Friday, March 23, 2018

Bibimbap and BBQ: an ode to Korean food

I had some sushi for lunch yesterday - the first rice I'd had in two weeks since getting back from South Korea. After a month in which I had either rice or noodles at at least one meal (and usually two) every day I felt the need for abstinence!

Not that I didn't really like Korean food. Here's a run-down of my favourite things and what it's like to eat out in South Korea.


The Koreans eat pretty much the same stuff for breakfast as they do for other meals, as far as I can work out. I know abalone porridge is supposed to be traditional. However breakfast is one of the few meals where I'm not good at being brave. I like Western-style breakfast - cereal, fruit, eggs, bread, pastries or cake if they're on offer!

At the traditional guesthouses and cheap hotels I stayed at, the options usually consisted of one brand of white sliced bread, one brand of butter and one brand of strawberry jam in those little square packets. No variation, no matter where I went! In Seoul I also got eggs and some sliced apple, in Busan and Gyeongju there was cereal too (there should have been cereal in Daegu but there was no milk).

In PyeongChang we were treated to a magnificent breakfast buffet every morning where you could have any breakfast you fancied - good for lining the stomach before a cold day in the mixed zone!

Other meals

Kimchi in Gyeongju
I didn't see any difference between what Koreans eat for lunch or tea/dinner. The staple carbohydrate is rice, which you even get with noodle soup and so on, served in little metal bowls with a lid to keep it warm. Plus with every main meal you get some sort of side dishes. At their best, this involves several different kinds of kimchi (fermented vegetables), always including the standard cabbage and usually some sort of radish too. Seaweed and beansprout options were quite common, as well as strips of a sort of omelettey fishcake thing. In the more fast-food type places there was usually a self-serve kimchi area which usually had cabbage plus a variation on the pickled radish that was bright yellow and slightly sweet in taste. I love that stuff! You can generally ask for more if you eat all your kimchi.

A lot of Korean dishes come in a hot stone pot and my favourite of these was definitely bibimbap. This is a bowl of rice with a variety of vegetables on top, topped with an egg. I think strictly speaking it's supposed to be a raw egg yolk that cooks as you stir it in, but I also had a version with a fried egg and one with strips of omelette.

Bibimbap in PyeongChang - I had this same dish at the same place three times

The next best thing I ate, a few times, was hangover soup (haejang-guk). Again there are variations; the first one I had had a white base and all the others a red base. The general idea is that they come with pork ribs on the bone, plus some vegetables (cabbage) and optionally some ramen. The best version was definitely the one in a little restaurant near the snowboard venue, where two of my colleagues ate pretty much every day, but there was a close second in Busan! It's a wonderfully comforting sort of dish.

Hangover soup near the Phoenix Snow Park

Other soup/stew dishes which are common include sundubu jigae, which is a soup made with soft tofu and quite a lot of chilli; and kimchi stew, which is simply a soup made with kimchi!

Kimchi stew at Gangneung bus station (yes really)
I only managed to try Korean barbecue twice, on consecutive nights with Olympic colleagues at the same restaurant, but it was lots of fun. You all sit around a table which has a barbecue in the middle - gas or charcoal - and they bring you big plates of meat and you cook them. The restaurant we went to also supplied lots of extras, including salad, garlic to cook, and spicy salt to dip your meat in. So good.

The Koreans have also adapted dishes from the nations that have occupied or visited them over the years. There's a lot of Japanese-style katsu curry, a lot of fried chicken and pork cutlets, and often an option to get cheese on top. Udon noodles are also popular.

Sundubu jigae in Gyeongju

Street food is a big thing in Korea with lots of things on offer, usually fried. I loved the green onion pancake I had in Busan and the grilled prawn skewer which followed it up. Some street food stalls and some shops sell a thing called gimbap, which is a bit like a sushi roll - a variety of ingredients wrapped in rice and seaweed. I got quite a good one from the supermarket in Gyeongju to take walking!

Supermarket gimbap
 Drinks and dessert

Coffee is a bit of a craze right now in South Korea but I didn't have much good coffee. Espresso is not on the menu at many places, although cappucinos, lattes and Americanos are. The latter tended to come huge and too weak for my taste and coffee generally cost a lot - as much as in London.

