Gangneung, South Korea • DJHeady is essentially a human microphone with an LED face sandwiched between giant headphones. He is standing on a platform behind two turntables, mixing “We Will Rock You” and “Let It Go” sung in Korean, as a group of dancers thrust and shake and clap their hands.
Everyone in the arena is loving it.
And then the real action starts.
Forget the Opening Ceremony. Forget the fireworks and all of the drones. Forget the celebrations and gold-medal moments. The real party in Pyeongchang is at the skating oval.
“The atmosphere is great,” U.S. skater Thomas Hong says. “Korean people really love their short-track. They get loud. They cheer really hard. It’s nice to feed off that energy.”
The passion for the sport here is obvious and instilled early in life. Hong grew up in Washington state but was born in South Korea. When his mother went into labor, she was at the rink with Hong’s older sister.
“She had to be rushed to the hospital from my sister’s practice,” Hong says.
On the ice, few have been better than the Koreans. Five gold medals have been awarded in short-track skating so far. South Korea has won three of them.
“It is a glorious performance in the stadium,” Korea’s Choi Min-Jeong said after winning gold in the women’s 3,000-meter relay this week. “It is our home ground, so much more meaningful. We got so cheered up by the crowd who welcomed us.”
Not everyone has always been enthused about skating here. Chinese skaters have complained about penalties they’ve felt are unfair. American skaters have questioned their draws in heats. France’s Thibaut Fauconnet didn’t like the way the Koreans protected each other when he had to race against three of them in the quarterfinals of the men’s 1,000-meter race.
“It was not the Olympics,” he said, “it was the Korean championships.”
The Koreans? They’re loving every second of it.
Ticket sales for some events in Pyeongchang have been lackluster. Volunteers dressed in white robes and scarves calling themselves “White Friends” fill the stands at unpopular contests and cheer for competitors from all over the world. At the short-track oval, the seats are filled and there’s no question about who is a favorite.
On Tuesday night, they were raucous at the Gangneung Ice Center. The North Korean “Army of Beauties” waved flags for a unified Korea. The South Koreans waved flags of their own. They screamed and screeched and shouted. Kids fast-dabbed for the dance cam on the jumbotron.
It becomes easy to see the sport’s appeal when watching it in a packed arena here, where fans rejoice each time their skaters win a battle for position around the corners, as if it were an NBA fast break and a fight for a crucial rebound all at once. They gasp during the frequent crashes, Daytona-esque pileups but with razor-sharp blades. They hold their collective breath for photo finishes that would make the Kentucky Derby envious.
The Koreans, blazing fast and remarkably technical on the ice, have been a force since short-track was brought back to the Olympics in 1992.
In America, as it is with the rest of the world, South Korea’s impact touches most of the best skaters. Team USA’s Maame Biney has been coached by South Koreans since her earliest days of skating in Virginia. John Henry Krueger, who until Wednesday night was the only U.S. skater to win a medal at these games, lived and trained in South Korea for several years ahead of his first Olympics.
After winning his medal, Krueger is hungrier than ever for more. He already has his sights set on Beijing in 2022. China, he said, has one of the best short-track atmospheres in the world.
“But Korea definitely is No. 1,” he said.