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[Newsmaker] With treasured memories, PyeongChang bids adieu

About 200 South Korean athletes, coaches and officials gathered outside the Olympic athletes’ village in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Monday to attend the disbandment ceremony for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic team.

For the South Korean delegation, it was the final step of a journey that started on Feb. 9 when world-renowned figure skater Kim Yu-na illuminated the tiny rural town of PyeongChang by lighting the Olympic torch atop the Olympic Stadium. The torch served as a beacon of dreams, tears and sweat for the 2,925 athletes from 92 countries.

Fireworks go off during the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Games at the Olympic Stadium in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap)
Fireworks go off during the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Games at the Olympic Stadium in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap)

The first Winter Games on South Korean soil will go down as a success, with 17 medals bestowed upon its athletes, a record that surpasses the 14 medals that the country won at the 2010 Vancouver Games. PyeongChang’s legacy, however, lies deeper than the shiny medals hung around players’ necks.

The Olympic teams of South and North Korea entered PyeongChang Olympic Stadium side-by-side at the closing ceremony on Sunday. Although the teams did not jointly enter like they did at the opening ceremony, the participation of the North, the most reclusive country in the world, served as a testament to the value of peace the games had sought to promote.

The North Korean cheering squad, consisting of over 200 women in identical red clothing, caught the attention of everyone with their orderly yet passionate efforts.

The Koreas’ joint entrance at the opening ceremony of the Olympics was their first in 12 years. It was also the first time that the two countries had formed a unified team, in women’s hockey. The team lost all five games but made history in the process.

“With your joint march, you have shared your faith in a peaceful future with all of us,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas said to Olympic athletes of the two countries at the closing ceremony.

“You have shown how sport brings people together in our fragile world; you have shown how sport builds bridges. The IOC will continue this Olympic dialogue, even after we extinguish the Olympic Flame.”

The Olympic Stadium on the night of the closing ceremony had somewhat of a different atmosphere than during the opening ceremony. Although anticipation was in the air, the closed exhibition halls gave off a bittersweet feeling as 17 days of festivities were wrapped up.

The fireworks, the glowing stadium, the electrifying performance by EXO and CL, and even the cuddly figure skating by the beloved mascot Soohorang and its joint entrance with 1988 Olympic mascot Hodori appeared to be merely consolation for those who wanted to keep watching the excitement and live drama of the games.

South Korea has seen its athletes pulling off some unexpected feats. The most dramatic one took place early Sunday when the country’s women’s curling team took home a hard-earned silver in a match with Sweden. South Korea’s “Garlic Girls” captivated the hearts of many Koreans and foreigners through their valiant race toward the medal.

Consisting of athletes from the southern town of Uiseong, North Gyeongsang Province -- a town famous for garlic production, thus the nickname -- Team Kim beat the odds and skepticism on its way to winning South Korea’s first Olympic medal in the sport.

The team found a huge following both at home and abroad with their vivacious, heartfelt interactions with one another.

Two-time Olympic champion Lee Sang-hwa was expected to excel, and the way she did moved the hearts of many who were watching. Her silver medal run in the women’s 500-meter speedskating event was the most watched event in the games with 63.5 percent of viewership. The image of Lee and her rival and friend Nao Kodaira, who won gold, hugging each other was highly praised in Korea as well as in Japan as a symbol of true sportsmanship that goes beyond the longstanding rivalry between the two neighboring countries.

Despite initial concerns about slow ticket sales, about 1.078 million of the 1.18 million tickets were sold, according to the organizing committee. It was also reported that the games garnered 1.11 trillion won ($1.04 billion) in corporate sponsorship and contributions from the public sector.

But the Winter Games also had some darker moments as well.

The factional strife within the speedskating circle again appeared to surface in the form of a bullying controversy surrounding skater Kim Bo-rum. During the women’s team pursuit preliminary event, she and teammate Park Ji-woo publicly blamed the third skater Noh Seon-yeong for failing to make the semifinals.

The two skaters received almost nationwide criticism for the interview and subsequently appearing to ignore sobbing Noh on their way back to the locker room on national TV.

While the initial criticism was concentrated on Kim, there have been voices around the country that the fundamental issue lies within the factional strife.

“The real problem is not the athletes themselves, but the factions within the skating circle and the association,” said Rep. Pyo Chang-won on his Instagram account.

Another issue that plagued the games was scalpers. It was reported that a number of scalpers were spotted selling tickets near venues, or even buying and re-selling them at a higher price during the games.

A 24-year-old spectator surnamed Hong found herself lost during the closing ceremony, as her pricey ticket became worthless as it gave her a seat that was already sold.

“(The scalper) told us that he got a lot of tickets from a friend and was selling them. I asked him if he could meet me in person and sell me the ticket, but he insisted on selling me the mobile ticket,” she said, adding that the person who sold her the ticket is no longer answering the phone.

By Yoon Min-sik