. Quick recap: suspended for the entire 2014 Major League Baseball season, among other doping-related dramas. 

Olympics: once more 'a symbol of hope and peace in our troubled times'

Olympics: once more 'a symbol of hope and peace in our troubled times'

On Rodney King’s gravestone at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills, it says, “Can we all get along,” a reference to Mr. King’s plea amid his early 1990s encounter with the Los Angeles Police Department. It’s a very different context but — in just so many words, that is what the Olympic movement, at its best, is all about.

To fulfill the words of the soul poet Rodney King, the movement’s No. 1 mission in our complicated world— its raison d’etre — is not just to be relevant. Or even to remain relevant. It is to assert its relevance.

Over the past many months, the movement has struggled, and mightily, with this notion. A succession of brutal headlines have caused some, if not many, to wonder about the Olympic movement’s place, beset as it has been by Russian doping, sexual abuse and misconduct scandals, skyrocketing cost overruns associated with the Games, diminishing taxpayer interest in staging future editions of the Olympics and more. 

Now, though, comes word of a remarkable breakthrough: North Korea will send athletes to February’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Figure skating friends: go big or, really, just go home

In the spring of 1974, as the well-told story goes, the music critic Jon Landau saw Bruce Springsteen play for the first time. Thereafter, in Boston’s The Real Paper, Landau wrote these now-famous words: “I saw my rock ’n’ roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.”

To be clear, there is no attempt here to draw any parallel between this space and the success, literary or otherwise, of Jon Landau. All the same: in February of 2002, I saw the future of the Olympic Winter Games and its name was Ross Powers. 

The U.S. Figure Skating Championships are ongoing this week in San Jose, California. A certain (diminishing) percentage of people remain interested in figure skating. To be forthright once more, the U.S. team — men’s and women’s, women’s in particular — has not been all that good for years; there are a multitude of reasons for that; in part, it has to do with the Vancouver 2010 victory of Evan Lysacek. Not Lysacek himself. He is and always has been a first-rate champion. It’s that Vancouver gold medal and the style of skating it represents — a combination that, it can be argued, has stalled figure skating’s forward path in the United States.

Mostly, though, there is the development of the Winter Games themselves. Once, figure skating held center stage. Now the Winter Games essentially have become a snowboarding festival. 

Russian doping, and pick-up truck wisdom

Russian doping, and pick-up truck wisdom

Seems like it was only earlier this year that a great many voices were being heard to the effect that the World Anti-Doping Agency, and in particular its president, Craig Reedie, and director general, Olivier Niggli, were ineffective and caught up in this or that conflict of interest.

Now WADA has obtained (via a whistleblower) an electronic file that it says contains “all testing data” from Russia’s national doping lab conducted from January 2012 to August 2015. That’s thought to be thousands of drug tests run on Russian athletes. 

Kudos to WADA and, as well, to Reedie and Niggli.

With the file in hand, WADA on Thursday declined to lift its suspension of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency. 

At issue now is whether the Russians should take part — under the Russian flag, wearing the Russian colors, hearing the Russian anthem — in the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.


Korea for Winter 2018: emphatically on track


PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Think Olympics, and with the Rio 2016 Summer Games coming up in just six months, the headlines are dominated by story after story of bad water, ill government, sick finances and, now, the Zika virus. Just 18 months after the show closes in Rio, the Olympic spotlight will turn with all its intensity to the 2018 Winter Games, here in South Korea. So now for some glad Olympic tidings, the evidence manifest this weekend in the first 2018 test event, a men’s World Cup alpine downhill: Korea is emphatically on track.

Before most every World Cup race, the U.S. Ski Team sends to reporters a sort-of inside-baseball guide to what’s what -- notes, facts, figures, impressions. Here is a snippet from Saturday, before the downhill: “They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” adding, “Based on athlete praise this week, it looks like Pyeongchang crushed it with flying colors.”

