The cold returns for Winter Olympics in PyeongChang

AP
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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — The cold is back for the Winter Games.

After two straight balmy Olympics where some might have wondered if it was even winter, let alone the world’s pre-eminent freeze-dependent sporting event, athletes and visitors alike will finally experience a serious chill in their bones during the games in mountainous PyeongChang.

How cold is it?

So cold that tears spring to the eyes. So cold the ink in a pen grows sluggish and fades as it scribbles over a page. So cold that South Korean men sometimes flash back to being posted for hours on the frozen frontline during mandatory military service.

So cold at least six people were treated for hypothermia last month after a pop concert at the open-air Olympic Stadium.

“We all hope it will be better in February, but if it’s like it is now, there will be big trouble. It’s just too cold for outsiders,” said Choi Jong-sik, 64, smirking in his short-sleeve shirt as a visiting reporter removed layer after layer of thick outerwear for an interview at Choi’s PyeongChang restaurant.

Vancouver and Sochi, where ski jumpers were landing in puddles, got complaints for being too warm, as might Beijing in 2022, but the weather in PyeongChang will likely dazzle spectators, and confound organizers and athletes, in its bitterness.

PyeongChang sits nearly half a mile above sea level in the northeastern corner of South Korea, not too far from the border with the North.

It is one of the coldest parts of the country — wind chill in February is often in single digits (Fahrenheit) — and notorious for a powerful, biting wind that gathers force as it barrels down out of Siberia and the Manchurian Plain and then across the jagged granite peaks of North Korea.

It can be hard to get people here to talk about, or even acknowledge, the cold. It is simply a fact of life, and stoicism is often the rule when confronted with outsiders’ weather-related questions.

“The only thing foreigners can do is the same thing locals do: bundle up,” Nam Sun-woo, 60, a fishmonger in PyeongChang, said. “Not many outsiders understand how cold it gets here. It’s not like where they’re from. This kind of cold is completely different.”

The weather will be on display, and maybe a major nuisance, at the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium in Hoenggye village.

The much-criticized 35,000-seat, open-air, pentagon-shaped arena, which cost 118.4 billion won ($107 million), will be used only four times — during the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Olympics and Paralympics — and then torn down.

On a recent blustery day, from the top of a nearby 17-story building, the white angular stadium looks a little like a giant discarded Lego piece.

It rises isolated on a wide, flat plain, muscular mountains cascading down behind it. It looks vulnerable and exposed — all those thousands of orange and pink seats laid bare below the wide dome of sky — but also slightly magical as the sun glitters off millions of tiny ice flakes blowing across the plain.

The wind is brutal, and it pounds the entire area, including the stadium and the rooftop, where the gusts rattling through the big AC units sound like a doomed bomber plummeting out of the sky in an old war movie.

Despite the cold, organizers have done little to protect stadium visitors. Spectators will have to sit exposed for as long as five hours in the elements during the nighttime ceremonies.

There are no built-in heating systems for the seats and the corridors, and it’s too late to build a roof and too expensive to install central heat, officials say.

Many of the concertgoers last month where six were treated for hypothermia reportedly flocked to the arena’s toilets for a rare bit of respite from the cold.

Organizers plan to provide each spectator at the Olympic ceremonies with a raincoat, a small blanket and heating pads — one to sit on, one for the hands and a pair for the feet.

They also plan to install polycarbonate walls above the highest seats across the two northwest sides of the stadium to block the strongest winds. ‘

About 40 portable gas heaters will be placed in aisles between the rows of plastic seats, and lots of hot coffee and tea, fish sticks and heated buns will be on sale.

Still, by the time the Opening Ceremony starts at around 8 p.m., the wind chill at the stadium could be minus-14 degrees Celsius (about 7 F).

That is much colder than the wind chill at the ceremonies for the Vancouver and Sochi Games, which were 5 degrees and 4 degrees Celsius, respectively, according to South Korean officials.

When Associated Press journalists visited the area earlier this month, it was minus-18 degrees Celsius (a little below zero F) midmorning at a resort near Olympic Stadium.

Sochi temperatures soared at times. On Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, for instance, it was 16 degrees Celsius (61 degrees Farenheit).

