Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Rest of the Story

On March 26, my longtime Olympic friend Brian cornered me (a second time) nudging for a conclusion to the mid-Games cliffhanger posted from PyeongChang in February.

"Time flies when you're having fun," I shrugged.

In our memberships with the International Society of Olympic Historians, Brian and I occasionally summon our inner Paul Harvey, the on air storyteller who, for years, wove detailed color into his radio broadcasts. 

At Brian's request, finally now on April 27 (started April 12), here is the rest of the story:

On the day of my mid-February PyeongChang post, I had a second news story in the works to follow-up the pin trading tales of the Games' first week. 

In that one afternoon at the Main Press Center, it was fun to meet not only the Team USA women's figure skaters at their first press conference of the Games, but also a British reporter I nicknamed "Stephen Merchant's doppelganger" seated near my blogging station. 

The incomplete post -- including answers to my questions posed to Mirai Nagasu, Karen Chen and Bradie Tennell -- was drafted under the headline "Hello, Ladies" in reference and reverence to Merchant's short-lived HBO series, of which I was a big fan (as big a supporter of ladies' Olympic figure skating). 

But here's the deal: I caught a nasty head cold during the middle weekend of PyeongChang, and by the afternoon in question the congestion and coughing was rough. Dog tired, facing a 45-minute snowy mountain commute, and an early morning slated for the next day (to attend figure skating in coastal Gangneung), it made sense to grab a bite, call it a night early and catch some ZZZ's in my AirBNB. 

This plan worked except for sleeping in the next morning and getting a call from my AirBNB hosts who wanted to present me with a going away/New Year's gift. By the time we connected in person, the day's schedule was pretty much shot except for meeting a friend for an evening women's hockey match. 

Illness persisted for three more days, with better health not at all aided by my attendance at a string of outdoor (and Arctic cold/windy) events including a rescheduled downhill ski event and cross-country ski competition. 

Then there was the packing process including nearly a thousand new Olympic pins in need of sorting and two-week's worth of dirty laundry. I would have gladly traded pins with anyone who could read the Korean script on the AirBNB's new clothing washer-dryer. 

The search for new lodging (one-night only at the sweetest Art Hotel on the planet ... resting in a giant bowl-shaped bed) then getting there (a long drive south of Gangneung) devoured a day.

And then the ultimate distraction from blogging arrived ... from Russia with love. 

You see, during Sochi 2014 I made and new friend while attending the Cultural Olympiad concert performed by American jazz musician Brian Lynch. When the Grammy-winning trumpeter asked the mostly-Russian audience whether they knew the location of Milwaukee (where his family was watching the Sochi concert via Skype), I hollered from the balcony my approval of the Wisconsin city much to the amazement of the packed house, the band leader on stage and to a Moscow-based interpreter/translator seated on my row. 

The Russia-born linguist, a woman named Valentina, spoke fluent English then and now, and after four years of friendly Facebook messaging, in January 2018 she accepted my invitation to "meet me in PyeongChang" like good folks sometimes do in St. Louis. 

So the morning after the Art Hotel and viewing its museum (including a Pinocchio collection) and expansive modern sculpture garden, I took the speed train to Seoul's airport to greet Valentina then bring her back to the Olympic city.

Valentina proved to be a very funny and fun-loving travel companion. On our first day of re-acquaintance, she opted to join me for a Korean Cultural Olympiad event, which turned out to be a musical version of a popular folk tale.

The program hinted "audience participation" in the second act, and guess who got picked to go on stage and perform a Korean "fan dance" in female costume?

Answer clue: It wasn't Valentina. 

She instead delighted in snapping photos and video proof of my on-stage humiliation (the mostly female cast dressed me in the finest Korean silks and placed me center stage for a "fan dance" to the glee of, well, everyone but moi.

After the show, Valentina and I shared hearty belly laughs while losing count of the middle-aged Korean women smiling and proclaiming me "the star" of the performance.

Sorry, ladies. No autographs!

Though there was no time to blog about it, the next day my Muscovite buddy and I trekked to the furthest-afield venue to experience the women's ski event at which Lindsey Vonn ended her Olympic career and Mikaela Shiffrin earned a bronze.

Valentina was a natural at securing blog-friendly photos of Slovakia's yak-like fans, and the two of us managed to get her into the venue press center for Shiffrin's press conference. Kinda fun to get in the last question for the two-time gold medalist and her approach to the Beijing 2022 Games (I will post this interview at a future date). 