The other craze is dessert cafés, which all seemed to serve strawberry frappés, with a selection of patisserie style cake on offer. I kept meaning to go and have some cake and then never got around to it.

Otherwise they don't go in for pudding so much, which was probably good for my sweet tooth although did mean that I ate too many biscuits in PyeongChang. In Busan the street food stalls sold these amazing little doughnut things filled with sugar and nuts and seeds, fried in butter, called hotteok. I had one each day I was there!

I drank quite a lot of lager in Korea - it's okay - and also tried the local liquor soju, which is a bit like vodka although less alcoholic. At one place I had some homemade rice wine, which was thick and slightly fizzy and actually pretty good.

Eating solo in Korea

My main challenges when travelling alone in Korea were a) being brave enough to go into a restaurant when half the time I had no idea what they were serving and b) finding places that didn't cater exclusively for groups. I went to one place in Gyeongju recommended by the Lonely Planet, which advertised a meal for 9,000 won, which was about the standard price. However when I asked for a table for one I got a stern refusal. A lot of Korean food is about sharing, whether it be a barbecue or a hotpot, which isn't ideal if you're on your own.

Luckily there were generally enough places to eat solo; I generally aimed for somewhere that looked busy with locals and this was usually a good bet.

I really enjoyed the vast majority of Korean food, but I did find myself missing good British fare - potatoes, and bread, and cheese. I had a baked potato with Cheddar tonight for tea and it was marvellous. But I'm kind of craving a bibimbap too ...

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Fish and ships in Busan

Several people had said how much they'd liked Busan, South Korea's biggest port city on the southern tip of the peninsula, so I arrived with a certain amount of anticipation about my last stop in the country.

First impressions were good. Busan has a very efficient metro system which got me easily from the bus station to my hotel, even with my two big bags. (As I was getting off the train a man observed: "You have a lot of luggage.").

I stayed down near the port area, one of three major touristy spots in Busan. It's also close to BIFF Square, one of the locations for the annual Busan International Film Festival and a big shopping district where every day street food stalls set up their wares. On the Sunday I arrived the street food market was especially big so I went and tried the local green onion (= spring onion) pancakes, some grilled prawns on a stick, and a hotteok. Hotteok are basically little doughnuts filled with sugar and fried in butter, and then once they're done they get cut open and filled with a mixture of nuts and seeds and handed to you hot from the griddle. They're pretty good. I had one each day I was in Busan!

In the afternoon I walked up to Gamcheon Cultural Village, which the Busan tourist people optimistically describe as 'Korea's Machu Picchu'. Or 'Korea's Santorini'. Neither really hits the spot. My Olympic colleague Petter, who went to Busan before me, captioned his photo of the place as 'favela Friday' and frankly I think he's more accurate. Gamcheon was at one point a poor area, with low-rise, small boxy buildings built on a hill. In the last 10 years or so they've gentrified it, cleaned it up, made sure all the buildings are painted in bright pastels, and put in loads of street art and art installations. The shops are souvenir shops and the place is full of tourists taking selfies at the 'photo zones'. Granted, Gamcheon is touristy but I liked the art and the colourful buildings and it was a nice way to spend the afternoon.

In an ideal world I'd have spent the next day walking up one of the many hills surrounding the city, but it chose to pour with rain in the morning. So instead I went to see one of Busan's top sights, the Jagalchi Fish Market which was just near my hotel.

The fish market is housed in a large building by the harbour and much of the fish sold is alive. The stallholders sit behind large tanks, many crammed with fish and shellfish swimming around, with water gushing through to keep everything fresh. I wouldn't say that the fish looked desperately happy in their tanks but I guess they were due to be in a pot fairly soon.

