The Winter Olympics are wrapping up, and you know what that means: We’ve developed extremely strong passions for athletes we’d never heard of before and decided which random countries we now hate. With the second week of the games behind us, who won and lost the Pyeongchang Olympics? Let’s hand out some good medals and bad medals to find out.
Platinum Medal: Putting X Games Events in the Olympics
When Team USA set the all-time record for Winter Olympic medals in one Olympiad at the 2010 Vancouver games, it did so behind a diverse variety of successes. The Americans won 37 medals in total, and at least four in six different categories: eight in alpine skiing, six in short-track speedskating, five in snowboarding, and four apiece in freestyle skiing, Nordic combined, and speedskating.
Meanwhile, America’s greatest successes at the 2018 Olympics have come in freestyle skiing and snowboarding events that weren’t even included in the games when Team USA set that record. Three of America’s eight golds this year — Jamie Anderson’s and Red Gerard’s wins in the two snowboarding slopestyle events, plus David Wise’s victory in the skiing halfpipe — came in events that were added to the Olympic program in 2014. Team USA also has two silvers and a bronze in events added in 2014, and Anderson won silver in the big air snowboarding competition that just made its Olympic debut. That means events introduced since 2010 account for a third of Team USA’s 21 medals.
You can look at this and marvel at how Team USA’s Vancouver record would be untouchable if these events had been part of the Olympics in 2010. You can also look at this and become somewhat aghast at how quickly America has fallen off in other sports. Team USA won 14 combined medals in Nordic combined, speedskating, and short-track speedskating in Vancouver; the Americans have earned just two medals in those categories over the last two weeks in Pyeongchang.
The Olympics are trying to get younger. This isn’t just a winter games phenomenon — the 2020 Tokyo Games will feature skateboarding and three-on-three basketball. The International Olympic Committee knows that to maintain its status, it has to feature events that are more appealing and accessible to young people than luge and equestrian. The IOC would never admit it, but I’d bet that the organization also feels compelled to add events that are popular in the United States: Most of the committee’s money comes from TV deals, and the largest television deal it has is with NBC.
If Team USA gets progressively worse at winter sports, the IOC may just have to keep adding more events that America happens to be good at. I’m looking forward to watching Joey Chestnut win the Olympic hot-dog-eating contest during the 2022 Beijing Games.
Gold Medal: Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall
When I wrote my comprehensive ranking of winter Olympic sports last week, I put cross-country skiing second to last. Since then, however, I’ve changed my mind. That’s thanks to American hero Jessie Diggins (with an assist to NBC announcer Chad Salmela).
UNBELIEVABLE!@kikkanimal & @jessdiggs earn the first ever cross-country #gold medal for @TeamUSA, with a pass that will go down in American Olympic history! #WinterOlympics #BestOfUS https://t.co/4YMw63E4C3 pic.twitter.com/bfHoGnPCWw— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 22, 2018
The United States is not a cross-country skiing nation. We like the sports in which athletes whoosh downhill or do neat tricks, not sports that involve working one’s body to the point of physical exhaustion in an attempt to not lose to Scandinavians.
So when Diggins found herself in the top three of the cross-country skiing team sprint event heading down the home stretch, she had already all but secured her place in the American Olympic history books. Prior to 2018, the U.S. had won just one medal in cross-country, a silver in 1976. Just matching that feat would’ve been amazing. But in the final meters of her race, Diggins somehow found energy that nobody else in the competition had, passing Sweden’s Stina Nilsson just before the finish line. That made Diggins and teammate Kikkan Randall the first American cross-country skiing gold medalists.
Most cross-country and biathlon races use “interval” starts, a staggered system in which competitors are released every 30 seconds and race against the clock. The team sprint event, which Diggins and Randall won, has all of its teams start simultaneously, and the first to cross the finish line wins. As it turns out, the ends of these races can be breathtaking. Here is France’s Martin Fourcade winning a 15-kilometer biathlon event by mere inches:
WHAT. A. FINISH.— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 18, 2018
France's Martin Fourcade won the men's biathlon 15km mass start in one of the closest finishes you'll EVER see. (Sound UP to get the full experience) #WinterOlympics https://t.co/tDX2kOKS70 pic.twitter.com/3h4lHUV3zY
I disregarded these events in my initial rankings because of their long stretches of extremely painful-looking skiing, but there is something stunning about the result of that skiing: totally spent humans desperately cranking every muscle in their bodies in an all-out attempt to squeeze past their opposition. This is something we don’t see enough of in the Winter Olympics. Many downhill sports are contested one athlete at a time, leaving viewers without the joy of watching competitors battle to the finish line.
