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.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Olympic Volunteers and Media are Getting to Know Norovirus a.k.a. Winter [Olympic] Vomiting Bug

In 1972, Japan's winter wonderland Sapporo hosted the 11th Winter Olympic Games.

Meanwhile, a half a world away in Norwalk, Ohio, during that Olympiad, a nasty "winter vomiting virus" earned its namesake "Norovirus" when the Midwestern town endured an outbreak, according to this Public Health Agency of Canada page. 

What is Norovirus? 

It's a gastrointestinal virus that is highly contagious, causes diarrhea and puking, and generally brings 2-3 days of crud that nobody wants. 

Olympic "runs" of this sort are gaining attention here in PyeongChang, where last week the organizing committee started issuing POCOG Statements on Norovirus. 

According to the latest of these media missives dated this morning (Feb. 12), from February 1 to 11, about 177 confirmed cases popped up at staff and volunteer housing areas in PyeongChang and Gangneung. There are even quarantines underway for certain staff.

Last night I got a surprise peek at one outbreak response center, as volunteers assigned as National Olympic Committee (NOC) Services specialists -- a hand-picked group of volunteers recruited as drivers, hosts and "take one for the team" right hands to their NOC be it large or small -- were instructed to report for a "mandatory" screening session. 

Many of these NOC volunteers had already been given the day off or given "in quarantine" status for the day, causing light to moderate hiccups for some NOC chef de mission staff working the Olympic scene. 

Another mandatory screening -- for those unable to report in Sunday night -- was to take place on Monday by 9 a.m., according to a volunteer who asked to an NOC Services volunteer who asked to be unnamed. 

I stood in the room where the Sunday evening screening check-ins were underway, with a good, long queue of volunteers filing in to show their badges, sign some paperwork and collect two rectal swab kits.

Yes, at the Olympics, they handed out DIY rectal swab kits, which volunteers dutifully carried to the nearest loo before turning in their dip sticks and signing more paperwork. Their sweet reward? A nice PyeongChang hand towel and a bottle of hand sanitizer. 

The chatter among volunteers in line was that the process was "no big deal" or "part of the gig" and that a "better safe than sorry" approach was warranted. Some made jokes or feigned dropping their drawers in line to lighten the situation.

POCOG's statement includes the following description of how the Norovirus infection spreads:

Norovirus infection can spread through contaminated food and water or physical contact with the infected people. It can also occur when touching your mouth or consuming food with your hands after touching a tap, door handle etc. on which the infected patients have touched without washing their hands.

They also provide some tips for prevention:
1. Wash your hands for more than 30 seconds with running water (especially, after use of toilet, changing diapers, before consuming food or before cooking)
2. Cook your food thoroughly
3. Drink boiled water
4. Peel fruit and vegetables with clean water
5. Do not cook when having symptoms of diarrhea
6. Cook hygienically (sterilise knife and cutting board after cooking, use separate chopping board for fish, meat, and vegetables.

I've been washing my hands, donning a paper face mask in some areas (more common, I find, in Asia than back home) and making time for hand sanitizer. Knock-on-wood, no symptoms so far. 

Yet another example that even at the Olympics sometimes there's a lot of *stuff* you have to deal with. I can tell you that contracting this in the bitter cold of PyeongChang would be no fun at all -- some of the portable bathrooms created with recycled shipping containers are, well, freaking freezing.

I don't know what's in the volunteer handbook, but let's hope rectal probes don't make the cut for future Games.

Way better to stick with pins. 

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Scene At Olympic Figure Skating

With Saturday as a scheduled recovery/logistics day -- resting/relocating to coastal Gangneung for the next 12 days -- all bright eyed on Sunday I made it to my first PyeongChang 2018 Olympic event: Figure skating.

As I write this Monday afternoon, the two-day Team Event just concluded with Canada taking home gold, Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) silver and Team USA earning bronze. 

For non-photo journalists, the venue is set up with a media tribune spanning a couple of seating areas for broadcasters to air live commentaries, a few rows of tabled seats for writers with laptops, then corners of the arena for non-tabled press (that's me). 

Generally we are able to roam freely and to the ground level of the venue, which includes a "mixed zone" for athletes and journalists to stand in a queue for 1x1 or group interviews. 

There's also a big media tent with tables space for about 300 reporters, mostly filled both days. 

I read that spectators filled about 88 percent of the stands on Sunday, and today was probably more like 90 percent. 

Highlights from the experience:

  • First interview in the mixed zone with Nicole Schott (GER) just after her Olympic debut. Her team publicist said she opted out of opening ceremony for rest, and I asked if she had any regrets about that choice. "I'm a really early sleeper, so I decided to concentrate on practice, but I'm going to do the closing." She considers one of her fellow competitors, Carolina Kostner (ITA) a hero, and Schott skated to one of my favorite Ennio Morricone compositions, "Nella Fantasia" performed by Jackie Evancho.
  • Conversation with pairs skaters Maia and Alex Shibutani, who spoke with The New York Times' Jere Longman II for a story on the 10 a.m. competition times to accommodate the Western Hemisphere broadcast schedule. "There is no extra challenge; it's not like we found out a week ago. These are the best athletes in the world and they're gonna figure out how to get the job done" before answering my question about returning to Gangneung Ice Arena for their first 2018 skate on Olympic ice. Maia said, "It was really special to return. Before Sochi we did not have the opportunity to skate in the venue, so coming in [here] we had a year of positive visualization and just really happy memories, so being back here just feels really comfortable."
  • Group interview with Bradie Tennell, a first-time Olympian, who explained she gets psyched up for competition with 70s and 80s rock music by the likes of Metallica, Queen and AC/DC. "It's kinda weird because people look at me like, 'oh, blond hair blue eyes' but that music is great for getting pumped up."
  • Longer 1x1 interview with Canadian pairs skaters Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. I cornered them about their choice of music, "Hometown Glory" performed by Adele, which left this blogger in tears during their skate. Duhamel explained that she first heard the song in 2007 at a small venue in Montreal where Adele performed she was "ADELE" selling out arenas. "She was wearing this big, blue T-shirt and I yelled, 'I like your T-shirt' and she was like, 'Thanks, I don't like getting dressed up' and I was like oh, my god, I love this girl and I really loved that song and always have, so we started using it in 2012," said Duhamel, who added that last year she saw Adele perform again at one of Canada's biggest arenas. "She's inspired us., From the day we heard [Adele's] music we were so inspired by her passion."
  • Spotting Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir in their commentary booth, later interviewing them about their PyeongChang experience so far. Donning my own Kodak Olympic pin featuring Lipinski's likeness, I asked the NBC Olympics duo if they ever thought of creating their own pins. "We know that the Olympics are big about pin collecting and trading, but we don't have our own pin but that's something to think about," said Weir. I brought up meeting Lipinski at Bud House in Vancouver (no surprise, she did not remember but was nice about it and laughed) and asked how things are going compared to Sochi. "We're having a blast," said Lipinski. "We've been waiting for this moment since Sochi to sit in a prime time booth, and it's overwhelming -- we're loving it." Weir said they'd go the distance for many more future Olympiads if given the chance. "As long as people will have us -- we love this job, it's a privilege and an honor to represent our sport to the masses in the United States and to teach them what they're seeing and give them real talk; we have the most fun doing it -- it's a dream," said Weir.
  • Accepting a request from Mirai Nagasu to trade a pin; she offered a huge U.S. Figure Skating pin in exchange for a blogger pin for PyeongChang only moments after standing on the ceremonial medals podium (the medalist teams will accept their hard-earned hardware at Olympic Medals Plaza later tonight). 
Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

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