Norway's Kjetil Jansrud on his way to winning Saturday's downhill // Getty Images

American Steven Nyman took third // photo Getty Images

The Jeongseon downhill podium. From left, Paris, Jansrud, Nyman // Getty Images

Big picture, the 2018 Games are on target to become one of perhaps the most memorable ever, situated in a hamlet where, because of simple geography, there’s going to be a Lillehammer-like village setting — assuming the Koreans can, as they have promised, bring the village to life. Too, because Pyeongchang itself is a ski venue and the skating and other ice venues are down by the coast in Gangneung, maybe a half-hour away, the 2018 vibe is going to be heavy on ski and snowboard — the very disciplines the International Olympic Committee has sought to use to reach out to a younger audience.

To that end, the IOC has approved for 2018 a snowboard event called "big air" that features, naturally enough, huge jumps.

The Jeongseon alpine racing course on Gariwang Mountain, designed by famed designer Bernhard Russi, the 1972 Sapporo Games downhill champion, and set by Hannes Trinkl, the 1998 Nagano Games downhill bronze medalist, runs to about 1.7 miles, with blind jumps and four pucker-inducing, great-for-TV jumps.

For comparison: the downhill track takes about 25 seconds less to get down than the 2:06.23 it took for Austria’s Mattias Meyer to win in Sochi in 2014. Because it's shorter, it places a huge premium on precision and control.

Norway's Kjetil Jansrud, who had been crushing it all season and all week in training, went 1:41.38 to win Saturday's race, his third victory of the season. Italy's Dominik Paris surged to second, two-tenths of a second back, in 1:41.58. American Steven Nyman, also strong in training, placed third, in 1:41.79, 41-hundredths behind. For Paris and Nyman, the race marked their first podium turns of the season.

An aerial view of the Jeongseon runs. "Blue Dragon," the competition course, is to the left, the training run "White Tiger" to the right // photo POCOG

Another aerial shot of the Jeongseon set-up // photo POCOG

Looking out from the start gate over the "Blue Dragon"

Sunday will see a World Cup super-G. The women's World Cup tour comes to Jeongseon in March 2017. In all, Pyeongchang will stage 28 test events over the next two years.

For a long time, it was hugely doubtful that the Koreans could have done what they did this weekend. Pyeongchang won the 2018 Games in 2011; the first three years went by with not enough getting done.

Then, though, Yang Ho Cho, the Korean Air chief who led the winning bid, was brought back — at the urgings of the highest levels of South Korean government — to run the Pyeongchang organizing committee, which goes by the acronym POCOG.


All major construction projects are on time, including a high-speed Seoul-Pyeongchang rail line and the athlete and media villages. Sponsorship: picking up. Right on schedule, the organizing committee is moving away from planning and toward operations.

Pyeongchang 2018 leader Yang Ho Cho on a midweek Jeongseon snowmobile tour

Gunilla Lindberg of Sweden, the International Olympic Committee 2018 Games coordination commission chair, said Saturday at a post-race briefing, "Today, for example, would not have been possible without the commitment of Korea to keep its promise to the athletes and to the Olympic movement."

There’s a long way to go, of course, before 2018, and any number of things can and probably will happen. After all, running an Olympic Games is nothing if not an exercise in crisis management.

Because this was a test event — the entire purpose of which is to find out what works, and what doesn’t, and get right what’s wrong — there inevitably were some rough edges over the weekend. Transport, parking, venue access — they all need to be reviewed.

No easy task for anyone, much less an elderly woman, getting up the hill before Saturday's downhill

Because it’s the Olympics, questions of legacy — what to do with this run after 2018, say — are bound over the coming months to gain in urgency. It doesn’t take much to figure out that, after the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, the international ski federation, FIS, can put together an Asian circuit, with races in China, Japan and Korea. Typically, though, ski runs are part of mammoth resorts. This is — a ski run. There are no glowing fireplace embers in the lodge because there isn’t a lodge. Or much else.

The view from the sky of the ski jump near Alpensia, the center of the 2018 Games // photo POCOG

That said, the very fact that the races went off, as scheduled long ago, is the most important take-away from the weekend. It makes for a huge momentum blast for 2018.