Shouts to Diggins and Randall for winning unexpected gold for America, and for showing what’s great about their sport in the process.
Silver Medal: Winnie the Pooh
No performance in Pyeongchang struck me the way Yuzuru Hanyu’s figure skating routines did. Hanyu won gold for the second consecutive Olympics, becoming the first two-time men’s champion since Dick Button in 1948 and 1952. Hanyu’s performances displayed the athletic brilliance and magnetic performing capabilities that make figure skating so captivating; they were works of true physical art.
Perhaps more memorable than Hanyu’s performances were the way fans celebrated his routines. They hurled hundreds of Winnie the Pooh dolls onto the ice. Witness the cascade of Poohs raining down from the stands.
The event needed a small army of doll fetchers to wrangle all the Winnies, furiously to sort them into an enormous pile off the ice, and prepare the competition to continue.
Yuzuru Hanyu:— SB Nation (@SBNation) February 17, 2018
- Has the lead in men's figure skating
- HAS MORE WINNIE THE POOH BEARS THAN YOU pic.twitter.com/SKaHopoCZ2
Hanyu didn’t skate last in any of his Olympic programs, meaning that his competitors had to come onto the ice and follow someone who had just made the crowd spew Winnies. I couldn’t have put forth a decent routine mere moments after a Poohstorm.
The backstory here is that Hanyu used to carry around a Winnie the Pooh tissue box, and later a doll, and then began to position his Pooh doll before his skates so that it could theoretically watch him perform. Fans caught on. For the record, Hanyu donates all of the Poohs thrown at him to charity.
What a triumph for Winnie, a talentless, clumsy, and dim-witted bear who apparently feels enough shame to put on a loose shirt that barely covers his honey-bloated belly but doesn’t feel the need to put on pants because he has no genitals. Somehow, he’s become associated with a man who showcases the fullest range of the human body’s power and grace.
Bronze Medal: Ester Ledecka
We like to think that there are a lot of upsets in the Olympics, because (a) casual viewers likely haven’t heard of the athletes before the games and (b) the sob stories about these athletes’ journeys are broadcast on the NBC right before they win gold. Research into pre-Olympic events in various disciplines typically yields an accurate estimate of who will win, though. Even results like the USA cross-country skiing win are reasonable; no, America had never won gold before, but Diggins and Randall had captured a World Championship in the event.
So I want to give credit to an athlete who pulled off an enormous surprise: Czech skier and snowboarder Ester Ledecka, who was as shocked as anybody else when she won the super-G skiing event.
You'd be shocked, too.— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 17, 2018
Ester Ledecka, a world champion SNOWBOARDER, shocks the field to win a surprise-gold by 0.01 in alpine skiing women's super-G! #WinterOlympics https://t.co/YtEpNzDMDu pic.twitter.com/EeoHuALcKX
Ledecka is one of the best snowboarding racers on earth — at the 2017 World Championships, she won gold in the parallel giant slalom and silver in the parallel slalom — and took up skiing as an afterthought. Entering the 2018 games, she had never medaled any skiing event; she’d never even finished in the top 19 of any super-G competition. She is first Olympian ever to compete in both skiing and snowboarding.
She had a variety of disadvantages: While skiers obsess over having the perfect skis, Ledecka used a borrowed pair. While it is considered a big advantage to be one of the first racers to go in a downhill ski run, since the slope is cleaner, Ledecka went 26th. Of the 25 racers who started later than 20th, only Ledecka managed to crack the top 10. NBC had cut away from its coverage of the event rather than devoting coverage to randos, declaring Austrian Anna Veith the winner.
Ledecka couldn’t believe her win. The look on her face says it all. “There must be some kind of mistake,” she said. She wore goggles to her press conference, saying that she hadn’t put on makeup because she hadn’t expected to be on camera.
Ester Ledecka on why she’s still wearing her goggles, hours after winning Super-G: “I was not as prepared as the other girls. I don’t have makeup on.” #pyeongchang2018 #olympics pic.twitter.com/qrsMPYohPi— Evan Doherty (@YSportsEvan) February 17, 2018
The Czech remains the favorite in the parallel giant slalom snowboarding event, which will take place Saturday. For her to become the first Olympian not only to compete in both skiing and snowboarding, but to medal in both would be the most incredible accomplishment of the Pyeongchang games.
