Here at Phoenix Park in Pyeongchang we’ve hosted the moguls, aerials, halfpipe, ski/boarder cross, parallel giant slalom (PGS) and slopestyle events. Working as National Technical Officials on the courses has led to some truly brilliant, tell-your-kids moments. But behind the scenes has also been chaotic at best, and deadly at worst. There have been some seriously sketchy moments where I’ve thought, “If something goes wrong here, we’re all going to die.” So to recap the past three weeks I give you The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of working for the Winter Olympics.
Free uniforms! Our entire uniform set comes with the outer jacket, pants, boots, beanie, backpack, thermal layer and mid-layer. And we get to keep it all! It’s good technical gear by The North Face and the whole kit is worth about $2,000 AUD.
Great sunny weather. South Korea is all about bluebird days so we didn’t have to worry about rain or truck loads of snow dampening our mood while we worked. Plus, the lighting looks great on Instagram.
We literally built Olympic courses. It’s a good feeling to know that the courses we worked on were used by the world’s top athletes. And they liked them! Aussie mogul athlete and now Olympic silver medalist Matt Graham said “they’ve done a really good job to build the top section up and put a bit more pitch and firmer and icier moguls in which I think will work into [Australia’s] favour as we’re generally really technical skiers so that gives us a lot of confidence going forward into the week.” While Aussie halfpipe rider Kent Callister said, “This halfpipe is amazing, I think this is the best pipe ever built so the level of riding will go through the roof.”
We touched Olympians. We’ve had plenty of fun interactions with athletes, coaches and media personnel. I high-fived Maddie Mastro, gave snacks to Chloe Kim and Arielle Gold and made friends with Aussie silver medalist Jarryd Hughes. We’d walk past world famous athletes every day, sometimes sit on a chairlift with them or just have a casual chat. To us skiers and boarders, these people are absolute celebrities.
We touched Olympic courses. If you’ve ever really wanted to know what it’s like to be in an Olympic halfpipe or wondered how big the slopestyle features are – just ask someone from our team. After each of the events finished we had access to actually ride the courses! Some of our team members (unfortunately not me as I was injured towards the end of the Olympics) got to ride the moguls, halfpipe, slopestyle, PGS and cross courses. The main feedback was, “It was awesome!” and “It was terrifying and I
The greatest stage on earth. We had better seats than those who actually shelled out hundreds or thousands of dollars for tickets – and we were getting paid the whole time. I’m talking, right at the bottom of the halfpipe with the photographers. A bird’s eye view of the slopestyle course from a chairlift. Standing directly against the base of an aerials jump as athletes soared overhead. Our team was right there to watch the epic battle between Scotty James, Ayumu Hirano and Shaun White, when Matt Graham won silver on moguls, and when Chloe Kim became the first woman to put down back to back 1080s in an Olympics. There are no words for how massive and awe-inspiring the events are when you’re up close and personal.
We’re basically famous now. Our little international crew has had a lot of media attention. People are frequently surprised to see anyone but Koreans in the pink uniform. As one ski cross athlete exclaimed, “You’re not Korean!” Many were happy to find foreigners who had local knowledge of where to eat, drink and party. So we’ve been getting pretty famous and were even interviewed by Snows Best/ Miss Snow It All’s Rachael Oakes-Ash – see it here.
It was freezing. While it may be sunny in Pyeongchang, the temperatures are frequently -25 and below. Wind chill can take the temperatures below -30, which can be challenging to work in. Some days our team battled with early stage frost nip on toes and noses.
Those uniforms. Let’s be real – they’re not “red” like the handbook says. They’re bloody pink and the pants barely graze our ankles.