Before this weekend, the Olympic world was asked to believe, without evidence, that the Koreans could put on not just a world-class winter event but, with the downhill, one of the marquee events of the Games. Now that evidence is indisputable.

"It was a hard work," said Sarah Lewis, the British secretary general of FIS, the international ski federation. "And it was a great work."

If it was an organizational and logistics race to the finish, that is all the more evidence, too, of first-rate leadership and with it the building and sustaining of a winning culture — one where everyone buys in because the boss is right there with them, demanding excellence of himself and everyone around him.

“It’s not about me,” Cho said in an interview. “It’s about the team.”

For sure, and yet it is in some significant measure about him, because over his career he has proven an extraordinary change agent, the business leader who can bring teams to hew to his vision, who can command respect in political and financial circles, who moves easily in eastern culture and, as well, in the west.

The weekend in Korea saw the first-ever meeting of the Beijing 2022, Tokyo 2020 and Pyeongchang 2018 organizing committees. From left: Da Xu, deputy secretary general, Beijing 2022; Gunilla Lindberg, IOC 2018 coordination commission chair; Cho; Yukihiko Nunomura, chief operating officer, Tokyo 2020 // photo POCOG

From the first day he came back to the Olympic scene, in the summer of 2014, Cho understood the symbolic import of bringing this first test event in on time.

It was pretty elemental: Korea had been trusted with the Games. Now, could Korea deliver?

Cho has for many years been one of the world’s leading experts in enterprise culture, that thing that is exceedingly difficult to define and to make real but is so very real, indeed infectiously obvious, when it comes to life.

— As is detailed in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 best-seller “Outliers,” Cho effected a huge cultural change at Korean Air after the 1997 crash in Guam of Korean Air 801, which killed 228 passengers and crew. Afterward, junior pilots were encourage to speak up to senior officers; before, even in the face of potential disaster, that same junior pilot might well have simply shown deference. Too, all pilots had to become proficient in English, the language of international aviation.

Korean Air’s safety record since has been impeccable.

— Pyeongchang bid for the 2010 and 2014 Games, losing both. Those bids were headed by the provincial Gangwon governor, Jin Sun Kim. Cho led the 2018 bid. It not only won but by one of the biggest landslides in Olympic voting history, Pyeongchang getting 63 votes, Munich 25 and Annecy, France, just seven. Those 63 votes marked the highest-ever total for a first-round bid; Salt Lake City had gotten 54 for the 2002 Winter Games.

— Kim, a former provincial Gangwon governor, took over as organizing committee chairman. In July 2014, he unexpectedly resigned, saying new leadership was needed. The South Korean government turned to Cho, who initially turned down the job but then relented, saying it was a matter of duty, conscience and public service. His Olympic work -- which now takes up most of his days -- is without salary.

It took a little time for Cho to figure out who in POCOG was a worker and who, well, not. One of Cho’s first directives, considering that more than half the organization came from government: if you are working for a ministry and you don’t want to stay until 2018, the moment to leave is now. This way he had people who were in, and for the long haul.

It took time for Cho to convince the IOC that he — not the background noise drip-dripping from government — was really in charge.

In March, 2015, South Korean President Geun Hye Park’s chief of education and culture got with Lindberg, the IOC 2018 commission chair. The two-pronged message: the central government was fully supportive of the Games and Cho was indisputably in control.

Time, too, to get the various interests in POCOG — there are over 60 constituencies, including the private sector plus federal and Gangwon provincial government ministries — to learn to talk across the separate silos they had over the first three years constructed.

Then there was the weather. Korea normally goes through a rainy season. But summer 2015 brought a lot of rain. That meant a lot of mud on the mountains. That meant construction delays.

By last December, it was entirely unclear whether the gondola up Gariwang could be done in time to meet the required FIS Jan. 20 check-off, officially called “snow control day.”

Without the gondola, there was no point in seeing whether the other check-off due that day — snow volume and quality — could be met.

The gondola in operation over weekday test runs at Jeongseon // photo courtesy Doppelmayr

Thus the back story to this weekend.

