Story by Jeff Zurschmeide / Images by Jeff Zurschmeide & Toyota
Thanks to our friends at Toyota, we had the good fortune to visit this year’s Winter Olympic games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. From the athletes to spectators to the Koreans who ran the show, the Olympics showcased the best of people in these trying times.
Seoul is a bustling city of 25 million people, as modern and convenient as any in Europe or the Americas. With its own cultural, musical, and food scene, Seoul is the unexpected jewel of East Asia, and South Korea's other major cities such as Busan are similarly worth exploring.
Chloe Kim won hearts around the world with her chocolate mousse and girl-next-door personality, but what she did in the Women's Halfpipe was extraordinary. Her first run down the pipe put the gold medal safely in her hands. She could have taken a gentle victory lap, but she came back and risked disaster to lay down an even more spectacular run, just for the joy of the sport.
People came to South Korea from all over the world to see the Olympics and cheer on their friends and family. But sitting in the stands, we watched the fans encourage every athlete, boosting their triumphs and cushioning their defeats. Even the last-place skiers and boarders pumped their fists and drank in the applause from everyone present.
Conditions were tough in Pyeongchang. Korea's winters are marked by arctic winds that blow down from the polar regions, and several events like the Women's Slalom were delayed for days due to bad weather. When the races finally ran, icy snow made just reaching the bottom an Olympic achievement.
For the first time, North and South Korea entered the Olympics and competed as one nation. North Koreans attended many of the events in groups, singing patriotic songs and waving their flags. Was it a Potemkin show of happy faces to spin some PR for a brutal regime? Yes. But peaceful cooperation at the games is also the first step towards a better tomorrow.
From Michelin-starred restaurants to street food vendors, Korea's unique, delicious, and healthy cuisine was front and center during the Olympics. Korea offers beef that puts Japanese Wagyu to shame, and a variety of seafood equal to any in the world. The signature Korean kimchi is available in near-infinite varieties.
Korea is a mountainous country, offering no end of venues for the Winter Olympics. Within 10 miles of the competition locations, ski resorts were doing a booming business offering spectators access to their own skiing, snowboarding, sledding, tobogganing, and every winter sport.
Thousands of teenagers were employed throughout the games as greeters and helpers. Universally cheerful, these young people welcomed spectators to every event, pointed us to where we needed to go, and welcomed us to Korea and to the games.
Jamie Anderson won gold in Women's Slopestyle snowboarding, making the jumps and flips look easy. After a week of watching these amazing athletes, it's easy to take what they do for granted. We thought it would be instructive to include a reference competitor - just a normal person trying to make it through the run, to illustrate just how amazing these people really are.
In the Pyeongchang highlands, buckwheat is the staple food, rather than rice. Local restaurants offered the chance to experience the regional foods of Korea with tasty and affordable dishes not found anywhere else on Earth.
The arena sports center near the coast in Guangneung included several sports venues as well as building-sized displays by brands such as Samsung, The North Face, and for the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan. Figure skating, ice dancing, hockey, and curling were all centered in this village, as well as the stadium that hosted the opening and closing ceremonies.
Above all, the lasting impression of the 2018 Winter Olympic games in Pyeongchang was that Korea is the undiscovered country for tourism in Asia. The people of Korea made the world at home for the games, and demonstrated that their homeland should be on everyone's bucket list for travel, sports, and cuisine.