South Korea has been gearing up for the Olympics in a variety of ways both small and large. Incheon is now broken up into two large terminals and there’s a new train line that leaves from Incheon and continues all the way to the Olympics which is hosted on the other side of the country.
I went for one event during Seollal, the lunar new year holiday. This was both wonderful and terribly stressful at the same time. I booked tickets for the free pair skating on the first day of the holiday and spent the evening before getting to Gangneung with a friend to an airbnb we booked in Gangneung. We got in late and left early in the morning without any chance to really explore the area, using the free Olympic shuttle buses to get around. That was something that was very helpful, nearly everywhere was staff to help figure out where we needed to go, I’d even seen Olympic booths set up at Incheon to help people. We asked the Olympic booth at Gangneung station how to get where we were going, which turned out was a bit confusing because not everything was near one another. Our airbnb was near the hockey rink which wasn’t near olympic park where the ice skating was. So we had to figure out which buses would get us where.
Many people seemed to choose a will-call/ pick up tickets at the venue which gave them ticket souvenirs. To save time I’d opted for a phone app for our tickets, which meant having to re-sign into the app since it didn’t stay logged in at multiple check spots in the morning and virtually anytime I left my seat during the event.
Olympic park was a bit difficult to navigate at first, but we quickly found our way to the stadium and our seats. The whole event was fun. There was live traditional music before the event started and even a dance cam competition to win tickets to something we didn’t have time for since we were leaving early that evening.
The free pair skate was broken into four parts with four pairs in each round. They would warm up first together and then perform. A small group of children in purple would dart out onto the ice after their performance to pick up any gifts thrown out to them. The whole thing was absolutely lovely to watch. Even though we didn’t have great seats our seats weren’t bad and we could easily see what was going on and be impressed. The woman next to me had brought opera glasses which I think was smart.
After the first two rounds there was a fifteen minute intermission and this is where I messed up. Since we had brought all our stuff with us one of us needed to stay behind in the seats to watch our bags so I offered to get something for my friend while I ran off to the bathroom. She asked me to get her an americano due to neither of us having a full nights rest the night before. For a 15 minute intermission you can really only accomplish one thing and for me that was getting in and out of the bathroom before a long line formed, but at concessions I got trapped. There were only four people working, all moving slowly which meant right when I put the order in for an americano the third set of warm up skates had started and by the time I got the americano the stairs to the seats were roped off. I missed most of Valentina Marchei and Ondrej Hotarek’s performance, which was highly disappointing. Lesson learned.
Thankfully during the judging and small warm up for the next pair they took down the ropes allowing people to return to their seats. I was able to catch the rest of the performances and then look up the Italian pair I’d missed later online. It was so much fun to be there and to watch the skaters and their creative performances. When Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot from Germany went my arms nearly went numb from applauding and it was so great to get to watch them win gold (though we didn’t stay for the medal ceremony which was later in the evening, we did get to watch them stand on a podium and receive a plushie). They even received a standing ovation. The beauty and grace of the skaters, everyone’s good sportsmanship and the overall atmosphere made for a wonderful experience. I wanted to cheer on everyone and even though my home country only had one pair I was so proud of every single pair that went out onto the ice. By the end of it, even though I was starving I wanted nothing more but to stay and watch more events. My friend has already decided she wants to save up for Tokyo 2020 and I’m tempted. Though ice skating is by far my favorite event at any Olympics, we’ll have to see what happens.
After watching the award ceremony we headed off in search of food. This was a moment that was a bit aggravating for multiple reasons. Despite having a map of the venue there were no details of what was being served where. There was only one “restaurant” on the grounds with no signs for what was inside and various concession stands throughout the park which didn’t seem to sell the same things, and once again didn’t have any information on what they sold unless you either stood in line until the line got close to the check out or you pushed your way past the line read the menu. This was additionally confusing for us because why would there be only one restaurant, especially if one of the main Olympic sponsors is McDonalds? There had to be a McDonalds somewhere, right? Well there was nothing on our map so after fighting through lines to see what different concession stands sold (one sold pizza and snacks, another sandwiches, one nachos without cheese but ketchup and mustard instead) we decided to wait in line at the “restaurant”. The menu at the restaurant was broken into western and Asian food with options for a beef quesadilla, lasagna amongst many other Asian options. I opted for the donkatsu since despite loving quesadillas and lasagna I never know if the restaurant will be sneaky and make either spicy, especially in Korea.
