The 2018 Winter Olympics kicked off in Pyeongchang, South Korea, earlier this month, and as usual, there’s been a lot of excitement in and out of the events.
In this S+ Extra podcast—which is exclusive to Slate Plus members—Chau Tu talks with Justin Peters, a Slate correspondent who’s been covering all the standout stars, surprises, and controversies in the games. Peters discusses his favorite events, why the opening ceremony was a scam, and the biggest misconceptions people have about the Olympics.
* * *
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chau Tu: This is your fourth time covering the Olympics for Slate. Outside of the obvious, what do you think separates the Winter Olympics from the Summer Games?
Justin Peters: The Winter Olympics are a lot more focused than the Summer Games. The Summer Games are this massive spectacle. It’s got all these sports from archery to beach volleyball, to horseback riding, to wrestling. There’s almost too much to handle, whereas the Winter Games it’s basically all skiing, sliding, or skating. That’s basically it. It’s a lot easier to focus in on the dominant aesthetic of the winter games because unlike the Summer Games, the Winter Games actually have a dominant aesthetic—that aesthetic is being cold.
I sort of appreciate that. I love the Summer Games. I think the Summer Games are better and more fun to watch, but the Winter Games have this charm all of their own that I really come to love and appreciate for two and a half weeks every four years, before I forget about every single winter sport after they close.
It does seem like the Summer Olympics get a lot more attention than the winter ones right?
Well they totally do. I mean that’s what people think of when they think of the Olympics. They think of Carl Lewis, or Usain Bolt, or any of the other amazing—
Michael Phelps, exactly. I suppose the biggest Winter Olympic moment was the “Miracle on Ice” U.S. over the Soviet hockey victory. That’s a huge moment, but the Summer Olympics are much more central to the entire notion of what the modern Olympics are supposed to be. The Winter Olympics are sort of this fun bonus Olympics that happen in between the Summer Olympics. I love them, but I love them in a different way than I love the summer ones.
This year we’ve got a few new events include big air snowboarding, mixed doubles curling, mass start speedskating, and an Alpine skiing team event. Out of these new ones, which one has been the most exciting for you to watch?
Only the first two have actually taken place thus far, the big air snowboard and the mixed doubles curling. Mixed doubles curling has actually been surprising fun for me to watch. In traditional curling, it’s a team of four and the game goes on for a very long time. Mixed doubles curling, it’s only two people, a male and a female competitor. The game is a little bit shorter, and there’s some other rule changes. Those changes have actually make for a lot more exciting and understandable game. I’ve really started to get into that.
But the one I’m most excited for without a doubt, mass start speedskating. Everyone should call in sick to work, set their DVRs, watch this event. It’s going to be nuts. Whereas in typical speedskating, it’s two skaters going at the same time and that’s it, and they’re going against each other. Mass start—as you might have figured out by its name—there’s a bunch of people starting at first, all at once, and they’re all racing against each other. It’s sort of like NASCAR on ice. There’s a lot of crashing and people jostling for position, and pushing each other, all while going at these insane speeds on these very sharp skates on a little, relatively tiny ice rink. It’s super fun. It’s going to be super exciting. I cannot wait.
Oh wow. Are there any favorites for that that we should look out for?
You always have to favor the Nordic countries. Speedskating is to them what the NBA is like to us. South Korea loves skating. They’re more into short track than long track, but they will show up for this event. Then I think Shani Davis is going for the U.S. in the men’s event along with some other competitors. He is the most underrated U.S. Olympian. He’s one of the greatest skaters in the world. He’s been so for over a decade. He’s getting old so this might be the last time we see him, so watch for Shani Davis. Watch for the Dutch. Just watch it. Whatever you do, watch it because it’s going to rule.
With every Olympics, there’s a bunch of standout stars. This year we have Chloe Kim and Adam Rippon. Who are some of your favorites that have come out from these games?
Everyone loves Adam Rippon because he’s hysterical and a great skater. Chloe Kim’s awesome too. What’s not to love about someone tweeting about churros literally right before she rips off a 98-point run? I like Red Gerard a lot. Red Gerard won America’s first gold medal. He’s also 17 and like Chloe Kim, also a snowboarder. I suppose the reason I like him is because he looks and sounds like my friend Mac Hastings. Every time I see Red Gerard I just imagine my buddy Mac in the Olympics and it makes me laugh. Unless you know Mac Hastings from Minneapolis, you probably won’t have the same reaction to Red that I do, but dude is delightfully deadpan. His interview after he won his gold was hysterical. They asked him what he was going to do with his medal once he received it, and he had no idea. He was like, “Ugh, I don’t know. Probably look at it for quite some time,” which I thought was the best answer.
Such a teen.
Yeah, such a teen. Action teen Red Gerard, totally into him.
On the other side of this, there was snowboarder Shaun White who also won gold this year. You and Josh Levin wrote about how NBC avoided talking about some of Shaun White’s controversial past. Were you surprised that the network sort of pushed that aside and started to praise him and make him a big deal?