Cubic Zirconia Medal: Everybody Who Finished the 15-Kilometer Cross-Country Skiing Race
The best finish to a race in Pyeongchang came well after the medalists in that race had already finished. German Madrazo, a 43-year-old Mexican cross-country skier, completed the 15-kilometer cross-country event 25 minutes off the lead. He was more than a minute slower than the next-slowest competitor. And yet, when he crossed the finish line, he looked as if he’d won gold. He proudly waved a Mexican flag; he was even hoisted up by other skiers from snowless countries.
Mexican cross-country skier German Madrazo crossed the finish line last, but he was all smiles as he did it proudly carrying his nation's flag. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/8qILNmFjyE— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 16, 2018
You do not have to be good at a sport to make the Olympics. There is a history of people spending a lot of money to reach the Olympics and finish dead last, often representing countries to which they’re only loosely tied. This year, the world saw an American tech recruiter named Elizabeth Swaney perform the worst halfpipe skiing run in Olympic history, trying no tricks and finishing behind competitors who fell during their runs.
Competing in a trick-based event without attempting any tricks is thumbing your nose at the loophole that got you into an event. Sure, Swaney showed a certain level of determination by taking part in enough qualifying events to participate, but the traits she displayed during her run displayed a lack of talent and creativity. On the other hand, Madrazo’s last-place finish showed his endurance and persistence, as he worked for almost an hour to achieve his dream. (He’s actually from Mexico, by the way.)
I can’t think of a moment that better represents the Olympic spirit. Among the people who hoisted up Madrazo when he crossed the finish line was Pita Taufatofua, the famously shirtless Tongan athlete who finished his race and immediately launched into an inspirational speech about how you can do it too, skiers from Colombia, Morocco, Ecuador. This wasn’t the skiers’ first meeting: They became friends crisscrossing the globe while trying to qualify for the games. Madrazo told ESPN a story about the time he and Taufatofua ran out of money in Iceland and had to split a previously purchased chocolate bar for food.
Can you think of a better ad for sports than a guy from Tonga and a guy from Mexico becoming improbable friends because they wanted to be in the Olympics so badly? Congrats to Madrazo, Taufatofua, and everybody else who fought to finish that cross-country skiing race, from the gold medalists to the guys who just wanted to be there.
Tin Medal: Under Armour
Team USA speedskating has not won any gold or silver medals in South Korea, but that hasn’t stopped skaters from wearing gigantic silver medals on their crotches.
Somehow, the uniforms look even worse from behind.
Believe it or not, there’s a reason why Team USA’s skaters wear enormous circles over their genitals. Speedskaters have to mash their inner thighs against each other over and over to create as much speed as possible, so Under Armour developed a material called ArmourGlide designed to reduce friction. But wait — just because it makes sense to use a different material for the part of the uniform that covers athletes’ crotches doesn’t mean that part of the uniform has to be a different color. I can wear shoes that are the same color as my hat. Couldn’t Under Armour have made blue ArmourGlide? If the only possible color for ArmourGlide was silver, then couldn’t Under Armour have made the whole uniform silver? Any design choice would have been better than the crotch circle.
I suspect that Under Armour made the crotchal region a different color so that people would notice this cool uniform science. Maybe viewers would even Google it! Although those who did may have been reminded of the Great American Speedskating-Uniform Crisis of 2014, when multiple athletes actively, publicly blamed Under Armour’s uniforms for the fact that Team USA failed to medal in speedskating in Sochi. There was no such drama this time around, but Team USA still performed rather poorly.
Team USA is historically great at speedskating. The Americans have 29 Olympic speedskating gold medals all time, the second most of any country. They won eight speedskating medals in 2002 with three golds, seven in 2006 with three golds, four more in 2010 with a gold. In 2014 and 2018, the U.S. has just one combined speedskating medal, a bronze, in two Olympics.
Why did America become bad at speedskating? Honestly, I doubt it’s the uniforms. But the uniforms aren’t helping, and they also have an enormous metallic circle highlighting the athletes’ genitalia. If you’re going to dress ugly, at least be great.
Styrofoam Medal: The South Korean Speedskating Team
I’ve fallen somewhat in love with the team pursuit speedskating event. The gist is that three skaters take the ice for each nation, and the team is scored based on the finishing time of the slowest skater. So teams work together to ensure that all three can cross the finish line as quickly as possible. The lead skater breaks wind for the two behind, the two trailing skaters match the lead skater’s motions as closely as possible, and the skaters all take turns leading to prevent anyone from getting too tired. Toward the end of the race, the strongest skaters tend to drift to the back, often literally pushing their teammates forward.