There were all sorts of weird and wonderful types of fish that I'd never seen before, from eels to big fish to various sorts of shellfish and gigantic mussels, sea squirts and other mysterious creatures. Upstairs there was a big restaurant area and a section selling dried fish. I went back to the restaurant a little later at lunchtime; possibly because it was early March and raining it was quiet and I was pounced upon by every restaurant owner. One lady enthusiastically offered me a massive discount on everything in the menu, so I chose a blue crab soup - avoiding all the raw fish options - and soon sat down to a huge bowl of delicious seafood.

It was still raining a bit after lunch but I went to the UN memorial cemetery, where many of the soldiers who fought and died for the UN forces during the Korean war are buried. It was a quiet and peaceful place but, as so many war cemeteries are, shocking in the numbers of names listed on the memorial wall and the young age of so many of those laid to rest there.

With the rain still coming down I was at a bit of a loss of what to do. Korea is annoyingly one of those countries where the museums are closed on Mondays. I consulted the map and decided to go and investigate what is apparently the world's largest department store. When I got off the metro, in an area which reminded me a bit of Canary Wharf, that was closed too. Luckily it wasn't a totally wasted trip as nearby is the Busan Cinema Centre, which boasts the world's longest cantilevered roof and was quite nice to look at.

My last day in Korea luckily dawned dry. I jumped on the bus and headed down to an area called Taejongdae, where you can walk by the coast and on a clear day catch a glimpse of the Japanese island of Tsushima about 50km offshore. There's also one of those little 'trains' to catch but the walk was only about 4km and on a good pavement. The sea air was good, there were decent views from the lighthouse, and I avoided going to yet another temple.

With a bit of time left to kill I finished Busan with a visit to the Korean National Maritime Museum, which is in an extraordinary building and has a very comprehensive selection of exhibits about Korea's maritime history, as well as a small aquarium. I like a good maritime museum and enjoyed this one, which was almost empty of people.

Back near the hotel there was just time to pop up the Busan Tower, a new sight which is trying to be a landmark viewing 'experience' with funky videos in the lift and so on. It's not going to be a Petronas Towers any time soon, but it was surprisingly fun and the views were good. I descended for a final hotteok, and then caught my train to Seoul and the long flight home.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Tomb and Buddha-spotting

After spending much of my couple of days in Seoul immersed in the history of the Joseon Dynasty, Korea's last ruling royal family before the country became a republic, it was interesting to reach Gyeongju and discover a much older history and the very tangible remnants they left behind.

Long before the Joseon Dynasty took power and over a millenium ago, Korea was ruled by the Silla Dynasty - originally as part of a three-kingdom state, and then once they'd done some conquering, in a 'unified Silla' period towards the end of the first millennium AD. In their capital Gyeongju they built great royal tombs of stone and covered them in earth, and now amid the growing modern city there are loads of these huge burial mounds dotted around. Rather like a team of enormous moles had been very very busy. At this time of year the mounds are the same dried-out golden-brown of most of Korea's countryside, but the pictures of them in the summer are bright green and admittedly much prettier.

Various excavations mean that they've unearthed lots of artefacts and treasures from the mounds and that was the focus of my first half-day or so in Gyeongju as I explored the parks where the burial mounds are situated and the Gyeongju museum, a well-curated collection of the stuff they dug up.

But Gyeongju is more than just burial mounds. The Silla converted to Buddhism towards the end of their era and started carving Buddha statues and Buddha images into rocks all over the place, and you can go exploring in the surrounding area to find many of these. Of course there are also slightly newer temples from the Joseon era too.

Bulguksa Temple is one of these, and one of the nicest and biggest temples I've visited with lovely grounds. In one of the prayer halls there was a service of some kind going on (a man was counting the number of shoes left outside) including the singing of some hymns. It was nice to see the place not just focused on tourism but also a proper living temple.

From Bulguksa I walked up the steep but pleasant 2km path to Seokguram Grotto, where a large Buddha sits serenely in a cave. Unfortunately they've put a big glass screen in front so you can't get very close, and they don't allow pictures, but it was a nice spot. There was a good side-trip from the Seokguram ticket office and car park up a small peak (745m high) with some nice views too and by the time I got back to Bulguksa and found a restaurant for lunch I felt quite satisfied with my morning. Especially as there were quite a few chipmunks along the paths; I don't think I've ever seen wild chipmunks before!

