Every Olympics is a fusion of the generic, staid look of the Games, as mandated by the International Olympic Committee, with the singular aesthetic of the hosting country. It is what gives these biennial extravaganzas, which stage nearly identical competitions in a different part of the world, their distinctive feel.
More than anything, being here is a feast for the senses. Your palette is regularly lit up by the food, which is super spicy, or super sweet, or sometimes a bit of both. You can be freezing outdoors one moment and sweating in an overheated bus the next. Your eardrums get a workout anywhere there is music.
Then there are the bright colours and brash graphics, a combination found everywhere, especially on television. A number of shows have word bubbles that make the classic “bloop!” sound.
Just about everything here is bold, you soon notice, including the flavours. The shelves in convenience stores sell snacks that make their American counterparts seem timid and bland. Here is squid’s body with peanut butter. There is a strawberry sandwich with what is either cheese or frosting. Try some crab stick; or Spam with kimchi gimbap; or pig’s trotters, which on the packaging gets a grinning thumbs-up from a guy in a red bow tie.
Pyeongchang has many restaurants with multicourse dinners that sound like a tour of the ocean. Sea anemone, sea squirts, raw trout, live octopus, and the list goes on and on. Closer by are places that lay a tilted skillet on your table and start grilling pork. Heaven for a carnivore, rough on vegetarians. A menu item called “vegetables” means that some greens come with the pork.
At Olympic events, the noise of the colours is matched by the volume of the music. Like a lot of American sporting venue owners, the organisers here believe that unless the DJ is playing tracks at punishingly high levels, nobody is having fun. It’s even hard to shout over the commentators at cross-country skiing events.
The marriage of loud colours and sounds reaches its zany apogee at the hockey rink. The place has an official cheerleading group, four young women in short, pink dresses, who stand halfway up the stands and dance to songs like Happy by a Chinese-South Korean group called Cosmic Girls.
On Wednesday night, the rink’s master of ceremonies interviewed a cheerleader and asked questions like, “How do you like being the official cheerleading group of the arena?” There was no translation, unfortunately, but the body language – a wide grin, jazz hands beside each ear – sufficed as an answer.
When they are not overloading your senses, the Games are showcasing tech. The official and ubiquitous motto “Passion. Connected” seems a subtle nod to South Korea’s leading role in helping to wire the world, most notably through the success of Samsung, a corporate sponsor.
Robots are a common sight, roaming around indoor settings and beaming the day’s schedule and weather forecast, projector-like, on the floor. The Super Store that sells official Olympic gear of every kind has an aquarium filled with swimming electronic fish. Many of the bus schedule kiosks have what appear to be high-definition screens and a Siri-like female voice offering real-time updates.
There is also an emphasis on politesse. When someone hands you something, it is rarely with one outstretched hand. It’s either with two hands or with one hand touching the second near the elbow. The odd thing is that once you get used to it, the single outstretched hand from friends does start to feel a bit ill-mannered.
For those watching at home, these Olympics may be remembered for the cold weather, or for performances like that of the halfpipe prodigy Chloe Kim and others that have yet to come.
The same moments will resonate for attendees, too. But added to them will be the countless, you-had-to-be-there ways that South Korea’s iridescent style has been stamped on these Games. That’s the Olympics, forever the same and always different.