PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — There was the bus with a donnybrook billiards match on the TV screen up front; and a bus with a scintillating volleyball match; and a bus with updates on Kim Jong Un; and a bus with an indecipherable game show; and a bus with four screens all showing an animal show where one animal ate another, uncooked, while all the cute little animals scurry around while you worry about them; and that bus with the Korean soap opera in which the handsome young doctor tried to resuscitate the pretty young woman, and he kept thumping her chest and thumping and thumping, thumping for a good 10 kilometers of bus ride at least, thumping until you might wonder if by chance he had resuscitated her and then killed her again.
There are the buses on which the drivers do seem just a little too Formula One.
Mostly though, there are buses. Buses are always an Olympic staple, transporting all manner of people to all manner of venues and hubs, but at these PyeongChang Games, the bus, that human invention with roots in France and Britain and Germany, does seem more of a star.
That’s because this Olympics is a sprawl, from mountains to coast to in between. It’s such a sprawl that one can feel, from one place to another, variations in climate. It’s such a sprawl that one might leave a hotel at 11:40 a.m., walk to a hub, take a 43-minute bus, walk to a wrong hub, take a five-minute bus back to the other hub, take a 41-minute bus to a third hub, take an 11-minute bus and, given all the waits, reach the speedskating venue at 3:30 p.m.
Is a seven-hour, eight-bus round trip with a closing 40-minute walk in the snow at midnight worth the trouble to watch the Herculean Sven Kramer skate for the Netherlands?
Damned right it is.
But what if, here in South Korea’s delightfully friendly Olympics, which employ occasional people assigned simply to say hello to passersby, someone attempted to go to as many sports as possible in a given day? Might that person wind up leaving the hotel around 10, and returning 17 hours, nine minutes, eight buses, eight removals of layers for the hot bus interior, and eight reapplications of layers for the outdoor frigidity later, at 3:09 a.m.? Might that person learn the hard truth, that if you go about things just incompetently enough, there’s a chance of botching bus schedules with such waywardness that one might not witness any athletic pursuit at all?
Might that person wind up at 11:47 p.m., standing below a mountain for the women’s normal hill ski jump, wondering how in the world anyone would use an official word like “normal” for that “hill,” waiting to see if a Norwegian wisp with blond pigtails might be able to sail through the 12-degree, minus-5-wind-chill air, and land far enough away to get a gold medal?
Might that person wind up exhilarated at 3:09 a.m.?
Spend 17 such hours and, beyond an ophidiophobic worry about whether a snake might turn up in the animal show on that one bus, and one might see some things.
Let’s start with the young man at snowboard on the front edge of the midday crowd, amid all the aahs and gasps and cowbell ringing for a Swiss snowboarder. The young man is dressed in the kind of black fur coat that seems right out of — warning: prehistoric reference here — “Dr. Zhivago,” and he’s holding a flag in the red and white stripes of Austria and colors that reads, “ANNA GASSER.” He has flown from the Russian port city of Rostov-on-Don, two hours to Moscow, then nine hours to Seoul, then the two-ish-hour ride out here, the flag in his luggage.
The metal flagpole, he bought in Korea.
This man, Ilya, explained that, since his trip to the Sochi Olympics in 2014, “It was clear for me that she’s an outstanding person. Yep, and she gave me a sign [autograph]. I was very lucky to get it. And after this, I watched her on the Internet and on TV every time I have a possibility. I am her fan because she’s open-minded, and every time in a good mood. She’s very positive and energetic, it surrounds her.”
A Russian man following an Austrian snowboarder with an Austrian flag and a newly bought Korean flagpole . . .
Yes, that would be the Olympics.
Bus after bus after bus from there, over to the coast, and here are three guys in Czech jackets chatting outside a coffeehouse, and four guys wearing Dutch orange and riding orange bicycles even while everyone knows that at home, they skate across the canals to work. (Not really.) Nearby breathes one of the most enchanting places possible, a beach (Anmok) lined with a renowned “coffee street,” coffeehouse after coffeehouse after coffeehouse.
Next, after another bus, here’s Czech men’s ice hockey practice, and then across the way, after a mix-up at security over whether one needs a special ticket, which would be sort of attitudinal, is figure skating practice. Here’s defending gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, and if you’ve never seen figure skating from ice level, there’s a wow coming: the speed. The speed brings a fresh realm of dazzle for these athletes who do things so unusual it actually doesn’t make any sense.
From figure skating, there’s actually a walk, if a big one, to the curious, loud quiet of curling. Here, two mixed doubles teams of compelling interest go at it in a taut semifinal. The Swiss team includes Martin Rios and Jenny Perret, and while he lists his athletic hero as Rafael Nadal, she lists hers as Roger Federer, and it’s a testament to the otherworldly gentility of the Federer-Nadal rivalry that these two curlers can collaborate at all.
On the other side, however, vie a curling glamour couple if ever there were one: 25-year-old Aleksandr Krushelnitckii and 25-year-old Anastasia Bryzgalova, both from St. Petersburg, not the one near Tampa. They happen to be married to each other, making them an extraordinary case of spouses working together and competing together without any apparent horror.
Bryzgalova becoming a bit of an Internet sensation for her slip and tumble Tuesday in the bronze-medal match, but more so because of her physical beauty, while Krushelnitckii’s own physical beauty and enviable biceps have made him less of an Internet sensation, with her Internet advantage over him suggesting that men are more inclined than women to click out of hapless prurience.
This couple of allure would lose by 7-5 to the Swiss on Monday night, but there was no time to witness that ending for anyone wishing still to reach ski jumping, thus needing to get a 40-minute bus, followed by an eight-minute bus, followed by a 10-minute uphill walk in 12 degrees at 10:30 p.m. It might seem inhumane to hold ski jumping near midnight in 12 degrees with snow spitting across, but then the silver medalist, Germany’s Katharina Althaus, said, “We count on bad weather and we count on windy weather; that’s part of the game,” and the bronze medalist, Japan’s Sara Takanashi, said, “This is an outdoor sport,” whichmericifully prevents anyone from slamming into a ceiling.
Finally, at 11:46, one last jumper stands alone, the last competitor left atop the “normal” “hill.” Norway’s Maren Lundby, 23, was up there knowing she crashed in training the day before and needed some physiotherapy, and knowing she had not aced her first jump to her standards even if she did lead after that round.
Yet, in the thing that astounds us all about Olympians, she felt calm.
“I knew what to do, and it was a normal ski jump, so I’ve done this since I was 3 years old, so it should not be that hard, I think,” she said.
Off she launched, her head soon ducking between her skis, her body flying, flying down to a spot indescribably sweet, a spot she knew had clinched gold, such that she didn’t even have to check the scoreboard. Hugs and tears went around, and squarely at midnight she stood on the podium to receive her preliminary stuffed white tiger before the gold medal that comes later. If you never saw a slight Norwegian with kid-sister pigtails ski-jump masterfully near midnight in 5-degree wind-chill, then you really ought to do so.
Two buses and: one change later, you might wind up on a bus at 2 a.m. with loud French guys cackling in back, what with Americans always complaining about the French always being so notoriously loud, and then an hour more after that, you might wait for one last bus, from 2:34 a.m. to 3, waiting more and waiting more, with a body downtrodden but a mind uplifted.