The gondola, and how it got done, would prove hugely emblematic.

Cho had to be in Europe the first week of December for meetings, one of which revolved around his role in international aviation.

By then, POCOG had been told by officials of the gondola maker, a company called Doppelmayr, that the Jeongseon project was unsafe. No way it would be ready by Jan. 20. But that assertion didn’t elaborate.

On Dec. 6, a Sunday, Cho met in the lounge of a private aviation terminal near Vienna with Michael Doppelmayr, the company’s chief executive officer.

Doppelmayr told Cho that the firm’s No. 1 priority was safety. He said it had had 130 ongoing projects around the world.

For his part, Cho said, I have 150 aircraft that fly to more than 100 cities around the world, and Korean Air has the lowest insurance rates in the business.

That did it. At that instant, the two men recognized they were equals — sophisticated international businessmen.

The issue, as it would turn out, was that some of the pillars in the middle station planted on the Jeongseon run were misaligned. Without that alignment, the gondola wires and, obviously, any cable cars wouldn’t work right.

Cho told Doppelmayr the project had to get done.

For his part, Doppelmayr promptly sent a team of senior engineers to Korea. It was one thing to look at photos. It was quite another to be there, on scene.

After that, things swung into action. Crews worked 20-hour days, seven days a week. Christmas and New Year’s holidays? Not a chance. Work.

Meantime, on Dec. 24, Cho attended a POCOG executive board meeting. Hoarse, he could barely scratch out a few introductory remarks.

The important thing was that he was there. If everyone on the hill was working around the clock, he — despite the fact that he actually went to the hospital later that evening, where he was treated with antibiotics and released — was keeping a killer schedule, too. He wasn’t asking anyone to do what he wouldn’t do himself.

It got noticed.

On Christmas, everyone working on the hill enjoyed a traditional Korean barbecue. Cho paid for it himself — that is, himself, not from organizing committee funds.

Intriguingly, the weather in Korea — like in a lot of places now — had been unusually warm. The week before Christmas, as if by some magical confluence of karma, it turned cold, exactly when the Koreans needed it. Now they could make, and store, snow.

The week before the Jan. 20 deadline, the Koreans had made enough snow.

They kept going. By race day Saturday, they had 120 percent of the snow amounts the course requires.

Come deadline day, it was all good. The snow. The gondola, working, got certified.

Then came the raves.

And, come Saturday, the downhill. And more raves.

At that post-race news conference, Lindberg gave the event a score of 100 out of 100, bringing gasps and applause from Korean journalists. In a visit in December, she explained, IOC and other officials assuredly had "some doubts this event would take place." Even so, she said, "We trusted President Cho's promise," adding, "He made the impossible possible."

Echoed Gian Franco Kasper, the FIS president, "President Cho made us a promise and he really kept it," adding, "You have seen it today. We have an excellent downhill course here, according to the athletes and the coaches ... it's a beauty."

Jansrud, calling the mountain "fun," said, "This is more than an acceptable Olympic venue to ski on." Paris: "We can ski and we can have a lot of fun here." Nyman: A "joy to ski."

The FIS technical expert, Günter Hujara, had said earlier in the week, “Nobody believed we could do it but we did it.”

Or, as Cho said in a briefing Friday with a few reporters, “We had promised to deliver, and we delivered. Korea can deliver.”

Yang Ho Cho back atop Pyeongchang 2018


In certain circles in South Korea, such things as duty, responsibility, nation and family truly do matter, and matter a great deal. A promise is a promise, and a promise must be kept.  

Yang Ho Cho at Thursday's proceedings in Seoul // photo courtesy Pyeongchang 2018

Of course, these things can matter everywhere. All the same, this explains why on Thursday in Seoul, Yang Ho Cho — one of the world’s foremost businessmen, a pivotal figure in a leading Korean family, an advocate for his country — was elected president of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games organizing committee.

Three years ago, Cho led the winning Pyeongchang 2018 bid. Since then, Jin Sun Kim, the former governor of Gangwon province, where Pyeongchang is located, had served as the organizing committee president.