While waiting in line for our food, as soon as we made it up to the front to order the system went down. Here’s the other little annoying thing about the Olympics. When the Olympics are sponsored by a company it means pretty much they use that company and nothing else. I.E. Coca-Cola meant it was difficult to find any other brands of soda anywhere on site, and one of the big sponsors for the Olympics is Visa. This means to pay for things you either need cash (thankfully) or a Visa card. My Korean card is not a Visa and from my understanding with many other teachers who went to the Olympics their’s aren’t either. Which leaves you in a bit of a pickle, either carry around enough cash to pay for anything you may possibly want or have a Visa. Since it was the holidays most of the atm’s I had tried on my way to the Olympics were virtually tapped. So the machines broke and we spent a good twenty or so minutes waiting for them to be fixed before we ordered and received our food. It was good food and it was nice to sit, we just probably should’ve taken this time to drink water and not cola.
The Visa problem isn’t nearly as dire as it seemed. There are various little Visa shops around the Olympic park and even in the back of the Visa superstore at which you can buy a souvenir Visa gift card for a set price. These are either cards or pins that can be used on the grounds or at Starbucks. Why Starbucks and not some place like McDonalds I don’t have clue. But that’s just what I was told when I got my little pins in order to buy souvenirs for family and friends. Even the official Olympic pop up shops throughout Korea only take Visa or cash. So…come prepared one way or the other.
After spending way too much time at the Visa superstore we only had a few hours left at the Olympic park and with our bags heavy and running on fumes we decided to head to the live center which our event had suggested we check out since they’d be sharing live feeds of the other events free for anyone who had purchased a ticket and thus were in the Olympic park. We headed that way and found ourselves in a muddy clearing with a stage and screens which wasn’t what we were expecting at all. We’d expected seating of some sort and people gathered around TV’s watching curling or whatever else was happening at that moment either in Pyeongchang, Jinbu or Gangneung where the events were being held. But instead there were large screens and what looked like maybe a marching band and mini event happening on stage that they were showing, so we popped into the pin trader outpost and learned about the Olympics and the collectors pins that made the whole thing feel a little bit more like Disney World.
Outside of stadium venues the next largest amount of things at the Olympics were sponsors. Giant buildings showcasing their goods with some sport of optional interaction with guests. For Coca Cola there was a giant vending machine people could line up for and put a coin into the machine and get a goody bag (something sold out by the time we showed up) or North Face which had set up a bunch of yellow dome tents they’d decorated for photo ops as well as an optional stamp collecting scavenger hunt that sent guests out throughout the space to win a collection of stickers. These places also offered a limited set of pins you could get in a either first come first serve basis (Coca-Cola) or at staggered disbursement times (North Face). These pins could then be traded at the Coca-Cola pin trading post near the live center or just enjoyed. This also explained why some of the Visa gift cards you could purchase were also pins. If other sponsors were also doing pins I don’t know since we ran out of time or the lines at these places were too long. After collecting stamps at the North Face booth we headed to to the shuttle pick up to catch our train.
You have to go through security. Unopened bottles of water seemed to be fine to take through, I’m not sure about snacks. I do wish we had brought some, I’d assume something unopened would be best to try. I had two bottles of water, one unopened and the one that was open I had to chug at security.
There are decent bathrooms at the venues but at the Gangneung Olympic park we had difficulty finding any more bathrooms outside of the stadiums. The concession stands we visited did not have any bathrooms. The only spot we found were port-a-potties between information and the live stage. These are filled with stalls so you don’t have to worry about waiting outside unless all the stalls inside one are full (in which case just try a different one).
There’s a thing we didn’t know about called Hospitality Houses. Many countries and some brands have these hospitality houses that you can visit or you may have to pay to enter. They offer a variety of events, cultural experiences as well as sell team gear. (Like a country hat or flag or something) Example: TEAM USA House turns out it was exclusive only and would have required us to pay $300 dollars to get in but we wouldn’t have been able to buy anything at the hospitality house since they weren’t selling anything to begin with. But the Canadian House would have been $25 per day with free poutine from 3-4pm every day while some other countries were completely free to visit and didn’t require a reservation. Kind of wish we’d known about it and understood more about it before we’d gone since we’d passed the Korean and Japan house multiple times in our walks around Olympic park. For locations of the hospitality houses and more information on them I suggest checking this out.
A McDonald’s did exist. It was on the other side of the Visa superstore that we found only when we finished shopping.
Overall I loved my experiences at the winter Olympics and wish I’d known more ahead of time and stayed longer. There was so much to do and see and it was so much fun to be a part of.