The best day in Gyeongju was the last day. South of the city is a small mountain range called Namsan, where the Silla had a fortress, and where there are lots of carvings, statues and stone pagodas (pillars, really) dotted around the forest. The Koreans love hiking and on an unseasonably warm Saturday the paths were packed with people, mostly middle-aged or older, out for a walk with friends and family. A number of them had small speakers in their bags or pockets and were playing music as they walked, which I do find a little unsociable, but even so there were times when it was me and the forest.

I climbed up from the start at Samneung on the western side of the range to a peak called Geumobong, following the frequent signs and taking a number of small detours to look at carvings and so on. From Geumobong I headed to Yongjangsa, where a stone pagoda sits majestically on the edge of a plateau overlooking the mountains - it was gorgeous. Then I headed down into the valley, across a swing bridge and back up another valley towards a temple called Chilburam where they have some very good Buddha carvings. Chilburam is a small, working temple and I was greeted by a smiling nun who ushered me in for radish tea and snacks served by an equally welcoming young monk with very good English who wanted to know all about my trip.

I ended the walk at Tongiljeon Palace, a more-recently built palace which had some nice photos of the region and some historic paintings telling the story of the Silla. It was a really lovely day.

Getting around Gyeongju

Gyeongju is dead easy to navigate and pretty small - it took me less than an hour to walk from my hostel near the bus stations to the museum. You can rent bikes and electric scooters too if you want. To get to Bulguksa I caught bus #10 from outside the express bus terminal. Buses 10 and 11 do loops from the bus terminals to Bulguksa in opposite directions and the temple is about halfway around the loop so it probably wouldn't matter which one you got.

To get to Samneung I caught bus #500 (a number of others go the same way), from the top of the street which runs along the east wall of Tumuli Park. These buses also leave from the bus terminals I think. I got bus #10 back from Tongiljeon after my hike took me over the Namsan range to the opposite side. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Decompressing in Daegu

Daegu, South Korea's fourth-largest city, is perhaps not a natural tourist destination and some of the stuff I read online while researching suggested it was not worth the trip to go there. But needed somewhere to decompress after the Olympics, a town to aimlessly wander where simple things like finding food would not be an issue. Daegu fitted the bill.

I found a nice-looking guesthouse to stay in – a former shrine and Confucian teaching hall with a welcoming family as hosts, close to one of Daegu's biggest markets. Finding the guesthouse when the taxi dropped me off proved harder as it's in an old area of pedestrianised alleyways. At one point in my 15-minute circular wandering, when I thought I'd found the right route, an old man insistently pointed me in the other direction. I'm not sure where he thought I was going and he wouldn't let me show him on my phone. But the nice man in the convenience store drew me a map and eventually I got there.

My guesthouse
The market close by had a night market thing going on where lots of little food trucks open up and sell street food at reasonable prices; mainly Korean but with a few other options. There was so much choice I went there twice!

After a long sleep I spent the first of my two days just wandering with the help of a tourist map, using the suggested tour routes as a rough guide but mixing them up as I felt like it. I liked the little park surrounded by ancient earthen ramparts, but disliked the free zoo it contained with some very unhappy-looking exotic animals including a lonely Asian elephant and a bored tiger. Not one for animal-lovers or indeed anyone with a heart. 

Daegu, like other Asian cities I've visited such as in Vietnam, clumps its businesses into districts. I walked down Sewing Machine Street, Hardware Street and Motorcycle Street and at the end of the day came through the oriental medicine 'market', which isn't a market at all but one long street that is predominantly shops selling things like bits of bark tied into bundles, roots marinading in jars, and other mysterious natural substances to cure all your ills. There's a free museum devoted to oriental medicine too although pretty much all of it was in Korean. My translation app came in very handy!

Daegu also has pockets of gentrification, including a former market to the east of the main modern shopping district which has a whole alleyway of street art devoted to the late Kim Kwan Seok, a pop singer. It seemed very popular as a location to take pictures of your friends on smartphones; every piece of art had a Korean teenager posing for his or her (mainly her) companion in front of it.

