PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – The 2018 Winter Olympics shivered Sunday to a close, surely defined by cold and wind but destined – just as in Seoul 30 years before – to mark a key chapter in history on the Korean peninsula.
These Games are likely to be recalled as an inflection point in Olympic history, too. After logistical dramas and more at Rio 2016 and Sochi 2014, the Olympic scene needed a Games at which the venues were built, the buses ran on time, security was subtle, the volunteers were super-friendly – organizationally, everything more or less just worked – and the spotlight shone on the athletes and their stories of inspiration.
That’s what PyeongChang delivered.
A low-key Games on a far more human scale.
Pressure? The Olympics? What?
Shaun White threw down an epic run for a third career halfpipe victory and, as it turned out, Team USA’s 100th all-time gold. IOC president Thomas Bach learned that in snowboard lingo a most excellent run is called “sick.”
For Bach, and the entire Olympic movement, these Games – with great moments such as White’s sick back-to-back 1440s – could not have proven more opportune.
For 17 days, the focus mostly shifted away from the three year-plus drama of Russian doping – though two positive tests here involved “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” one a curler – and onto the unique station the Olympics hold, still, in our world.
Together, North and South Korea marched in the opening ceremony and competed in women’s hockey.
After the women’s 500-meter speed skating final, won by Japan’s Nao Kodaira, she and silver medalist Lee Sang-Hwa of South Korea embraced, Kodaira saying, “Sport can make the world one together. It’s simple.”
Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan repeated as men’s figure skating champion; on the women’s side, Moscow teens Alina Zagitova and Yevgenia Medvedeva went 1-2. Martin Fourcade of France cemented his legacy with three gold medals in biathlon. Norway’s cross-country skier Marit Bjoergen won a career 15th Winter Olympics medal, most ever, part of the Norwegian team’s 2018 dominance: 39 medals overall, 14 gold. Germany also won 14 gold. The U.S.: 23, nine gold.
Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic, a snowboarder, won the women’s ski super-G. Then she won the snowboard parallel giant slalom. She is the first woman to win two gold medals in two different sports in the same Winter Games.
For Americans, two images are likely to remain indelible. There was Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson’s goal to defeat Canada, the U.S. women’s hockey team’s first gold in 20 years. And Jessie Diggins’ dash for gold in the freestyle team sprint, the first-ever medal for American women in cross-country skiing. Diggins carried the U.S. flag in Sunday night’s ceremony.
Finally, there was Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua — who showed up Sunday night, once more, shirtless and oiled-up, the thermometer reading 26 degrees. During the competition itself, fully clothed, he finished the men’s 15-kilometer cross-country race. And not in last place. He said:
“I was the skinniest, shortest, slowest kid all my life. I never missed a rugby training session, but I never got out on the field once. Now I’m a two-time Olympian. If I can do it, he can do it, she can do it. This is about inspiring others.”
Mark your calendars. Opening ceremony in Tokyo: July 24, 2020.