PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—Just before 2:45 p.m. on Thursday, 22-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin won her first gold medal of the 2018 Olympics. She watched from the bottom of the course while her final competitor skied through the giant slalom, and as soon as it became clear that her position atop the leaderboard was secure, Shiffrin fell to the ground in relief, hugging her knees into her chest.
“It was an amazing feeling like, my best effort is good enough,” she said. “It was good enough today and now I have an Olympic gold in giant slalom. It was my 15 seconds to let it all out and now I’ve got to focus on tomorrow.”
Tomorrow, at 10:00 a.m. local time, Shiffrin will compete in her best event, the slalom. But before that, tonight at 8:00 p.m., she had to go to a separate ceremony to actually receive her gold medal. All she got during the brief ceremony up on the mountain was a stuffed tiger in a top hat.
Shiffrin came to Pyeongchang surrounded by a narrative not about whether she would medal, but about just how many medals she could win. After becoming the youngest person to land atop the podium for slalom in Sochi, the then-18-year-old told reporters, “So right now I’m dreaming of the next Olympics, winning five gold medals—which sounds really crazy. Sorry I just admitted that to you all.”
At the time, she was a slalom specialist. It’s still her strongest event, but this year Shriffin won the overall World Cup title, marking her as the best not just in her preferred discipline but in all of women’s Alpine skiing.
If she could compete in all five events—slalom, giant slalom, super-G, downhill, and combined—Shiffrin would have a chance at a record-breaking Olympics. According to the Times:
No Alpine skier, man or woman, has ever won more than three gold medals in one Olympics. No Alpine skier has won more than four Olympic gold medals in a career.
Unfortunately, weather delays to both the slalom and the giant slalom forced a condensing of the schedule. And following her first win, Shiffrin’s mother/head coach told reporters that Shiffrin would skip Saturday’s super-G race rather than compete on three consecutive days.
The IOC can’t control the weather—and if anything, Olympic organizers have come under fire for not postponing events—but they don’t help athletes with ambitious schedules like Shiffrin’s by holding medal ceremonies at a separate location later in the day.
The Medal Plaza is located at least a half hour drive from most of the relevant venues. According to the schedule, the nightly ceremonies are nine minutes per sport. Nine minutes of ceremony for which athletes certainly have to block off at least an hour of round-trip travel time. But also, only nine minutes, which can’t possibly be prohibitive for simply adding that onto the end of the broadcast of the event itself. Honestly, it’s probably not much longer than the time it takes to get three athletes up on a portable podium for the sake of presenting them with a stuffed animal.
Medal ceremonies are held at the site of the sport itself for the Summer Olympics because there are too many events on any given day. But that presupposes that an offsite ceremony inherently makes more sense. Reached for comment, the IOC said that the standalone medal ceremonies were introduced during the Calgary 1988 Olympics, “in order to give the public an opportunity to view medal presentation ceremonies.” But wouldn’t people who actually went out of their way to attend a particular event have the most interest in seeing the medal ceremony?
Mikaela Shiffrin is surely thrilled to have to go to the Medal Plaza—after all, that’s what she came to Korea for. And she’s so dominant at slalom that this likely this won’t loosen her grip on the gold. But given a choice, an elite athlete on the eve of a once-every-four-years competition would probably prefer a schedule that doesn’t block off a chunk of her evening for a long drive and some smiling and waving.
After today’s race, Shiffrin’s coach, Mike Day, was aware of and concerned about the schedule crunch. “We’ll streamline the process absolutely down to as little as we can do and still be respectful to all the media and all the ski racing fans around the world,” he said about getting her ready to race again in less than 24 hours. Shiffrin did limit her media availability, skip the customary press conference, and bypass a visit to the U.S. House. “But ultimately, I think everybody would be happy if she’s able to come out and put down another great performance tomorrow,” he said.
He’s right. Shiffrin skiing her best—and specifically doing so in numerous events across the Alpine schedule—is a highlight of these Olympics. And there’s on easy way to lessen the inconvenience that the pomp and circumstance of the games present to an athlete like her: ditch the plush toy and give out the real thing right away.