No, disappointed, but not surprised. It would have benefited NBC nothing to fill out some of the unsavory things that Shaun White has been associated with in the past few years. I mean he had a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by the drummer in his band that he paid to settle. Shaun White is commonly thought of as a jerk among the members of the snowboarding community. Those facts don’t fit in with the hero narrative that NBC has spun for Shaun White ever since 2006. It would have been a huge shock if in this Olympics, which is probably going to be his last, they would have all of a sudden turned into sort of tough factual journalists when it comes to covering this guy, who, to be clear is a fantastic snowboarder, one of the all-time greats.
But to me—and maybe this is just me, judging from some of the emails I get it probably is just me—my enjoyment of Shaun White’s world historical snowboarding talents is not diminished by also knowing that he is a jerk. In fact, it’s like enhanced. I don’t need my great athletes to also be huge moral beacons. I don’t need to like this person in order to enjoy their work on the snow, but NBC, because it’s a TV network, programming a TV show. The NBC executives have explicitly said that they are treating the Olympics as a show more so than a TV event. They want heroes, and Shaun White has the most recognizable U.S. Olympian was always going to be a hero for them. That’s just how TV works I suppose.
Well what do you think has been the most underrated thing about the Olympics this year? What’s something that people aren’t necessarily talking about do you think?
Cross-country skiing. I got this one wrong in my scene-setting piece for the Olympics before they started. I ranked every Olympics event from worst to best, and cross-country skiing I ranked 13th out of the 15 events. If I could go back and redo that piece—which to be clear I’m not going to do because that would be a lot of work and no one would read it—I would rank it much, much higher.
I’ve been watching a lot of cross-country skiing at night when I’ve been trying to fall asleep, because that’s inevitably when it seems to be on, and it’s super fun to watch. This is the hardest sport in the world, and the men and women who are great at it are literally the best athletes in the world. The way that they film it and show it on NBC, it’s actually super tense. It’s fun to watch people racing against each other. I think that’s sort of what I like. That’s sort of what’s missing a little bit from the alpine skiing events.
It’s always just the one athlete and the hill except for the ski cross and snowboard cross events. It’s sometimes more fun to watch a big pack of people struggling to pass their competitors on the same course. It’s even more fun when you realize just how hard this sport is and just how much all of these people are hurting. It’s always one of my favorite things every four years is to watch the cross-country skiers cross the finish line and then immediately fall down and start writhing in the snow because they are in this indomitable pain. It’s great fun because I’m sitting eating chips in bed watching these people do this shit.
What is your watching schedule like? I mean, there’s always a ton of events going on, so it seems like it would be pretty intense to try to keep up with everything.
Yeah, I’ve actually gotten a lot better at this since 2012 when I did my first Olympics for Slate. That year I was young and new, and I spent the first couple of days not sleeping at all, just literally watching stuff around the clock. That ruined me for the backend of the Olympics, so I’ve started to pace myself a little bit more. What I’ll do is I’ll wake up, and I watch everything on the NBC Olympics site. I will go to that site and look at what, if anything, is being aired live. If there’s nothing, I will go back and look at some replays of what I might have missed when I was sleeping, or stuff that I didn’t get around to watching the previous day. Then the daylight hours are pretty much spent with me and Josh Levin figuring out the coverage strategy, what I want to be writing about.
Then I write about stuff while paying attention with sort of one eye to whatever event I’m looking at at the time. The time difference has really sort of been a struggle. It was easier for me in London and Rio when it was more closely aligned with times on the East Coast here. But it’s a lot of watching. I mean Josh and I were up until 1:45 this morning. Then I was up at 8 to watch and write some more.
Do you pay attention to Twitter or social media during the events as well?
Oh yeah. Yeah, of course you do. A lot of times that’s how you realize that something happened that you didn’t see. Twitter is a great way to, it’s like a great emergency alert system in a sense. If you’re watching figure skating, then on your Twitter feed comes across as something really random happened in freestyle skiing. Great, now you know, open that feed and go back and see what that was. So yeah, totally pay attention to Twitter.
Yeah. You also do this series called the Best Jobs at the Olympics, which highlights the nonathletes that help facilitate the games. You’ve already covered the curling measuring device guy and the figure skating stuffed animal wrangler this year. Do you have a favorite so far?
I love the curling measurement device guy. What this guy does, and it’s not always a guy, but what this job holder does is whenever the curling stones are sort of in the house and it’s unclear which team gets the points for that round—points in curling are doled out by eyeballing the placement of the stones and seeing which team’s stone is closer to the center. When that is a difference that is imperceptible to the naked eye, here comes the curling measuring device guy with this 12-foot-long stick. It’s more than a stick, it’s a device. It’s got like a dial and a caliper on it. He dances out on the ice, affixes this device to the curling surface, and does all these weird sort of like rotations trying to provide the most accurate measurements possible. It takes forever, and it’s super funny.