On day two the forecast was rain and it was cloudy when I woke, but dry. So I put on my hiking boots and headed out to see the Gatbawi Buddha, a statue of a Buddha wearing a cool stone hat on the top of a mountain. It was a long bus ride (the local bus 401 terminates at Gatbawi) and the bus got quite busy in the middle, but by the end it was just me and a bunch of middle-aged Koreans in hiking gear. We all piled off the bus and I followed them up the path towards the mountain. 

There are two routes up to Gatbawi and I wanted to do a loop if I could. I managed to take the longer route without many stairs up, and came back down the endless flight of steps which I think most people use to ascend. 

Essentially there's a small flight of stone steps on your right near the beginning of the path, which, if you choose, leads to a narrow track (you can also access this a little further up the main path). About a kilometre up both the wide, main track and this right-hand narrow track you reach Gwanamsa Temple, which was pretty in the cloudy weather. From Gwanamsa the main path on the left hits the steps and there is no let-up until the top. On the right of the temple, the alternative path also climbs but without so many regular steps. There are a couple of forks with signposts; just keep bearing left and climbing and eventually you reach Gatbawi. 

The plateau has an area for praying covered by some lovely colourful lanterns but it was windy and cold, so I didn't hang around long after I'd taken a few pics of the hazy view. Going down the steps was fairly tough going on my knees and it was good to reach the bottom. 

Instead of going back to Daegu I changed buses, to the express #1 (it is red, to distinguish it from the non-express #1 which I tried to get on by mistake) and went up to Donghwasa Temple via a restaurant for a bowl of bibimbap. By the time I got there it was pouring with rain so I didn't spend as long wandering the grounds as I otherwise might have done. Donghwasa is very much a living temple, with monks wandering around and a bunch of old ladies sorting fruit for offerings in the main prayer hall, and it would have been nice to sit and contemplate the peace. Instead I braved the deluge and the wind to see the giant Buddha statue and the various buildings and then got out of there, heading back to the guesthouse for a warm shower as the rain hammered on the roof. 

It was a pretty good couple of days, completely different from three hard weeks of work, and a good way to start my little trip around Korea before heading home.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Can I sleep now?

The past three weeks have absolutely flown by, in that weird Olympic way where it feels like you've been in the bubble for years but actually it's no time at all. Yesterday, along with three of my colleagues, I witnessed the last bit of PyeongChang 2018 history as Norway's Marit Bjoergen picked up the last gold medal of the games in the 30km cross-country. In doing so she equalled the record for the most gold medals won by a Winter Olympian.

Bjoergen crossing the line
 It seemed fitting to finish the games at the venue I started at, and indeed spent the most time at, getting the bus up the hill to the media centre which doubled up as the hub for ski jumping and cross-country. But by the time the games finished I'd covered 10 sports, been to all the mountain venues and two of the coastal venues, and spoken to an awful lot of athletes.

As ever with these things there are highlights and a few lowlights. The lowlights first: the cold, which got slightly better over the course of the last fortnight as the weather improved and I acclimatised. But my toes were still mostly chilly by the end of a stint in the mixed zone. And the long hours seemed tougher in the cold. Meanwhile the less said about instant noodles and the other venue food options the better, although I did manage to have some meals in normal restaurants.

The highlights, luckily, substantially outnumber the lowlights!

One of the joys of working for events news service teams is the camaraderie among the group. We're all from slightly different backgrounds - some people focus almost exclusively on sport, others like me do a mixture of different sorts of journalism, some have moved away from full-time journalism. But what everyone shares is a willingness to get stuck in, do the job as well as possible, and have some fun while doing it. Zipping between my sports and venues this time meant I was lucky enough to work with a lot of the rest of the team, some people I'd worked with before and some I hadn't. They were all wonderful.