We had to prove ourselves. The first day we were employed at the Olympics we sat in a cold room and didn’t leave it for 8 hours. We certainly didn’t work, even while the rest of the (Korean) moguls NTOs did. Why? Because we were viewed as separate to them, just some ragtag ski school instructors who didn’t belong at the Olympics. They assumed we were useless and troublesome because of our lack of Korean language skills. Thankfully our manager complained and got us working the next day and I am proud to say our team worked our butts off and proved all the haters wrong. In fact, we developed a real reputation for working hard and getting things done and soon every team on the mountain wanted us.
Bad communication. Most days we had no idea what we were going to do. We’d often find out our start times the night before – even as late as 11:30pm! Then we’d arrive at work and nearly every day would be different. Everything was last minute. A lot of problems stemmed from a lack of effective communication between the Korean teams and the international course builders that came from places like Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada. Once on the boardercross course we heard the American in charge give directions, that were then translated into Korean, and then translated back into English for us. It was like Chinese whispers – by the time the instructions got back to the workers on the ground they were entirely different to what he first said.
Overzealous security. The Olympics has surprisingly high security. I know, I know – North Korea may have attacked at any moment. But still, security seemed over the top and useless at the same time. The entire place was fenced off with only a few security entrance points. You’d walk through a scanner that would read your pass and show up you identity on a big screen. Then you put your bag through a scanner like at the airport. You’d go through a metal detector, be wanded with a hand-held metal detector, usually end up pulling everything out of your pockets, then go to get your bag only to find security rifling through it and inevitably have things taken off you.
The problems were thus: 1. The rules change daily. One day we could bring in sealed food, the next no food at all, the next everything but fruit and vegetables. One day we could bring in drinks, the next only drinks in clear containers, then no drinks at all. It led to A LOT of arguments with security. 2. The long process led to huge queues of people waiting to get through security. One morning at 6:15am it took me 30 minutes to get through. Which led to more fights with security.
Food shortages. This was by far the hardest part for me. We usually had all our meals provided to us in an underground cafeteria (separate to the Olympic volunteer cafeteria) but throughout the Olympics the entrances and exits kept being closed off. We ended up accessing it four different ways because security kept locking doors on us. In the end they allowed us in, but to get out of the cafeteria we had to exit the entire venue, walk 1.6km and go through security again. Most days we simply didn’t have the time so we survived on the meager snacks we were provided with (instant noodles, tins of tuna and packet kimchi) or what we could smuggle past security. It resulted in some team members gaining multiple kilos due to a bad diet, while others like Mark and myself dropped a few kilos each.
Early starts. As we changed between multiple roles, our start times were always changing. While some were a respectable 8:30am, the training course team usually had to be on the hill setting up at 7am, and the halfpipe team sometimes started at 5:30am. It was dark, it was cold…but we did see some killer sunrises.
No days off. Our team worked 21 days straight and are now thoroughly exhausted and over the Olympics. I think this lack of rest was in part the reason I ended up spraining a facet joint in my neck and having to bow out of the last 6 days of the Olympics. It was also tough working in a small team for such a long time, and the frustrating nature of the work meant tensions were often high. It was certainly a challenge, but I’m happy to say no one hates each other.
A huge environmental impact. Considering that the 5th Key Objective of the 2018 Olympics was to be an “Environmental Games”, they did a terrible job of it. We were forced to drink from plastic, disposable water bottles every day because we were warned off the tap water and a lot of our re-usable water bottles weren’t allowed through security anyway. One morning we watched on in horror as the wider NTO moguls team filled up a giant hot water urn with over 30 of those plastic water bottles. For just one morning’s worth of hot water. Then there’s all the needless packaging our uniforms came in, the rubbish we see people dropping in the streets, and the thousands of disposable hand warmers we’re provided with. All this waste meant the bins were overflowing every day.
Sexism and gender equality. We all know that snow sports is a white, male dominated industry. But throw that into a country that appreciates stereotypical gender roles and things are only going to get worse. Our NTO team included six women and from day one we were badgered with questions like “Don’t you find it hard?” “Isn’t it too heavy for you?” “Is the work too hard?”
