PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- As Winter Olympics go this was the most unusual of all. The self-appointed royalty that runs this five-ringed carnival employed a unification flag and anthem for a country that has been divided for more than seven decades and took those cherished identifiers away from the previous hosts.
The “reject” US men’s curlers won a gold medal. So did a South Korean skeleton sledder and a Czech snowboarder who crossed over to the Alpine side and won the Super G for fun. The German men came within a minute of taking the hockey final. And the Norwegians topped the medal table (39) for the first time since they staged the Games in 1994.
When the flagbearers entered the stadium en masse for Sunday night’s closing ceremonies, North and South Korea each had its own banner plus the unified peninsula version while a volunteer again bore the Olympic flag for the Russians, who’d hoped that they’d be allowed to wave their own white-blue-red tricolor. That was how the Lords of the Rings sent their messages of optimism and opprobrium.
These Games marked the first time that the North and South Koreans had competed together (on a joint women’s hockey team) after having marched alongside each other several times in previous opening ceremonies. “Now it’s up to the politicians,” IOC president Thomas Bach declared at his traditional wrap-up news conference.
This edition also signified the first time that an Olympic country had been deprived of its national symbols for what the IOC called “systematic manipulation” of its athletes’ drug samples in Sochi.
Any chance that the IOC would relent for the closing ceremonies was dashed after two Russian athletes — curler Aleksandr Krushelnitckii and bobsledder Nadezhda Sergeeva (who’d worn a “I Don’t Do Doping” sweat shirt) — tested positive here. “These two doping cases in fact played the major role when coming to the decision of not lifting the suspension,” Bach said. “This was the key fact.”
To the dismay of critics who felt that the Russians should be banned from competing in the Games they still had the third-largest team here. Even with a second-string roster the Motherland still managed 17 medals (tied for sixth with South Korea) and grabbed the gold that it most cared about, its first men’s hockey crown since 1992, when a chunk of the shattered USSR was glued back together as the Unified Team.
Even if the Russians, who defeated Germany on Sunday in a 4-3 overtime thriller for the gold medal, had been permitted to bring their entire varsity neither they nor anyone else was going to catch the Norwegians, whose record-setting motherlode astounded even themselves. Not only did they clean up in the traditional Nordic sports of Alpine skiing, cross-country, jumping, and biathlon (33 medals total), the Norwegians also made podiums in speedskating, curling, and freestyle skiing.
Their haul, which was 13 more than they won in Lillehammer, provoked raised eyebrows among observers who felt that their indulgent use of approved asthma medication for therapeutic benefits pushed the ethical boundaries. Even so, that’s a venial sin in an age of blood-boosters, stimulants, and steroids.
Having Norway atop the heap again was a pleasant sight for the IOC, which longs to have the Games return to a classic winter spot like, well, Norway. After three consecutive Games in unlikely places — subtropical Sochi on the Black Sea, PyeongChang, and next time in Beijing, the 2008 summer site — the Lords want to go back to old school for 2026.
“We all know that from time to time you need to nurture the roots,” said Bach. “You cannot always plant new seeds and forget your roots and the strong tree you have. In this cycle, we want to go back to the roots.”
Problem is, few of the traditional places are interested in being Olympic arborists. Oslo, which easily would have won the 2022 nod, pulled out of the chase for lack of public support. The United States, which last hosted in 2002 in Salt Lake City, will take a pass until after the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Although Salt Lake is interested in 2030, sponsorship concerns make a 2034 American bid more likely.
Four cities — former hosts Sapporo (1972) and Calgary (1988) plus 2022 dropout Stockholm and Sion, Switzerland — are interested in 2026 but still are in the talking stage for an event that will be awarded next year.
PyeongChang wanted the Games badly enough that it bid three consecutive times for them. Except for short-track speedskating they are not winter sports devotees so hosting an Olympics was a priceless chance to create other snow and ice offerings, have an excuse to build a high-speed train link from the Incheon airport through Seoul to the mountains, and make cash-poor Gangwon Province into a tourist destination.
The $13 billion price tag was nearly double the original figure, but PyeongChang put on impeccably organized, irresistibly welcoming Games with spectacular venues and flawless transportation. The South Korean athletes had by far their best showing, finishing above customary powers Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, and France in the overall count.
The challenge, as it is for most host cities, will be to keep the facilities from turning into costly white elephants. The $109 million stadium will be downsized from 35,000 seats to fewer than 10,000 and will be used as an exhibition center with a museum. But there are no firm after-use plans for the large hockey arena, the sliding track, the speedskating oval, the Alpine center, or the ski jumps.
That’s why the IOC is looking for future cities that already have most of the venues in place and it’s what made Paris and LA no-brainers for the next two Summer Games after Tokyo, itself a former host. If Oslo, which was the 1952 site, were to put its hand up tomorrow it might win by acclamation. Bach and his colleagues like kimchi, but they love nostalgia on the cheap.John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.