A long bus ride, a lost mobile phone, countless pin trades, two days and at least two Korean barbecue meals later -- as well as a 90-minute drive down the South Korean coast to meet V's longtime mentor (an interpreter and his wife who worked at the MPC for the Olympic Athletes of Russia), and it was already time for Valentina and I to hit the PyeongChang Olympic Superstore, attend the Closing Ceremony and then drive 3.5 hours back to Seoul.

Between work assignments, venue visits, meals and drive times, I think we averaged about four hours of sleep per night, making for one exhausted Olympic blogger by the Monday after Games' end.

Valentina must have enjoyed my company, too, for she said "meet me in ... Istanbul" as a follow-up experience. We're both flying in to the Turkish tourism capital on May Day.

Before our reunion on the other side (west end) of Asia, there's one upcoming 2018 Olympic experience yet to unfurl: The USOC's announcement of the Team USA Awards presented by Dow in Washington on April 26, followed by the athletes' visit to The White House just like in 2016.

Of course my credential request is submitted, and here's hoping for more time to blog this month following a visit to D.C.

And that is ... the rest of the story.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver and Valentina Kucheriavenko

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Olympic Pin Fever Spreads Across PyeongChang

Olympic pin trading is an unofficial sport of the Games, and in PyeongChang this longtime five-ringed tradition has taken off like a full-speed ski jumper.

Whether collectors seek Korea's sponsor pins, 2018 media badges, national Olympic committee (NOC) treasures from athletes of competing nations or more generic local organizing committee and volunteer pins, there's something for everyone and everyone seems willing to exchange across all corners of the Olympic venues, Main Press Center and Olympic Parks in PyeongChang and Gangneung. 

There's even robust trading opportunities, I learned, in the main Gangneung Station and spectator park-and-ride lots. 

One of my best 2018 trades so far was at the team competition of figure skating, where Mirai Nagasu walked up to me in the press mixed zone after winning bronze. She reached out and pointed to my blog pin and asked for it!

Later in the week, TODAY Show host Hoda Kotb accepted a pin in exchange for a selfie. Sweet!

I started pin trading, sort of, during the national championships what is now named Odyssey of the Mind (formerly Olympics of the Mind), a creative competition for elementary and junior high school students. 

One of my favorites from that era of my youth was an Expo '86 pin promoting the World's Fair in Vancouver, then as far away from Oklahoma as I could imagine. 

Fast forward to Calgary '88 and the winter Olympic pin trading magazine feature that ran in Sports Illustrated. I got hooked big-time, and as a volunteer for U.S. Olympic Festival '89 in Oklahoma City, my Olympic pin collection got going with free Seoul pins from mail-order coupons in the Sunday newspaper. 

Thousands of trades and hundreds of Ebay sales later, my core collection now includes about 10 fabric pin books, five framed sets and badges spanning the 1930s to present. 

Photo via
My specialty is Olympic bid pins followed by NOCs and media pins -- or pretty much any pin I think is high quality and easy on the eyes. 

My rarest find, by far, is a hand-made Rome 1960 pin carved on a shell from the beaches near the sailing venue and Mount Vesuvius "steaming" out five Olympic rings. Found it an an antique store in Mankato, Minn., during college and cannot wait to visit that part of Italy someday to see if some little family-owned gift shop as a trove of these beauties. 

Here in PyeongChang my favorite trades were exchanges with officials and athletes. For our third conversation in as many Olympiads, HRH Prince Albert of Monaco (IOC member) presented me a Team Monaco pin in exchange for a blog pin. 

Mister Tonga's team generously shared several pins (two designs as shown with this post) as did Nigeria, Lichtenstein, Jamaica, Finland, Luxembourg (a tiny pin) and several other NOC athletes in the Olympic Village. 

On the media pin front, Reuters created three large pins in green, red and yellow to represent 'Citius-Altius-Fortius' and faster-higher-stronger trading. 

Several Japan media pins are proving to be difficult acquisitions, as is the large Sports Illustrated pin featuring a colorful pagoda. 

The Associated Press, I am told, made pins but they remain in someone's stateside (a pin-headed blunder if there every was one).

Building upon its sponsorship tradition of London, Sochi and Rio, the Samsung pavilions in the Olympic parks and MPC feature a pin-earning opportunity. 

For each interactive activity visitors explore to learn about Samsung products, guests may earn one of 20 free pin designs featuring winter Olympic sports disciplines and icons of the host nation. As in previous Games, once collectors secure their first five badges, they earn a free display board. And for the few who fill a board, they have an opportunity to take home a rare Samsung Worldwide Partner Galaxy Note 8 featuring the Olympic rings. 