To our girls’ absolute credit we have worked extremely hard to dispel these assumptions about our gender’s strength, abilities and usefulness. Many of us have looked up from our shovels to find men watching us, slack-jawed in utter surprise. We’ve also received a lot of, “Wow! Strong girl!” pseudo-compliments that are both nice to hear but also very condescending. These comments remind us that we are not viewed as remotely similar in ability to our male counterparts.
In a positive light, I like to think our female crew helped to dispel such stereotypes. Not just for the men, but for Korean women too. Once we started work on the aerials course I had this conversation with a Korean woman:
“So what will we be doing here?” I asked.
“Oh, you don’t have to worry so much. It’s lots of nailing things and carrying wood. It’s more for the boys,” she replied.
“Why is it for the boys? I can do that too.”
“Oh, but it will be quite hard.”
The day did indeed involve a lot of carrying beams of wood and nailing sheets of ply. But our very capable women were just as involved as the men. At one point that same Korean woman saw me carrying a long beam of wood by myself.
“You girls are so strong. I don’t think I could carry it,” she said.
I put the plank down and looked at her. “You don’t know until you try.”
A little while later she came back to me and said, “It’s true – you don’t know until you try. I didn’t know I could slip the moguls course – it was so steep. But I just tried and was really surprised I could do it!” A little later I even saw her pick up some wood. I like to think that in some small way, we helped her to have more confidence in herself and her abilities.
Poor safety, injuries and deaths. Very few days have gone by when I haven’t been in a situation where I could have been seriously injured or died. It started with working right next to a winch cat (think a groomer attached to a high tension wire on a steep slope). We were building up the moguls and this winch cat comes rolling past us. Our boss at the time didn’t bat an eyelid. But winch cats are notoriously dangerous because if that high tension wire snaps or twangs out it will cut people in half. Our team ended up essentially walking off the job whenever the winch cat came by.
During one of these walk-offs I spotted some international workers pointing in our direction and looking aghast. “Are you guys talking about the winch cat?” I asked. “Yes. You shouldn’t be anywhere near it!” one replied in a thick Scottish accent. “Oh I know. That’s why we’ve stopped working and are over here. It’s crazy.” “I remember the winch cat in Sochi,” he said. “It kept snapping in the halfpipe. And all these people were standing next to it. I said, ‘Ooh don’t you like your heads?'”
A few days later all the cat drivers walked off the job in protest because of safety concerns and working too close to people.
Another time I was chatting to a Korean girl who was working with us on the moguls course. She had only learned to ski the year before by slipping (sliding sideways to smooth out or remove snow) another mogul course. She had applied for the job and been told it involved indoor duties but she was soon thrown onto the course, which is incredibly steep and icy. Most of our team are advanced and expert skiers and boarders and still found it challenging. When I talked to her on a chairlift she said she was exhausted and terrified of slipping the icy slopes. A few days later I saw her on crutches with a bandaged knee. She said they had been slipping the course at night – but this particular night there were no lights on the course. They still went ahead, in pitch black darkness, and she ended up hitting a bump and falling down the entire course.
There were so many dodgy safety moments – people rolling skiddoos, operating heavy machinery with no training, people getting too close to the pipe cutter blades, pieces of wood falling on people, a guy falling 22 feet into the halfpipe… I could write an entire post on this alone.
A lot of people got hurt. Multiple people died. And most of it went unnoticed. (For example, we know that a man was decapitated during construction work at Phoenix Park but we’ve been unable to find any media reports on it.)
I’m leaving Pyeongchang and the 2018 Winter Olympics tomorrow morning. The Olympics was a test of my patience, my friendships, my fears and my trust in myself. I learned so much more than I ever imagined, having been so hands-on with constructing Olympic courses. I met more amazing people and spoke to more of my favourite athletes than I probably ever will again. But I’m glad to be going.
Thank you for following the journey and offering your support along the way! Now if you’ll excuse me, the Japanese mountains are calling.