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Cold and the Winter Olympics

February 9th, 2018 · No Comments · Olympics, Sports Journalism

It ought to be, right? Cold. Plenty cold. Unpleasantly cold. It’s the Winter Olympics and we have sports based on snow and ice.

Opening Ceremonies for the Pyeongchang Games were held tonight, in South Korea, and it did not look like a shorts-and-T-shirt sort of event, no.

Well, duh.

It seems the current generation of Olympics media are not clear on the concept. Perhaps because the last three Winter Olympics were not particularly wintry — as this graphic (scroll toward the bottom of the item) on makes clear.

These Winter Games are expected to be the coldest since Lillehammer 1994, 24 years ago.

I was there, in Norway.

To get to Lillehammer, go to Oslo and turn north. Drive for several hours till you are at nearly 62 degrees of latitude — which is not all that far from the Arctic Circle, at 66 degrees (and change) north.

I loved the Lillehammer Games, as I have mentioned several times on this blog. The best of the six Winter Games I covered; people who live there embrace the winter, and it felt like a particularly legitimate winter experience — unlike Sochi 2014, for example, when temperatures did not reach freezing even once.

My recollection of Lillehammer is that many of the locals slept out on the cross-country course to have a good vantage point the next morning and ring cow bells. Like that.

I was cold in Lillehammer, and often much colder than the folks at the temporary stadium in Pyeongchang were tonight — which apparently was about 27 degrees Fahrenheit, with a cutting wind.

But, too, organizers handed out survival gear to everyone who had a ticket which included a blanket, a rain coats and heating pads. Also, a few tents were put up with space heaters inside. No one ever handed me a blanket as I went to Winter opening.

Back to Lillehammer. That was serious winter, and I have some recollections. Of course I do. (I have done a separate item on generic recollections of covering sports in the cold.)

–My Gannett/USA Today colleagues and I were in Lillehamer for nearly three weeks, and not once did the temperature climb past 26F. As warm as it was going to be? That would be 26 degrees. Some days, of course, it did not reach that.

–Mostly, I worked inside, editing copy, and because Norway is six hours ahead of the U.S. east coast I often worked several hours after midnight and could still make deadline. But the late departure meant a walk (transportation had stopped running) back to the little wooden hut where three of us had our bedrooms.

During the walk, I had on every stitch of winter clothes I owned — long johns, a long-sleeved fleece, a scarf, woolen socks, a ski cap and the colorful and heavy coat issued by the company. (OK, I still had on my Stan Smith Adidas tennis shoes. Which is lame, I know.)

At 3 a.m., it was plenty cold, to be out walking around. So cold that it was in the teens, and so cold that my glasses fogged up. I could barely see in the limited lighting of the sparsely populated town. But I never fell down, and if I arrived at the housing area at 5 a.m. or later I could have breakfast before I went to bed. Not a good idea to sleep directly after a half-dozen eggs and a stack of pancakes, but I did it more than once.

–An anecdote that swept our office: The No. 1 ski correspondent was up the hill every day, and it was always colder up there than down in the valley. I had learned the hard way, at Sarajevo 1984, that ski writers did not sit in a chalet or a heated press room waiting for skiers to come by for interviews. No, ski reporters stand, on the packed snow, in the open, in a “corral” demarcated by a rope — and flag down skiers as they file past. The process can take hours.

Our guy had been there quite some time, and apparently the reporter corral was in a bit of a swale that was even colder than at the top of the hill … and the cold took a toll. Our guy attempted to ask a question … and his lips were frozen. He could not frame a sentence. He could barely utter a word. He apparently sounded like a caveman. It was that cold. I respect the guys who go up the hill in places like Lillehammer.

–Sleeping. It was not easy. As mentioned, we lived in a wooden hut, which seemed brand new. It had three bedrooms, a living room with TV and fridge, and a bathroom.

It was nice and homey and I had no complaints, aside from this one: If I turned on the heat (and each room had its own unit), I would wake up sweating. And you do not want to be sweating in cold places, because it will chill you in a hurry. However, if I left the heat off, I woke up freezing. As the Games went on, I left on more and more clothes — and I still woke up because I was too cold to sleep. I think finally I went for the heat, and almost no blankets.

–I have complained, in the past, about one aspect of cold weather that is a chore — and most of my experience with really cold weather was at Lillehammer and Sarajevo. And that is this: A person needs to budget time for dressing. All the layers, etc. Growing up in Southern California, this never occurs to a person. You get up and budget some time for a shower and shaving … but you do not budget time to dress. Not until that extra 5-10 minutes makes you late to a meeting. At Lillehammer, I gave myself 10 minutes to get dressed.

As cold as it was, it was a fabulous Olympics. Wonderfully organized, warm people, great architecture — including the “upside down long boat” where speed skating was contested, and the massive bomb shelter blasted out of the side of a mountain with a hockey rink inside. Covered a match there. Crazy.

I hope the newbies who are covering their first Olympics embrace the cold, especially those who are (like me) weather wimps. Aside from the stray NFL playoffs game, you will never be so cold while doing your job, which is kind of cool.




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