The last time I fell in love with a mobile phone was the Galaxy Note 3 in Sochi, and the Note 8 was also love at first touch (so light, so delicate, so powerful). 

Must ... get ... Note 8!

In the Samsung at Gangneung Olympic Park, the interactive options to secure points and pins, are very cool. 

Visitors should be sure to look at all of the museum display Olympic torches and pins from 1998 Nagano to 2016 Rio, then pose for a photo holding the classy white porcelain 2018 torch design. 

There's also an Infinity Room experience in which guests may project their Instagram photos and descriptions set to music, and another area to put a selfie into famous works of art or local sports venues. 

I have a couple of media questions in to Samsung: First, how many of the PyeongChang contest pins exist, and second, why not include the Olympic rings on more of the designs. Their New York-based public relations counsel is looking to the answers (stay tuned for updates here). 

Other sponsor pavilions seem to be generous with their pins at this Games, with designs from new TOP sponsor Alibaba Group, as well as PyeongChang suppliers The North Face, Toyota and Coca-Cola opting to give our pins for free.

A fancy-schmancy set of mascot pins comes in the form of a thick plastic mascot pin in which a VISA credit card chip is embedded. Load up your pin with W100,000 or more (about $100US) and scan it anywhere VISA is accepted (I bought mine at the MPC then used the funds at the Super Store in Olympic Park for the win, er, pin). 

Coming back to Coca-Cola pin trading, the longtime pin hobbyist partner opted to create only one small version of an Olympic pin trading centre at this Games.

Nestled along the south end of the Gangneung Live Site, about five to seven volunteer collectors man the trading area in one half of the centre, while visitors enjoy a peek at pin collecting history and etiquette chatted up by Coca-Cola employees in the adjacent room. Brisk business seems to be underway in the centre each time I stopped by (twice so far).

For those not in South Korea, there's a new option to showcase personal collections or keep up with the action and emerging pin designs spotted in PyeongChang.

Tucker, Ga.-based Pincentives created a new online "Collector Dash" platform -- "an organized encyclopedia of pins" -- and app the company is beta testing during PyeongChang 2018. 

Users sign up for a free account then have the option to upload a pin photo from their mobile phone "in the field" or via their laptop when the collecting day is complete. 

I put the new features to the test last week and found the site generally easy and fun to navigate, and some 347 of the 2018 designs popped up on the site so far, indicative fellow collectors and Olympin members may be enjoying the test phase as did I. 

My mission by next Sunday is to unload all of the 500 or so remaining traders packed in my Olympic luggage, and to return to Atlanta with more PyeongChang pinventory than any recent Olympiad. Also on a hunt to earn a POGOG staff pin from an employee of the local organizing committee (do they exist?) or a volunteer Swatch watch. 

Wish me luck.

Happy collecting!

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

Friday, February 16, 2018

Swiss Olympian Succeeds In Skiing Gold Three-Peat

My longtime friend and fellow International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH) member J. Brian Carberry loves it when there's a five-ringed three-peat.

For most recent Olympiads -- including the one underway -- he methodically plotted the potential three-, four-, five- or even six-peat feats.

It's a meticulous process, and with Brian's thoughtful work in mind, it was fun to experience an actual golden three-peat in the making on Friday at Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Centre.

Just steps from the iconic PyeongChang ski jump tower, and in view of the sunny albeit snow-covered mountains decorated with massive wind turbines, Switzerland's Dario Cologna finished the 15 km cross-country snow endurance course in 33:43.9.

Simen Hegstad Krueger of Norway earned silver 18.3 seconds slower, with Denis Spitsov, an Olympic Athlete of Russia (OAR), winning bronze 23 seconds behind the lead.

Norway was an audience favorite, and this blogger must admit to falling in rank with several jubilant Norwiegian fans upon arrival at the venue.

Could not stop laughing at their red "Make Northug Great Again" caps in reference to the legendary cross-country Olympian and 13-time World Champion Petter Northug.

At the post-race press conference I asked Cologna to describe what the gold medal three-peat means to him.

He had a lot to say.

"Three times in this event and four gold medals -- now I am together with [fellow-Swiss Olympian in ski jumping] Simon Ammann, the only Swiss who won four times in the Olympics," said Cologna. "To write a little bit of history, it is not bad."

Cologna continued with his response.

"To win in three different Olympics is very hard work over many years," he said. "I had two not-so-easy years, the last two, but really wanted to be back."

"It feels very good to be back on top," he added.