The coastal areas of Gangneung, where skating and hockey will be held, are warmer than PyeongChang. But it’s still cold.

Tourists can be seen in huge quilted coats standing on piers and posing for pictures as huge, frigid blue-green waves crash behind them; they run and laugh, trying to dodge the spray.

Locals often smirk when they see bundled-up tourists waddle around PyeongChang like penguins.

Choi, after an interview, stands outside his restaurant, still in his short-sleeve shirt, smoking a cigarette while a well-layered-up reporter shivers nearby. “Sometimes I go out like this and the people in warm coats look at me like I’m crazy.”

A drive into the mountains twists through isolated former mining towns and past frozen fields, frozen rivers, frozen forests and dramatic granite peaks that look in places like they’re sliding into the valleys.

The sun sparkles on the brittle ice covering the landscape; the wind roars through the pine trees like traffic on the interstate.

“It’s cold, and it’s going to get colder. But what can we do?” said Ahn Young Ju, 36, a restaurant owner in the remote town of Nammyeon in Jeongseon county, which will host the Alpine skiing events. “We were born here, so we try not to think too much about it.”

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Mikaela Shiffrin heads to world championships with medal records in sight

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Before Mikaela Shiffrin can hold the World Cup wins record, she can become the most decorated Alpine skier in modern world championships history.

Shiffrin takes a respite from World Cup pursuits for the biennial world championships in France. She is expected to race at least four times, beginning with Monday’s combined.

Shiffrin has a tour-leading 11 World Cup victories in 23 starts this season, her best since her record 17-win 2018-19 campaign, but world championships do not count toward the World Cup.

Shiffrin remains one career victory behind Swede Ingemar Stenmark‘s record 86 World Cup wins until at least her next World Cup start in March.

Shiffrin has been more successful at worlds than at the Olympics and even on the World Cup. She has 11 medals in 13 world championships races dating to her 2013 debut, including making the podium in each of her last 10 events.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

She enters worlds one shy of the modern, post-World War II individual records for total medals (Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt won 12) and gold medals (Austrian Toni Sailer, Frenchwoman Marielle Goitschel and Swede Anja Pärson won seven).

Worlds take place exactly one year after Shiffrin missed the medals in all of her Olympic races, but that’s not motivating her.

“If I learned anything last year, it’s that these big events, they can go amazing, and they can go terrible, and you’re going to survive no matter what,” she said after her most recent World Cup last Sunday. “So I kind of don’t care.”

Shiffrin ranks No. 1 in the world this season in the giant slalom (Feb. 16 at worlds) and slalom (Feb. 18).

This year’s combined is one run of super-G coupled with one run of slalom (rather than one downhill and one slalom), which also plays to her strengths. She won that event, with that format, at the last worlds in 2021. The combined isn’t contested on the World Cup, so it’s harder to project favorites.

Shiffrin is also a medal contender in the super-G (Feb. 8), despite starting just two of five World Cup super-Gs this season (winning one of them).

She is not planning to race the downhill (Feb. 11), which she often skips on the World Cup and has never contested at a worlds. Nor is she expected for the individual parallel (Feb. 15), a discipline she hasn’t raced in three years in part due to the strain it puts on her back with the format being several runs for the medalists.

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Lucas Braathen, world’s top male slalom skier, in doubt for world championships

Lucas Braathen
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Norway’s Lucas Braathen, the world’s top male slalom skier this season, is doubtful to compete in the world championships slalom on Feb. 19 after appendix surgery on Tuesday.

“It’s been a tough couple of days fighting after surprisingly finding out about quite an intense infection on my appendix,” Braathen, a 22-year-old soccer convert with a Brazilian mom, posted on social media. “I’ve been through surgery and I’m blessed that it went successfully.”

The Norway Alpine skiing team doctor said Braathen’s recovery will take a few weeks, but there is a small possibility he can make it back for the world championships slalom, which is on the final day of the two-week competition.

Braathen has two slalom wins and one giant slalom win this World Cup season. He will miss Saturday’s slalom in Chamonix, France, the last race before worlds. Countryman Henrik Kristoffersen and Swiss Daniel Yule can overtake him atop the World Cup slalom standings in Chamonix.

Braathen entered last year’s Olympics as the World Cup slalom leader and skied out in the first run at the Games.

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