Of course, my favorite Olympics job of all time came in 2016 in Rio, where Josh and I determined that being a horse was the best job at the Olympics. I mean, the only sort of mark against being a horse at the Olympics is that being a horse is not actually a job, but once you get past that, totally the best job at the Olympics, super fun. I would encourage us all to apply to become horses in 2020 in Tokyo.
You also wrote that the opening ceremony this year was basically a scam because—
—some of the events had already started before this opening ceremony happened on a Friday. One, do you know why that is, and two, do you actually like the closing ceremony then? Is that for real?
Well, yeah, the closing ceremony is for real. There are no events after the closing ceremony. That is truth in advertising and I applaud that. But the reason why, as far as I can tell, that the games begin before the opening ceremony is twofold. One, NBC thinks it will pull better ratings if the opening ceremony is on a Friday rather than on a Wednesday. But to get perhaps to the broader question of well why not just start the games on a Friday, the traditional length of the Olympics is 16 days, but some of the Winter Olympic events require more than 16 days to complete.
This year, because they added the new event of mixed doubles curling, they needed more time. Each curling event is structured in a round-robin format, so each team gets a bunch of matches. Each match takes a few hours to complete, so I think I read somewhere that the mixed doubles curling event took six days to complete. Then there’s a bunch of other curling, the main men’s and women’s matches that they’ve got to run through as well. If you assume six days for each event, that’s 18 days. Whereas the Olympics only run for 16 days, so they almost had to start on Wednesday. But NBC did not want to run the opening ceremonies on Wednesday because who’s going to watch on a Wednesday. More people will watch on a Friday.
I disagree with this. You should not have an opening ceremony that doesn’t actual open the games. I’m going to start a petition on this, and hopefully some of you will sign it, but total scam. I prefer the closing ceremonies because it is more accurate for sure.
Having watched the Olympics so much now, what do you think is the biggest misunderstanding that people have about the Olympics?
That’s a great question. A couple things: One, even the worst Winter Olympic athlete is a phenomenal athlete. These sports are super, super, super hard. The skill and grace with which these people in the games apply their craft gives sort of a false impression to people who aren’t real winter sport followers. It doesn’t look that hard. It’s incredibly hard. Anyone who has ever been skiing knows that even skiing down the simplest slope can be a terrifying endeavor. I have been skiing recreationally for my entire life, and I would never go down a black diamond run. I would die. All of these alpine runs are super steep and super hard. When you watch these people going down them at 70 kilometers an hour and not missing a beat, you’re like my gosh, these people are wonderful athletes.
I’m sick of people saying that ice dancing isn’t a sport. It is a sport. Try moving in a coordinated fashion with someone else just on the ground. You can’t do it. If you try to twirl in tandem with your spouse or best friend, you’ll be able to maintain synchronization for maybe three seconds before one of you stumbles. These people are maintaining synchronization for an absurd period of time choreographed to music on ice while lifting one another over their heads and shit. It’s a true sport and it’s wonderful. All you haters out there, try it yourselves and call me from the hospital.
Yeah, these are all still Olympic athletes out there.
Absolutely, except for that one horrible skier from Hungary who—did you hear about this?
The other day in the freestyle skiing halfpipe competition, where, like snowboarding, you ski down a halfpipe and perform tricks at the top, flips, and turns and stuff, there’s this one skier from Hungary who just had the most leisurely cautious run. You thought something was wrong with her because she turned no tricks. She just skied to the top of the halfpipe, turned back down, skied to the other top, literally did nothing. It turns out that she’s not actually from Hungary. She is an American who graduated from Harvard who found a loophole to get into the Olympics by just showing up at a bunch of freestyle skiing.
What she did is she gamed the qualifying system. She showed up a bunch of World Cup qualifiers, and just by virtue of her perfect attendance she started accumulating World Cup points. Then sometimes her other competitors in this event, because they’re turning tricks and sometimes these tricks don’t land, would fall down. Because she didn’t fall down, because she didn’t attempt any tricks, she would place higher than them sometimes. By doing this for an extended period, she found her way into the Olympics, and gave zero effort. Basically she’s given some interviews that she said that she’s the representative of all of the average skiers in the world. There’s 3,000 world-class athletes and one average skier.
Wow. I can’t believe she gamed the system so well.
It’s really crazy. I admire this sort of hutzpah. I was talking about this with Josh on Hang Up and Listen earlier, all right great, getting to the Olympics by virtue of a loophole, awesome. The fact that you didn’t bother to even learn one single trick when you realized that you were going to the Olympics, that sucks. You suck. Do something. Try hard. Don’t make a mockery of your sport just by getting up and turning down. Learn a trick, it’s the freaking Olympics.
Well, I guess she was trying to make a point.
Yeah, the point was that ha, ha, ha, sike, sike, sike, sike. That was her point.