"So many thoughts are going through the head; very big emotions and many people, the team who helped me a lot, my family who is here, my girlfriend and it is always a great team behind, the all did a very good job."

My query was only one of three in English before the press conference became an all-German language stampede to interview the Olympic champion.

As the gaggle of European reporters subsided, I did get in one more question regarding Cologna's choice to wait at the finish line and congratulate the last three racers from Tonga, Columbia and Mexico, respectively.

The gesture of sportsmanship impressed me greatly, so I asked Cologna what he said to the tropical trio.

"I just congratulated them and said that it is great they are here and I was very happy to see them finish the race," said Cologna.

Tonga's Pita Taufatofua, who earlier this week joked he would be lucky to complete the race before they turn off the lights in the venue, placed 114 out of 117 finishers with a time of 56:41.1, just under 23 minutes slower than Cologna. Mexico's lone entry, German Madrazo, crossed the finish line in 59:35.4 carrying a fan-provided Bandera de Mexico and a gran sonrisa.

Fun to see Taufatofua, who trains with Madrazo, help lift his amigo onto the shoulders of other cross-country athletes to the delight of spectators.

I looked for Mister Tonga but missed him post-race, hoping to catch up with him later in PyeongChang.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Mikaela Shiffrin Achieves PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Dream Under A Fire Rainbow

On a sunny Thursday afternoon at Yongpyong Alpine Center, one of Mikaela Shiffrin's 2018 Olympic dreams came true beneath a fire and ice rainbow.

Though spectators at ground level enjoyed noticeably mild winter temperatures, the frosty air above the finish line occasionally created circumhorizontal arcs under which Shiffrin found her five-ringed pot of gold. 

Crossing the second run finish line in 1:09.20, Shiffrin secured first place (with her first run time of 1:10.82 for total 2:20.02) as the penultimate skier of her round. 

Norway's Ragnhild Mowinckel earned silver just .39 points behind, with a surprise bronze for Italy's Federica Brignone .46 slower than the top time.

I was standing the the mixed zone with a gaggle of U.S. reporters, assorted Team USA officials or hangers-on, and a cadre of international media all clamoring for Q&A time with Shiffrin. 

She shared some great answers in the snow outside and later in a jam-packed press conference in the venue media center. 

"Today I was trying really hard but I was feeling the hill, I was feeling the moutain and I was feeling my skis, and I was really letting it go as much as I could in that second run," said Shiffrin. "To win a gold medal skiing like that is really special."

Shiffrin added that calculated risks factored heavily in her victory. 

"The Olympics is not about protecting the lead, it's about putting your best on the line and you can see what happens," said Shiffrin. "It was incredible to take so much risk in that second run but it's something I'm trying to do more and more with the World Cup racing."

Shiffrin's gold mining continues with two other downhill events that are now set for consecutive days, thanks in part to bad weather earlier this week. I asked her how she plans to spend time now through the next race.

"[Tonight] I'm going to try to get some rest and some food, and then there's the medal ceremony, so it's going to be a full day but I know my mentality today was really good and it's the same mentality I'll bring to tomorrow."

Shiffrin will collect her gold medal to be presented by IOC member HSH Princess Nora of Liechtenstein.

During the hour long wait between Shiffrin's victory and her eventual visit to media row, I had time to chat briefly with several other ladies' giant slalom competitors, congratulating each of them on their achievement as Olympians. 

One young competitor stood out: Mialitiana Clerc of Madagascar. 

The 16 year old skier, who ranked 48th out of 58 finishers, told me she got started skiing in France after her adoption parents introduced her to the sport near Chamonix. 

Whatever works when your birth nation is a tropical African island!

According to Clerc's online bio in the PyeongChang media database, she lists Shiffrin as her idol and inspiration to compete -- and win medals for Africa -- at Beijing 2022. 

May she find her Olympic pot of gold in China in just four years. 

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Very TODAY Show Valentine

If you're an American at the Olympics, you might as well be leaving your patriotism at passport control if you don't make it at least once to the NBC TODAY Show set in Olympic Park.

Been there, done that in Atlanta, Athens, Torino (they brought Al Roker to my P.R. client's B.C. Canada Place log cabin pavilion), Beijing (we took client, the Premiere of British Columbia, to sit with Matt Lauer), London and Sochi.

Wednesday night (Tuesday morning stateside) brought the first opportunity to check this five-ringed ritual off the list, and it turned out to be an exciting night to be there!

I stuck around for the first hour of the show with about 200 fellow Team USA fans and a few curious South Koreans.