Then there was the sport. PyeongChang had some incredible sporting moments and it was, to quote the snowboarders, super-cool that many of them involved women. Bjoergen capped it off. Her achievements are quite extraordinary and she should rank alongside the Bolts and Phelpses of this world, yet I imagine unless you're either Norwegian or a cross-country skiing fan you've probably never heard of her. I hadn't. PyeongChang was her last Olympics, as a 37-year-old mum. She won two golds, a silver and two bronzes at this games alone, to add to six golds, three silvers and a bronze from four previous Winter Olympics. Obviously she's in a sport where multiple events are possible, but nevertheless to win a medal in both the sprint event and the marathon event is ridiculous.

One of the female snowboarders sending it at big air
Apart from Bjoergen, I was at the first-ever women's big air competition in the Olympics, where Anna Gasser did some ridiculous jumps to take gold and I really loved talking to Jamie Anderson (who'd earlier won slopestyle gold). She was just very sweet and said some very quotable things about the need for girls to get out there and take part in sport. At the freestyle aerials competition we watched more women do ridiculous jumps, except on skis, and if only for the missed punning opportunities it was a shame that defending champion and six-time Olympian Alla Tsuper missed out on a medal.

At Alpine skiing we saw Mikaela Shiffrin win giant slalom gold, her second Olympic title although she's not yet 23. And I managed to grab Ester Ledecka for a quick interview in between the first two runs of the giant slalom, before she went on to stun the world (and herself) by winning the Super-G and then snowboard parallel giant slalom. She was so matter of fact about doing both skiing and snowboard in one games, although nobody's ever tried it before. "I don't know how to do just one," she told me.

At the sliding centre everyone was charmed by the bubbly British bobsleigh duo (Mica and Mica) who were thrilled with eighth place. Meanwhile we boggled a bit at the men's double luge, which is an odd sport.

At biathlon I saw Martin Fourcade become France's most-decorated Olympian in either summer or winter games, but struggled to understand his French as he speaks very quickly and with a bit of an accent. Over at ski jumping we saw eight-time Winter Olympian (another record) Noriaki Kasai throw himself off a massive hill, aged 45.

I came away very glad to have been asked to play my little part in the PyeongChang games. It was hard, and tiring, and I am planning on sleeping in tomorrow, but I shall remember the past three weeks for a long time. And I might just try a cross-country holiday at some point in the future.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Almost halfway

As usual, the Olympic Games fly by and suddenly we're on day six of 16.

I'm writing this in the main press centre, killing time between a morning at alpine skiing and an evening at luge. I was aiming to get back to the apartment but the bus hadn't turned up and I was craving a bibimbap (bowl of rice with vegetables and an egg) from one of the restaurants near the MPC, so I gave up waiting in the cold and went for food instead.

Despite writing in the last blog that the winter Olympics were quite like the summer Olympics, I'm slightly revising that belief. Yes, the Olympic bubble is identical and it's great to see and work with old friends and colleagues again - I rocked up at the men's Alpine combined event earlier in the week to discover the Olympic Broadcasting Service team covering it were the same reporter-cameraman duo as covered rowing and canoe sprints in Rio. "Oh, it's you!" exclaimed Graham, once I'd taken my sunglasses off.

With colleagues on men's slopestyle finals day
But the sports themselves are quite different. Many of us, watching most summer sports, have a realistic expectation that we'd be able to have a go at them and be competent if far from Olympic standard. Most people know how to swim, or run, or played football or hockey or volleyball at school. We might look at the athletes at the pinnacle of their game and marvel at their speed, strength and agility, but we know that mild competency would not be too far away.

Winter sports are a whole different thing. My first day of competition was the day before the opening ceremony, at the qualification for the men's 'normal hill' ski jumping. A 'normal' ski jumping hill is terrifying (the big hill next to it is even worse!) I have no idea how anyone can edge out on to the starting gate, which is basically just a plank laid across the track, sit on it and then let go to whizz down the hill at 80+kph.

And then there's the stuff like snowboard and freestyle skiing, where they're not only zooming down a steep slope (and really, the slopestyle and moguls slopes were steep) but have to launch themselves off a hill and turn four times in the air. Alpine skiing slopes are also much steeper in reality than they seem on TV.

