From Women’s Hockey to the First African Bobsledding Team: Five Stories to Watch During the PyeongChang Winter Olympics
Unless you have been living underground like a groundhog, then you have probably seen one of the countless NBC promo spots that the 2018 Winter Olympics kickoff in PyeongChang, South Korea this week.
But just because the Peacock Network is preempting many of its daytime and primetime shows (see: This Is Us) for the next two weeks, there will be no shortage of drama. Or at least that is likely what executives at NBC and parent company Comcast (CMCSA) are hoping for in generating ratings and justifying billions of dollars in investments to secure the U.S. airtime rights for decades now.
Anyone who has watched the Olympic Games—Summer or Winter—knows NBC Sports relishes the opportunity to turn any athlete’s story into a tearjerking, five-minute spot before competition rolls. It’s unlikely you’ll get to all of them, so here are five stories you should be following:
First African Bobsledding Team
No one has ever represented any nation within the continent of Africa before in bobsleigh at the Olympic Winter Games. Seun Adigun decided to change that, as she explained to the New York Times Magazine in January, describing this revelation while she was training with the U.S. bobsled team. Adigun, who has previously competed at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London on the track field, is now captain of the three-person women’s team representing Nigeria.
The tension on the Korean peninsula is hot enough to melt ice right now. (More on that below.) But officials from both sides of the border met together at the bargaining table in January in an effort to incorporate North Korean athletes at the PyeongChang Games. North Korea plans to send 22 athletes, competing in across five disciplines. But the sport gaining the most attention here is women’s hockey as Olympics officials—but not the athletes or the coaches themselves—decided to establish a joint Korean team. This didn’t sit well with a lot of fans in South Korea, and protests had been breaking out all the way up to last Sunday’s friendly match against Sweden. The Korean team lost, but only by a score of 3-1, which commentators argued wasn’t a bad showing given that the new team only had a few days to train together. (There’s also a language barrier that has been largely overlooked.) And despite the protests, fans showed up anyway in droves.
Figure Skating: Adam Rippon
If there’s one sport at the Olympics that always generates buzz, for better or worse, it’s figure skating. (And no, Tonya Harding is not competing.) The U.S. men’s team has some strong medal hopes, but most Olympics watchers have been paying more attention to Adam Rippon, as he is the first openly gay American athlete to qualify to compete at the Winter Olympics. (And at 28, he is also the oldest rookie American figure skater since 1936.) Rippon has been making headlines this week after USA Today reported in January that Vice President Mike Pence—whose opposition of gay rights as an elected official is well-documented—tried to set up a meeting with Rippon in PyeongChang. The newspaper reported that Rippon declined the meeting, and Rippon later went on the record via Twitter with his own thoughts about the report and meeting with Pence.
The entire affair has exploded into a much larger debate that Pence’s team has essentially summed up in two very familiar words by now: “Fake news.”
There’s no escaping this one, and unfortunately for the athletes who have put years of work—sometimes their entire lives and financial resources—into qualifying for the Olympics, the Olympians will likely not be the stars of the show this year.
North Korean officials approached their southern counterparts in an effort to give their athletes a chance to compete, but the discussions and agreement have been batted about as political maneuvers designed to make North Korea look better (and steal the show) while driving a wedge in between the U.S. and South Korea. (It doesn’t help that the Trump administration still hasn’t appointed an ambassador to South Korea yet.) North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un won’t be going. But he is sending his sister, Kim Yo Jong, who has been described as one of his most trusted advisors, as his representative, marking the first time any member of North Korea’s ruling family has ventured below the DMZ since the Korean War.
The North Korean delegation will be arriving in PyeongChang on Friday, and she’ll have lunch with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Saturday. The entire trip is thought to be rankling the plans of Vice President Pence, who just remarked while in Tokyo that the U.S. is planning to implement “the toughest, most aggressive round of economic sanctions ever” on North Korea. Not only is it possible that Kim Yo Jong could steal the spotlight from Pence in both local and international media coverage with a charm offensive, but Olympics officials are concerned about the seating arrangements at Friday’s Opening Ceremonies.
We won’t know until it’s over, but PyeongChang has the potential to be the most politicized Olympics since 1980’s Summer Olympics in Moscow (sometimes dubbed the “Soviet Olympics”) during which 66 countries, led by the United States, boycotted.
The First U.S. Gold Medal
This might seem like a curveball, but NBC is always salivating after whoever wins gold for the U.S. first. Sometimes it happens within a day, sometimes not. Whoever it is usually treated like an Olympic god or goddess, regardless of sport. Just look at Jonny Moseley at the Nagano Olympics in 1998, winning gold for…men’s moguls. (It falls under skiing.) Moseley went onto ink endorsement deals, host Saturday Night Live, and then gigs as long-time hosts on MTV’s The Challenge and American Ninja Warrior on NBC. The first Olympic Champion on Team USA usually gets the most clips played back over the ensuing two weeks, putting them in a better position for endorsement deals and longer-term relevance than anyone on a team sport or who wins closer to the Closing Ceremonies.