(Yonhap Feature) Athletes, fans feel Olympic vibes through test events
By Joo Kyung-don
SEOUL, Feb. 23 (Yonhap) -- Even after it was named the host city of the Winter Olympic Games in 2011, the atmosphere in PyeongChang, an alpine town in Gangwon Province, was rather flat than frenetic.
But with the Winter Games less than a year away, PyeongChang is pumping up with a series of test events that lured top athletes and fans around the world.
For the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games (POCOG), February has been by far the busiest month as nine of the 14 Olympic test events were planned. Eight of them have been already completed and the World Junior Curling Championships are set to wrap up their 11-day schedule on Sunday.
In particular, last week was at the peak as six test events were held across five venues in PyeongChang and Gangneung, a sub-host city in Gangwon Province.
The organizers said so far more than 80,000 fans have visited the Olympic venues to see these nine test events recently. All of them were free admission, except the International Skating Union (ISU) Four Continents Figure Skating Championships that was staged in Gangneung, some 230 kilometers east of Seoul, last week. The ISU competition, however, drew more than 20,000 fans to Gangneung Ice Arena, according to the organizers.
Cross-country skiers compete in men's skiathlon event at the FIS Cross-Country World Cup in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 4, 2017. (Yonhap)
For athletes, the test events gave a glimpse of how their events would be played, while the organizers had a good opportunity to check their operational readiness. Fans also got a chance to see the world's top class athletes ahead of the PyeongChang Games.
The athletes who competed at the test events were satisfied with the Olympic venues.
"The course and the slope are really good," said Benjamin Karl, the Austrian alpine snowboarder who won four World Championship gold medals. "Audiences are awesome and I see no problem."
Those who performed indoors for skating competitions also gave their thumbs-up for the facilities.
"The Olympic venue itself is already beautiful," said Nathan Chen who won the men's singles title at the Four Continents last weekend. "I love the arena. I've had a really good time here so far."
Perhaps the only thing the athletes are concerned about is mother nature.
At the FIS Ski Jumping World Cup last Thursday, the men's event was supposed to be held on the large hill at Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre, but due to windy conditions and for the safety of the jumpers, the organizers decided to have the athletes jump off from a smaller normal hill. Some of the aerial skiers who performed at Phoenix Snow Park for the FIS Freestyle Ski World Cup also said they had a little problem with the wind.
"It's windy here, and that's difficult for aerials," said Ashley Caldwell, who won the overall aerial skiing World Cup title in 2016. "But you can't change the wind."
Fans watch a performance of a freestyle snowboarder at FIS Snowboard World Cup at Phoenix Snow Park in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 19, 2017. (Yonhap)
South Koreans said they enjoyed the performance of top winter sports athletes ahead of the Olympics.
"It feels like the Olympics are really going to be in this the country," said Kim Soo-mi, who traveled from Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, to see the FIS Cross-Country World Cup at Alpensia Cross-Country Centre in PyeongChang on Feb. 4. "My family lived in Finland before and winter sports there are really popular. I hope our country can have many events like this to raise the popularity of winters sports."
But for some local fans, what they lamented was a lack of good results from South Korean athletes.
So far, only two athletes have collected medals at home. They are Kim Bo-reum, who won the women's mass start, and Lee Sang-hwa, who took silver medal in women's 500m race at the ISU World Single Distance Speed Skating Championships at Gangneung Oval in Gangneung earlier this month.
In particular, none of the local athletes had a podium finish in snow sports. Those who were looking for promising results in front of the home crowd, however, said the test events provided them with a good lesson ahead of the PyeongChang Olympics and performing alongside the world's top athletes at the Olympic venue was already a valuable experience.
"I feel disappointed with my result, but it still motivates me that the Olympics will be here next year in front of home fans," said mogul skier Choi Jae-woo who finished 10th at the FIS Freestyle Ski World Cup on Feb. 11. "I will forget my scores today and will prepare my best to get good results at the PyeongChang Olympics."
During the test events, PyeongChang and Gangneung also welcomed fans from other countries, though this time, most of them were from Japan and China. For the ski jumping contest and figure skating, the places were packed with Japanese reporters and fans because of stars like Sara Takanashi and Yuzuru Hanyu.
Takanashi claimed her 53rd World Cup victory in PyeongChang last Thursday and tied the record for the most World Cup wins, while Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic champion in men's singles figure skating, collected a silver medal at the Four Continents in Gangneung.
The organizers believe that more than 4,000 Japanese fans showed up at the Four Continents which ended its four-day schedule on Sunday.
Japanese fans show their national flags to support figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu before his short program performance at the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 17, 2017. (Yonhap)
Although the organizers tried to provide the best stage for the athletes during this test period, everything wasn't perfect. From transportation to convenience, there have been some mishaps that require more work from the PyeongChang staff.
For example, at the FIS Nordic Combined World Cup, there was an incident in which a shuttle bus picked up athletes late and interrupted their practice schedules. At the Four Continents, the Canadian flag was raised without being unfolded during the medal ceremony for the ice dance competition.
People who visited the Alpensia Cross-Country Centre and the Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre complained about a lack of convenience. Because snow wasn't properly removed from the stands, some fans had to stand up and watch the athletes perform.
"There are lots of people here, but there are only a few portable toilets and there seems to be no place to eat," said Yoo Jae-gyu, who came from Gangneung to watch the cross-country event. "Also many people here don't know about the rules of the sport or popular athletes. It would be nice if the organizers provided some kind of brochures for information."
The organizers said they are learning from the test events and promised they will have a better environment and conditions at the Olympics next year.
"Of course, we know that there are some problems, but if you look at it the other way, it's nice to find these problems at this phase because we can do better for the Olympics," said Gangwon Governor Choi Moon-soon, who inspected the test events with his staff during this month. "I'm sure everyone will work harder to fix problems."
At least for the organizers, what they hope from this series of test events is to create the Olympic vibe and get South Koreans excited for the first ever Winter Games at home. The Olympic test events are set until April.
"Our goal is to make the Olympics a festival not only for Gangwon Province, but also for the entire nation," said Yeo Hyung-koo, secretary general of POCOG. "From these test events, we hope people will know how exciting winter sports are and that the Winter Olympics are just around the corner."
Figures skaters wave to fans after their gala event at the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships at Gangneung Ice Arena in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 19, 2017. (Yonhap)