Behind the scenes, members of the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team awaited their national TV spotlight and conversation with Al Roker to preview their competitions.

Cute to see Olympic silver medalist Devin Logan meet briefly with her boyfriend. Gotta hand it to her for gently stroking his beard with her Trump-size pretend mitts!

Roker's main updates were about the strong winds that temporarily shut down much of Olympic Park.

Other news du jour concerned four-time Olympian, three-time medalist and No. 100 U.S. Winter Olympic medalist Shaun White's triumphant return to the gold medal podium.

White, who earlier in the day got flustered when reporters asked about past #MeToo-relevant choices, took time to apologize in his TODAY interview that focused mostly on his big day in competition.

White addressed questions from co-hosts Koda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie.

"I've grown as a person over the years and it's amazing how life works, and twists and turns and lessons learned," said White. "Every experience in my life I feel like it's taught me a lesson and I definitely feel like I'm a much more changed person than I was when I was younger."

Way to stay on P.R. message.

I was delighted when Kotb later worked the crowd and responded to my offer of an Olympic blog pin, which she complimented while posing for selfies.

We had previously talked hours before the 2016 Olympic opening ceremony (in front of the Rio Marriott) and, as always, she was all smiles and so friendly to each of the fans on site.

Not sure when there might be another late night at Olympic Park (the live broadcasts to the States start at 9 p.m. in Korea), but it will be fun to discover TODAY sets in Tokyo 2020, Beijing 2022 and beyond.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

Meeting Mister Tonga

On an August day in 1996, a 12 year-old boy in Tonga lined one of the Pacific island's streets to welcome home a national hero.

It was just days after the Atlanta Olympics, and young Pita Taufatofua wanted a peek at "The Tongan Warrior" of boxing, Paea Wolfgramm, who brought home the nation's first Olympic medal, a silver.

Standing with a paper on which he scribbled "Paea" to catch the eye of Wolfgramm, Taufatofua eventually made eye contact with the elder Olympian, inspiring a dream that became the pre-teen's life mission: to become a next great five-ringed athlete from Tonga.

Twenty years later, Taufatofua's dream came true in Rio 2016 Olympic taekwondo competition, and as reported by The New York Times earlier this year, he converted his Olympic aspirations to become a winter Olympian in cross country skiing at PyeongChang 2018.

Valentine's Day in Korea brought this blogger an option to speak with Taufatofua as part of the Tonga Olympic Team's press conference held in the Main Press Center. About 100 reporters gathered and peppered the 34 year old athlete with questions.

Not surprising more than half of the audience was women.

But to the jovial dismay of some, Taufatofua kept his shirt on (this did not prevent reporters from inquiring about his topless, oiled-up marches as Tonga's official flag bearer in the 2016 and 2018 opening ceremonies). For the latter, the bitter cold PyeongChang evening was easy.

"If my ancestors can sail across the Pacific for one thousand years, not knowing where the next piece of land is going to be, not knowing where their next meal is going to be, going to war, then I can walk for 25 minutes through an Opening Ceremony without a shirt on and represent a thousand years of heritage," said Taufatofua.

Pita and his coach Jacob Thomas explained their goals were more about just getting to Korea than any chance for a medal. Looking for a new challenge after Rio, Taufatofua said he "did not know much about snow" but he started learning in 2017, also training with roller skis on his home island.

"He always tells us he wants to finish," said Thomas.

Taufatofua explained his goals on the cross country course.

"I'll try to finish before they turn the lights off," he joked. "Also, I hope I don't ski into a tree."

Joking aside, in an early-career competition, Taufatofua lost a ski in the first of six laps on a cross country ski course, much to his chagrin. He now works on improving his personal best with each ski entry.

"I [now] try to beat the me of yesterday," said Taufatofua. "If I ignore the me of yesterday, I've won."

He also talked about the recent cyclone that devastated Tonga, recovery efforts for which he intends contributions post-Games, and what inspires him to keep going in cross country in spite of many odds against him.

"The truth is I've had a short time on snow and I won't medal on Friday, but in four years someone from Tonga might, in eight years someone from the Pacific might, but more importantly people from the Pacific, these kids who are watching now, they'll have access to something they never knew existed," said Taufatofua.

When a reporter from the Wall Street Journal asked about his future Olympic aspirations, Taufatofua mentioned Tokyo 2020 is on his radar.

"I've been inside, I have fought, had fights in a taekwondo ring, and coming out to the snow, maybe water's the next, maybe something to do with water," said Taufatofua. "Stay tuned."

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver except flag bearer image by RP Online.

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