But things didn’t go as planned for the South Korean women. One skater, Noh Seon-Yeong, fell behind. Her teammates should have dropped back to help her. Instead, they bolted ahead.
Going faster than Noh did not help the two faster finishers in any way. In fact, by failing to break wind for Noh or to push her forward, they hurt the team’s overall time. This seemed like an act of spite, letting the world know that the team’s poor finish was Noh’s fault. Noh cried, and South Korea saw. Then hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition calling for Noh’s two teammates to be banned from the team.
The Pyeongchang Games have generally been successful for South Korea. It has 12 medals, four gold, after winning eight total and three gold in Sochi. It has three golds in short-track speedskating, South Korea’s favorite winter sport. Yun Sung-Bin’s gold in skeleton was the nation’s first-ever medal in any of the three sliding sports; the women’s curling team has advanced to the gold-medal game despite having qualified for the Olympics only once before this year. Most importantly, the athletes and fans have been safe, as sport seems to have momentarily eased political tensions with North Korea.
Still, this was an embarrassing moment, and a fascinating example of how the quirks of sports viewers may not have previously understood can prove revealing about competitors.
Lint Medal: The NHL
The U.S. women’s hockey team won gold after beating Canada in a game decided by Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson deking the Canadian goalkeeper into oblivion during the sudden-death portion of a shootout. By contrast, the U.S. men’s hockey team lost to the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals in a game decided by a much sadder shootout. The Americans went 0-for-5 trying to score against Czech goaltender Pavel Francouz, wasting a brilliant showing from American goalie Ryan Zapolski, who managed to stop four of five opposing shots.
Watching the Americans get stifled by a random European journeyman begged the question: What if the NHL had allowed its players to compete in the 2018 Olympics? The league took a two-week break to let its players take part in five straight Winter Olympiads beginning in 1998, but decided this time that it wasn’t getting enough out of the equation. It had its reasons: There were logistical issues; the NHL never saw a notable spike in post-Olympic ticket and merchandise sales; players got injured; the league couldn’t promote itself on Olympic ice. But I feel like the NHL got too caught up in short-term issues and lost sight of long-term ones.
The Olympics make people care about sports. Many players on the gold-medal-winning U.S. women’s team talked about being inspired to play hockey by the team that won gold in 1998. In a decade or two, we will begin to hear about the elite American players who were inspired by this year’s gold-medal-winning squad. Really, I should have made “women’s hockey” the winner here; right now, women’s hockey is sorely underappreciated, as America’s best players can’t really make a living playing hockey. Perhaps an uptick in interest can make a professional league feasible.
This year’s American men were projected to contend for a gold medal, potentially making national heroes out of players who were already NHL stars. The sport could have found new fans and inspired future athletes to pick up sticks for the first time. Instead, a bunch of lesser-known players participated in games that were barely advertised and then got shut out in a shootout. The NHL feels like it didn’t gain much from allowing its players to go to the Olympics; maybe the league should’ve considered the opportunity it just lost.
Poop Medal: Advertising Executives
Much like the athletes, I have endured a tedious and grueling regimen to complete my Olympic goals. Over the past two weeks, for upward of five hours a day, I have subjected myself to TV broadcasts and internet streams with the same seven commercials playing over and over. “Can. Can’t. Can. Can’t. [Music begins playing] I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier …”
One thing I have noticed is that a lot of money seems to have been invested in advertising campaigns featuring Olympians who didn’t fare especially well. A rundown of athlete commercials that come to mind:
- Chloe Kim: Won a gold medal in the snowboard halfpipe, was perfect in virtually every way.
- Mikaela Shiffrin: Won gold in the giant slalom and silver in the combined event, but somehow that felt disappointing given her standards. Leading up to these games, Shiffrin had talked about the possibility of winning as many as five golds. She didn’t medal in slalom, widely considered her best event.
- Lindsey Vonn: Won a bronze medal in downhill skiing and got emotional about retiring.
- Nathan Chen: Was part of the figure skating team that won bronze for the U.S., but completed a skate in that event was one of the worst of his career. He followed that up with an even worse performance in the short program portion of the individual event, though he did respond with a brilliant free skate.
- Maddie Bowman: Finished 11th in the skiing halfpipe event.
- Ted Ligety: Didn’t medal in his three events.
- Erin Hamlin: Finished sixth in luge.
- J.R. Celski: Did not advance to the final round of any of his short-track speedskating events.
- Ashley Wagner: Did not skate in any of the events, serving as an Olympic alternate after finishing fourth in the national championships in January.
Hopefully advertising companies learn their lesson: Pick all snowboarders as endorsers next time.