My 2018 Winter Olympic adventure starts at o-dark thirty. I crawl unwillingly out of a warm sack to be blasted by the icy blowtorch of a freezing, pitch-black morning. On the bus to Seoul station – and thence to Gangneung on the 06:55 KTX bullet train.
Gangneung? Not Pyeongchang?
Yes. To explain: The Games are branded “The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics” but might better be dubbed “The Gangwon Games,” after the northeastern province (Gangwon) they are being held in. The opening and closing ceremonies, and the outdoor events – downhill skiing, luge, alpine skiing, etc – take place among the hills and mountains of Pyeongchang, which is actually a county, not a town. The indoor events – ice hockey, speed skating, figure skating and the like – take place in Gangneung, a smallish city on South Korea’s east coast. So: Pyeongchang is a county, Gangneung is a city Gangwon is the province. All clear?
On the platform at Seoul Station with a steaming cup of coffee – a tool as essential to any reporter as notepad and computer – in my fist, I bump into a pal from UK embassy, heading to Gangneung for a security briefing. This, I suspect, will be the first meeting of many such meetings in days ahead.
And sure enough, no sooner have I boarded the train and planted bum on seat, than who should sit down next to me? Colleague and chum Bruce Harrison of NBC. He is Gangneung-bound on the same mission.
Underway, things are chummy from the get-go. The Chinese-Canadian couple beside us is headed to the Games to cheer on their son, a competitor in figure skating. But no time for idle chat! I have two clear hours to work on a story.
On the KTX, those two hours go by smooth and fast. Gangneung’s brand new KTX station is a sight to behold – and inevitably, the Olympic mascots and rings are set up outside, bedecked in tourists and/or reporters taking selfies. (There are 3,000 media covering the Games, plus 1,000 accredited to the Gangneung Press Center. And I would guess, a couple of thousand local media to boot).
My accommodation for the next four nights advertises itself as a hotel – but turns out to be a motel (and that is being kind). Prices are a big story here. Gangwong accommodation owners have gone spaceballs, jacking up prices 200, 300 or 400 percent. Your intrepid reporter is paying a hefty KRW250,000 per night for a room that usually retails for KRW66,000. On the other hand, the KTC cost just KRW49,000 for a round trip – less than 50 bucks. (And the KTX is really something: as I wrote in an earlier article, Gangwon’s Olympic legacy is a transport infrastructure bonanza, that is going to deliver a long-term dividend to this underpopulated, under-invested in province.)
The hotel/motel is the kind of place that is usually sold by the hour to amorous couples on passionate trysts – but happily, the place is fully booked with friendly Chinese, here to promote Beijing 2022’s Winter Olympics at “China House.” I promise to visit.
After checking in, I trot back to the station to rendezvous with Bruce to catch a cab to the Press Center. Outside the station, we hear a yell and see an arm waving from a taxi: Another Seoul colleague, Andres Sanchez Braun of Spain’s EFE is in a cab right there. The three of us share his ride to the Gangwon Press Center.
This is set up in the bowels of the Seamarq Hotel, one of the finest in Korea, if not Asia. (Standby: I interviewed the architect last week, and will file the story shortly.) We are registered, so pick up our badges and press kits, and stake out space in the working area, which offers a spanking view over the Sea of Japan, or what Koreans insist should be called the East Sea. (Take your pick.)
Sunrise from here will be magnificent, and given the working hours I will be putting in over the next four days, I expect to see it – albeit through bleary eyes.
Who should be doing a stand up to camera right there at the window? Yep, yet another Seoul colleague, Lim Yun-suk of Channel News Asia. Cue hugs, and, “It’s been a long time!” (Actually, about two weeks: We last met on a press tour to Pyeongchang.)
The press center knows what we want. We plug in and go online: This is South Korea and the Interweb is lighting fast. There is also – of course – free coffee.
But – back to business. Today I will be covering (deep breath):
The big military parade North Korea is holding just one day prior to the Olympics kicking off. (Typical North Korea behavior – but hey. If you are a hack, Kim Jong-un pays a lot of bills);
The eagerly awaited first concert of North Korea’s Samyicheon Orchestra here in Gangeung. (As a reporter, one hopes there will be a juicy demo. But as a human, one hopes – despite the well-merited cynicism of long experience – that maybe, just maybe, these Games can offer the two Koreas a chance to open a communications channel that will outlast the Olympics and lower tensions.)
A big “Olympics then-and-now” feature.
So, I had better stop doing this and start doing that.
More fun and Games tomorrow. The Opening Ceremony is likely to be a reporters’ nightmare and I will bring you all the hideous details.