PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The Olympics haven’t even started yet and already I’m sure that I underestimated their sheer scale. That should have been impossible, because there’s nothing about the size and scope of this that ever gets downplayed. When you’re watching at home, the effect is to be, perhaps, awe-inspiring. But when you’re here it’s just unwieldy.
As far as I can tell as an Olympic rookie who’s been here in South Korea for about 24 hours, Pyeongchang is an exceptional host. A pair of NBC employees working their 11th Olympic broadcast confirm that the country is comparatively well-prepared. I’m staying in a clean and spacious villa with heated floors. Cheerful volunteers in easy-to-identify snowsuits were waiting for media as soon as we got through customs at the airport. Hundreds more of them mill about the media facilities. And yet: Even the most organized multilingual pop-up city would be a beast to navigate.
As is often the case for Winter Games, venues in South Korea are spread over two towns. Indoor events—like hockey and figure skating—take place in the costal Gangneung. Up in the mountains, Pyeongchang hosts the skiing and sliding sports.
Both of these locations are on the other side of the (admittedly narrow) country from Seoul, into which it seems most if not all of the media is flying. The KTX train is a marvel of speed and silence that puts the Acela to shame. Still, I didn’t check into my hotel until six hours after my flight landed. That’s about as long as I’ve ever traveled to cover an event, and it came immediately on the heels of two flights totaling 18 hours. You’ll forgive me if I was feeling a little overwhelmed even before I arrived.
The sports don’t start until Thursday—Wednesday night in the U.S.—so my plan for the first day was just to get the lay of the land. I started at the Main Press Center with plans to meet people, get a sense for pacing, read the room for reactions to breaking news. The MPC, it turns out, is spread out over many floors in three different buildings. Larger outlets and committees for each country build up their own internal offices, a maze through MPC3 takes you past doors that say Getty, the Associated Press, Great Britain, or Sports Illustrated. Media from smaller delegations fill a room the size of a football field. Photographers are somewhere else entirely. Help desks are highly specialized and mostly what I asked them was how to find someone who could answer my questions.
Early in the afternoon, I followed a group of Team USA jackets into a auditorium for what turned out to be a press conference. I ended up staying there for hours. Biathlon athletes were replaced by speed skaters, then cross country skiers, then the women’s hockey team. By the time I left it was dark out and I had to google the names on my audio files to remember which sport the people I’d just spoken to played. That was after just four of 15 sports in these Games and just one of 92 countries attending.
By the end of the day I still had no idea how to get back to my hotel. All the maps I’d seen were either city-scale—where the Alpensia Biathlon Centre is in relation to the Kwandong Hockey Centre—or overly granular—where the Times’ offices are versus the Post’s—which didn’t help me navigate between nearby venues. At the transportation help desk I asked for a map that showed the entire bus system, which ferried credentialed press for free, and the man at the desk burst into laughter. “I’m sorry,” he said quickly, “it’s just that there are over a hundred buses.” He handed me a Media Transport Guide that’s 139 pages long.
This is what it feels like before the sports start, before the fans arrive. Like the first day of college in a country where you don’t speak the language and also the teachers and classrooms just got here, too. I won’t see most of the 2018 Olympics, I won’t even see a lot of the 2018 Olympics. But Thursday morning I’m going to see the U.S. play the Russian athletes in curling. I think it’ll take me three buses to get there.