Hats, blankets to be handed out ahead of what could be the coldest Winter Olympics
By CHELSEA JANES | The Washington Post | Published: February 6, 2018
DAEWALLYEONG, South Korea — Lee Hee-boem, president and CEO of the Pyeongchang Olympic Organizing Committee, a man with an MBA from George Washington University and a doctorate in business, sat on a dais in front of several dozen reporters from around the world Tuesday and held up a fleece blanket — his unexpected defense against a flurry of questions about what might be the coldest Winter Olympics in history.
"I have tried this blanket on my lap," he declared, his message translated from Korean by a translator. "And I think this blanket will work in quite cold weather."
He wasn't finished. He then pulled a red knit cap over his head.
"You can cover your ears with this hat," he said, providing what probably wasn't a necessary demonstration. "If you wear it like this, you can endure the cold."
The blanket and beanie are part of a kit that will be distributed to spectators at Friday night's opening ceremony, which will be conducted in an open-air stadium despite the biting cold and howling winds.
The opening ceremony has become a focus of concern. Temperatures in Lillehammer, Norway, plummeted below zero degrees Fahrenheit in 1994, but the 2018 Olympics could top that. Pyeongchang is known for bitter winters and pounding winds that blow in from the Manchurian plains and Siberia and never seem to stop this time of year. Unlike Vancouver in 2010 or Sochi, Russia in 2014, where organizers scrambled to combat unseasonably warm temperatures, organizers here are engaged in widespread efforts to keep spectators safe.
They may dodge the worst case scenario. After enduring what organizers are referring to as a lengthy "cold snap," temperatures here are supposed to rise over the next few days and peak around 40 degrees Fahrenheit on Friday - just in time for the opening ceremony later that evening.
"On the ninth, there is no forecast for snow or rain," said Lee, who also said he plans to summon a weather expert to address reporters Wednesday. "On the day of the opening ceremony, the weather will be warmer than it has been so far."
Nevertheless, the organizing committee has redoubled efforts to convey weather concerns to those planning to attend. Those efforts have worked a little too well, Lee said, as some try to return tickets.
A few spectators at a concert held at Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium in November had to be hospitalized with hypothermia, though Lee explained that they had been wearing "autumn clothes." Many of the 20,000 or so spectators at a dress rehearsal this past Saturday left early, too.
So organizers decided to provide the kits Lee showcased Tuesday, and add 40 large heaters to the second floor of the stadium. Lee said the committee also wanted to provide free hot drinks, but could not do so because of a sponsor contract with Coca-Cola. Instead, he said, hot drinks will be sold for roughly $1.
Logistically, organizers do not yet foresee the need to adjust the competition schedule because of the weather. The International Olympic Committee has regulations in place about the maximum wind speeds in which ski jumping can take place, and built wind shields around that course to minimize the risk of cancellation. Otherwise, the cold will likely have less effect on the scheduling of these Games than warm temperatures did on those before it.
The Olympians themselves, though accustomed to performing in the cold, have nevertheless expressed surprise at and the need to adjust to the extent of this chill.
"It's truly winter here," said four-time Olympian Ted Ligety, an alpine skier who said these Olympics are by far the coldest he's experienced in his career.
Ligety plans to attend the opening ceremony in a battery-powered jacket that heats the back, designed by U.S. Olympic outfitter Ralph Lauren.
"I mean, [the opening ceremony] is one of the coolest things you can ever do in your life. You just have to prepare," said American luger Chris Mazdzer, who will be competing in his third Olympics. "The jeans we have from Ralph Lauren are really tight, and I'm not going to be able to fit a whole lot under there. But handwarmers, foot warmers, you do whatever you can. You just have to be there."
Staying warm enough to "just be there" is one thing; being comfortable enough to compete in peak form is another.
U.S. snowboarder Jamie Anderson, who won the gold medal in Sochi's balmy temperatures, said she and her teammates had little desire to explore the slopestyle course when they first arrived here. Even for women who spend their lives on the snow, the cold was intimidating.
"I think I'm going to have to play with my layers and neckies and everything just to feel comfortable because I believe the cold does affect our performance," Anderson said. "Trying to stay good, when you're out in the freezing, how can you go and perform? I've been drinking a lot of warm liquids. I don't ice anything. I always drink warm tea or warm water with lemon. Thanks to the Chinese medicine teachings."
Ligety said he'll have to adjust his equipment and keep his boots warm. Most of the U.S. skiers say they train in places with comparable cold, particularly those who have trained in Lake Placid, New York, whose February temperatures are similar Pyeongchang's.
Those competing in the sliding sports will likely have to adjust even more. The deeper the chill, the harder the ice. The harder the ice, the faster the sled, meaning bobsledders, lugers and skeleton racers will see conditions change dramatically.
While in skeleton and bobsled, riders are used to sliding side to side as they wrestle the ice for control, lugers have less margin for error, Mazdzer explained.
"Skeleton and bobsled? They're more rounded, so they don't have to worry. They slide around. They hit walls," Mazdzer said. "If we hit walls, game over. We're trying to drive this perfect line. So we need to have that sharpen our steel [on the runners]."
Mazdzer and his luge teammates will be among the coldest competitors at the Games. They wear skintight suits, the competitive effects of which none of them can afford to compromise by stuffing them with coats or base layers. For the two minutes of their race, they will have little defense against the cold.
"Once you're going down though," Mazdzer said, "you're so focused on what you're doing you don't feel anything."