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PyeongChang Winter Games Remind Us Just How Great These Olympians Are

The latest iteration of the Winter Games once again illustrated just how talented the athletes are that converge every four years for the Olympics.

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—What’s to say here? It was cold, but you don’t care and you shouldn’t. The buses ran on time, but you don’t and shouldn’t care much about that, either. The Koreans were gracious and extremely helpful hosts, once you overlooked their habit of viewing pedestrian walkways as targets. The International Olympic Committee maintained its longstanding policy of selling colored Styrofoam and calling it “concessions,” and the athletes did what they always do: They made you love sports even more than you did when you got here.

Every Olympics is great; no level of IOC corruption or Russian doping can ruin them. The athletes are what make them great.

That is why the worst story of these Olympics, at least to me, was freestyle skier Elizabeth Swaney. You have probably seen the video by now: Swaney skied down the halfpipe without trying any tricks. That, in fact, is how she made it to the Olympics: She is an American whose grandparents are Hungarian, so she found her way onto the Hungarian team, then skied enough boring, safe runs to accumulate enough points to get her chance in PyeongChang.

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Whatever Swaney’s motivations or rationalizations, she made a mockery of the Olympics. She gamed the system so she could get here, and by doing so, she made it seem easy. If there is one thing you realize at the Olympics, it’s that, for the real athletes in all these events, none of this is easy.

Everything at the Winter Olympics is more impressive than it seems on TV. I mean, every single event. That is not a knock on NBC. It’s just a function of the medium, and the up-close shots that a great broadcast requires.

The speedskating oval is larger than it seems, and the speedskating strides are more powerful and more elegant. The short-track crashes are more violent. The figure skaters are even more precise and athletic than you think—not just the very best singles skaters (like Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia, who probably deserved gold after her masterful free skate) but the pairs, too. You can make fun of ice dancing, but go watch it live. Then imagine yourself trying to do it with a partner with the technique of Alex and Maia Shibutani or the flamboyance of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

If you caught the curling bug during these games, well, guess what: That’s harder that it looks, too. The overhead camera does not do justice to the small openings and fine touch required in the sport.

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The women’s hockey round-robin game between the U.S. and Canada was chippier than I envisioned, and the gold-medal game was better than I dreamed. It was the most thrilling event I saw here, and one of the best I’ve seen in the six Olympics I’ve covered. It had everything: feistiness, history, tension, physicality and skill, and it ended exactly as it should have—with the slightly better team winning on an absolutely incredible move. Ending the game in a shootout felt wrong, but the winning goal by Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson was so, so right. A game of that quality should end on a brilliant play, not a miscue.

It was the kind of sporting event that forced you to step outside for a breath of fresh air—and if you did venture outside in PyeongChang, you were just as impressed. The halfpipe is larger than TV can show, which means the tricks that Chloe Kim and Shaun White routinely pull off are even more astounding. And the crash of Japan’s Yuto Totsuka in the halfpipe was even more frightening in real time, in front of my eyes, than the replays indicate.

The freestyle skiing is even more ridiculous; it can be terrifying just to watch. Even Gus Kenworthy’s 12th-place finish was mind-boggling when you consider that he did it with a broken thumb and a hematoma in his hip.

I did not have the privilege of seeing Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall win their cross-country team sprint by 0.19 seconds. But colleagues who have never been described as cross-country skiing junkies said it was unbelievable. I also did not cover the Alpine skiing, because my colleague Tim Layden covers that better than anybody, but what Mikaela Shiffrin did here, winning a gold and a silver, was more impressive than most casual fans realize.

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There were the usual kerfuffles about sportsmanship. Shiffrin’s boyfriend, Mathieu Faivre, was sent home by his French team for what were supposedly selfish comments. (He apologized.) South Koreans were furious when two of their speed skaters blamed a third for the trio’s performance in the team pursuit. U.S. figure skater Mirai Nagasu made some ill-advised comments after her disappointing free skate, and a Canadian curler took heat for removing a “burnt stone,” the equivalent of not conceding a short putt in the Ryder Cup.

And Canadian hockey player Jocelyne Larocque removed her silver medal as soon as she received it, then apologized. She needn’t have apologized. Her team was part of one of the great stories of the Olympics. She was like almost all the athletes here: All she wanted was to do her best.