Kim resigned unexpectedly last week, saying new leadership was needed.

As Gangwon governor, Kim led Pyeongchang’s bids for the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games, which went to Vancouver and Sochi. He served as a special ambassador for the 2018 bid.

The timing and motive behind Kim’s resignation remain unclear; his second term as president was not due to end until October, 2015. No major concerns had been expressed about readiness or preparations for the Pyeongchang Olympics, the first Winter Games to be held in Korea.

Speculation has mounted that Kim resigned under pressure amid concerns over leadership issues, lags in producing needed domestic sponsorship contracts and, perhaps, construction delays.

The South Korean government audit agency announced last week it had conducted a special, weeks-long inquiry into the organizing committee, assessing financing and management. Results are expected within three months.

Cho was the obvious choice to replace Kim.

After all, not only had Cho overseen the 2011 campaign for 2018, it was the way he did it.

Simply put, Cho did a masterful job of orchestrating various constituencies — the levels of government, the sponsors and other business interests, the Korean Olympic Committee and more — as Pyeongchang, with 63 votes, roared to a massive first-round victory over Munich and Annecy, France.

Cho, now 65, is a vice-president of the Korean Olympic Committee. He has been president of the Korea Table Tennis Association since 2008, vice-president of the Asian Table Tennis Union since 2009.

In his business life, he is chairman of Korean Air Lines Co., the country’s largest carrier. The airline’s biggest shareholder is the family-owned Hanjin Group, one of Korea’s most significant conglomerates.

Cho is a graduate of the University of Southern California and Korean Air is in the midst of building what will be a $1-billion, 73-story hotel, office and retail complex — the largest building west of the Mississippi River — in downtown LA. The center, called the Wilshire Grand, is due to open in 2017.

Which leads to a little Korean history, and some perspective and context into — and maybe understanding of — Thursday’s transition.

Though Cho was the obvious choice, initially he did not want the job. He even said so. His business responsibilities — which, in his case, meant his family responsibilities as well — weighed heavily. Beyond the airline and the Wilshire Grand, there was a shipping business, and more.

At the same time, in 2011, at the IOC session in Durban, South Africa, Cho had made a promise to the members of the International Olympic Committee that the 2018 Games would be rock-solid. He had told them that day, "Our vision is clear and it is unique."

As word of Kim’s resignation got around the world, messages came into Cho from the members — saying, in essence, you are the one we know and trust.

Kun Hee Lee, chairman of Samsung since 1987 and an IOC member since 1996, has been ill; Dae Sung Moon, an IOC athlete member since 2008, has been caught up in plagiarism allegations over his doctoral thesis.

If not Cho, who? In Korea, the IOC needs a steady go-between.

With Cho, as those in the Olympic sphere as well as government and the business communities knew, any issues with leadership as well as sponsorship would likely dissipate, and quickly.

If indeed there are venue or construction concerns — because Cho oversaw the bid, he would not have to be brought up to speed with those, either.

So there was the matter of that promise.

And then there was this.

It was 45 years ago that the Korean government asked Choong Hoon Cho, founder of the Hanjin Group, to take over a debt-driven, state-owned Korean Air Lines. Mr. Cho turned down the proposal. Not just once. Twice. He thought it was a sinking ship. Then, though, the president of the country, Chung Hee Park, asked Mr. Cho directly to take over the airline. Mr. Cho reconsidered, accepting out of what would later be thought of — duly recorded in the history books — as devotion to the country through transportation.

Now the Korean government turned to the son, Yang Ho Cho, to take over the 2018 Pyeongchang organizing committee. At first, in an echo of the years gone by, he said no. The government considered its options. It came back to him.

This second time, Cho said yes. Out of devotion to the country through sports.

“I feel heavy responsibility,” Cho told reporters after the election, held at the organizing committee’s 10th general assembly, in downtown Seoul.

According to Associated Press, he also said, “I’ll do my best to achieve a successful hosting of the Olympics based on my experience as the bid committee chairman.”