Imagination on Ice: A 2018 Olympics Recap and Retrospective
Editor Ethan Gordon looks back on 17 days of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
Before I begin my indulgent Olympic love fest, it is probably important to point out that the Olympics, based on many aspects, are in fact, as the kids today say – #trash. The International Olympic Committee has had a long history of corruption in how the games are awarded, stubbornness in recognizing its often hateful or violent past, and are currently under fire for their perceived half measures at punishing systemic Russian doping. Olympic Games in the past have appeared to add legitimacy to totalitarian governments (Munich 1936, Sochi 2014), been ignorant of serious climate issues (Beijing 2008, Sochi 2014), and proceeded irresponsibly in spending millions on infrastructure that would soon be abandoned (Rio 2016 and Soch – maybe you see the pattern here?). The Olympics currently face an existential crisis, as many cities are becoming savvy to the albatross that is hosting a Games, maybe most underscored by the next Winter Olympics in 2022, where a lack of options due to disinterest led to a showdown between eventual hosts Beijing (who had hosted in 2008 Summer Olympics, and whose human rights records and actual proof of winter weather are spotty), and Almaty, Kazakhstan (insert Borat “very nice” jokes here). A recent push has seen world class cities like Paris and Los Angeles step up and offer responsible, sustainable hosting plans for future Games, but the future of the Olympic movement is cloudy.
Now that all this has been established though, I want to move on to what I feel is most worth talking about – the excitement and achievement of Olympic athletes, and the 17 day celebration that those who love sport get to experience every two years. The 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea were most definitely a success. Save for a norovirus outbreak which was largely contained, and some issues with weather (this was the first Olympics in a long time where it was actually too wintry for some events), PyeongChang avoided many of the logistical and political disasters of past games, even though they arguably had the most to lose. Barely 40 km away from the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, many believed that the high profile nature of the event, and the hostile relationship between North Korea and the West (in part due to the Twitter war between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump) would be the climate for a catastrophic global event. The U.S. Government fanned those flames by suggesting that they might hold out their athletes from the Games if North Korea participated, although like most Trump administration declarations, this was blustery conjecture and based little on how things actually functioned in the real world. In an effort to ensure a peaceful Games, the two Koreas agreed to unify for both the Opening ceremonies and for the women’s hockey team, marching into the stadium together, with an athlete from each country holding a flag of the Korean peninsula. While this gesture was almost entirely superficial, and celebration of North Korea overblown (no we should not say “goals” about Kim Jong-un’s sister giving Mike Pence side eye – she is very bad) , the decision to put international brinkmanship away for at least two weeks was in keeping with the Olympic truce that countries are asked to adhere to while the Games go on, and made it so the focus during that time was about Sport, as it should be.
In terms of the actual athletics of it all, the Games were unique, strange, and at times incredible. For the first time since 1994, Canada failed to win gold in either men’s or women’s hockey or curling, with the Canadian women losing an instant-classic shootout game to the U.S. in the final, while an NHL-less men’s team was shocked by Germany in the semi-final before claiming bronze against the Czech Republic. Canada’s two large curling teams both failed to medal, an unthinkable failure given the fact that they had finished no worse than bronze at every Games since curling returned in 1998. Luckily, such national embarrassment was partially redeemed by the first ever gold in mixed doubles curling, a new event that featured Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris, previous gold medal winners themselves in the team events. While both hockey and curling dynasties faltered, new ones were created – as Mikaël Kingsbury became the third straight Canadian man to win gold in moguls skiing, while Kelsey Serwa became the third straight Canadian woman to win gold in the ski-cross race. Canadian men and women both won medals in 2-person bobsleigh, and Canadian luge won their first two medals ever, avenging their disappointment from 2014 where the mixed relay team initially finished 4th, were bumped up to bronze after the Russian team was disqualified, and then bumped back down to 4th when an appeal returned most of the stripped Russian medals, an event that luger Sam Edney called a “dark day” for sport.
Maybe most impressive of the Canadian successes was in Figure Skating, where we led the way with four total medals, the most ever by a Canadian skating delegation. Canada claimed the combined team event gold with a balanced excellence, while Megan Duhamel and Eric Radford earned a bronze in their last competitive event. Kaetlyn Osmond also nailed a nearly flawless free program to nab a bronze behind the dynamite Russian skaters Zagitova and Medvedeva, but for the entire country, the focus was of course Canada’s favourite platonic soul-mates (or maybe not?), Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Coming out of retirement after two years in 2016, the former gold and silver medalist ice dancers enchanted the nation and the world with their free program set to Moulin Rouge, skating with passion, emotion, and maybe most importantly love (very corny – sorry), earning a career best score to eke out a victory against the French pair of Papadakis and Cizeron. Ending their Olympic careers at Sunday’s gala skating to the Hip’s “Long Time Running”, Tessa and Scott cemented their places as two of the most indelible athletes in all of Canadian history.
The Olympics featured stars from other countries as well, including fun-loving American snowboarders Red Gerard and Chloe Kim, both under eighteen, who charmed the world with their millennial goofiness. American Figure Skater Adam Rippon became the first openly gay American to compete at a Games, captivating social media with his engaging interviews, and defiance of U.S. delegation leader Mike Pence, due to his past (and probably present) views on homosexuality. Czech athlete Esther Ledecká made history by winning an improbable gold medal in Super-G skiing before claiming the same honor in giant slalom snowboarding, becoming the first athlete ever to win gold in both those sports. Finally, there were the oddities of the games, including Tongan Pita Taufatofua, who became famous for entering the 2016 Summer Opening Ceremonies bare-chested and liberally oiled, and then proceeded to learn how to cross-country ski, qualify for the Winter Olympics, and once again enter the Opening Ceremony without a shirt, this time in sub-zero weather. Maybe less celebrated was the puzzling “Hungarian” half-pipe skier Elizabeth Swaney, an American who used a loophole in qualification procedures to compete for her ancestral Hungary, and making it to the games despite having no discernible skill in half-pipe skiing.
As the Olympic Cauldron was extinguished Sunday evening in the PyeongChang Olympic stadium, it closed the book on an Olympics that was in many ways a microcosm of the Olympic movement itself. It was a Games fraught with nervous and at times even apocalyptic pre-event anxiety, taking place at a time where catastrophic war is only one impulsive button push away, and when cynicism about global ideals of peace and fairness has gone viral. Already, two Russian athletes competing under the neutral “Olympic Athletes from Russia” banner have been caught doping (one wearing a shirt that literally said “I don’t do doping”), which undermines the IOC’s weak punishment of the country’s athletic transgressions. As you read this, cities like Stockholm and Calgary are in hot debate over the pros and cons of bidding for the 2026 Olympics, while human rights violators like Turkey eagerly wait in the wings should they decide to drop out. The future of the Olympics itself is very much in question, and tons has to be done to right the ship, but the future of amateur sport, both in Canada and around the world, is strong, diverse, and still has the ability to captivate a global audience and inspire the youth of the world to push themselves to glory.