Yongpyong Alpine centre - giant slalom venue
I've spent the last couple of nights at luge, which is another sport I never want to try. One of the US lugers crashed horribly on Tuesday - she got up and walked away - and I don't understand how more people aren't thrown off their sleds. (Yeah, yeah, G force ...)

I could, potentially, see myself having a bash at cross-country skiing, but the sheer effort the Olympic athletes put in is astounding. The biathletes finish close to the mixed zone and many of them fell on to the snow in exhaustion; the cross-country athletes, finishing further away, appeared to be the same.

The secret to many winter Olympians' success is starting early. Huge numbers of them began skiing as tiny children. The exceptions are often from countries without a winter Olympic legacy, such as the Tongan cross-country athlete Pita Taufatofua, who took up the sport after competing (admittedly not very successfully) at Rio in taekwondo. Still, he's here, and he's dedicated and wants to do his best, and that is an element of the Olympic Games which is common to both the summer and winter editions.

But the main difference between summer and winter is the cold, at least here in PyeongChang. We're acclimatised enough now that freezing or just below seems almost warm (although gloves are still necessary). My feet have been numb with cold several evenings, especially at ski jump, despite experimentation with two different pairs of boots, varying combinations of socks and a couple of attempts at sticking heat packs inside my shoes. I have vowed never to complain about the heat in the summer again.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The layers of the Olympic Games

I'm discovering that the Olympic Games - summer and winter - are all about layers.

In the summer, you put on layers of clothes when you go inside to what is invariably a freezing cold air-conditioned room. In the winter, you put on layers of clothes when you go outside, and extra layers when you head out to a venue.

It's also a world of tribes, divided by brightly-coloured jackets. The Dutch in vibrant orange, the Aussies in yellow and green, the Brits in blue. Then there's the organising committee staff and volunteers, this time in grey with lots of orange and pink highlights. Those of us who are working for the International Olympic Committee are in red and navy. The Olympic Broadcast Service are, as ever, looking classy in dark green and grey. Some of the big press agencies have matching jackets too; it's a veritable rainbow of colours out there.

As I found in Rio, and to a lesser extent in London, the Olympic bubble is fairly all-encompassing. Even though here in PyeongChang we are mostly eating in the restaurants which normally form part of the ski resorts where the Games are being held, instead of in workforce canteens, I spend my days surrounded by people wearing Olympic uniforms and Olympic accreditation, and going from venue to press centre to accommodation on the official media transport buses.

I've been here four days now, arriving on Sunday from Seoul on the very efficient fast KTX train, being shuttled to my accommodation on a bus on which I was the only passenger. I then visited the IOC uniform centre to be kitted out in several layers of uniform, packed in a suitcase, all designed to keep us toasty warm throughout the Games. So far the toastiness level has been sufficient, although the gear hasn't yet been tested properly and I'm worried my toes will get cold! I'm told that the ski jump venue is the coldest place here and we're there this evening (Thursday) as the qualification rounds get underway so I guess I'll find out how many layers I really need to wear.

It's interesting comparing the winter games to the summer ones. Of course from the British perspective there's less awareness of the winter Olympics, mainly because we're just better at the summer sports - although Team GB has a good chance in several sports.

The snowboard and freestyle skiing venue

From my own personal point of view I know far less about winter sports. I attribute this a) to growing up as a swimmer, and then becoming a rower; b) to the aforementioned lack of coverage of winter sport in the UK apart from that great BBC programme Ski Sunday; c) to never going skiing as a kid (thanks Mum and Dad). So everything is a learning curve as I find out how various sports are judged, the jargon used and so on. Despite this, I'm not too worried about my ability to do the job as the basics of being a journalist and asking decent questions are the same as ever.

From a practical angle, so far PyeongChang isn't that different from Rio or London. Same signs and Olympic and sponsor logos everywhere, same buzz as people greet old friends, same rules on security, same helpful volunteers everywhere. The major difference here is that much of the infrastructure is existing, with extensive use of hotels and conference centres which normally welcome the Korean skiing public at this time of year. Obviously that's a really good thing from a legacy and cost perspective.

Anyway, it's time to head off to the ski jump venue again (after a recce this morning to watch the men training). My Games are about to properly begin!