This was Billy Morgan’s type of night: bursts of strobe lighting, a giant fluorescent turtle and an excitable Dutch DJ laying down some serious tunes. At any Olympics, the closing ceremony marks the point at which the Games cease to attempt even a semblance of order, decorum or logic. Forget the turgid speeches, this is where thousands of careworn athletes, after 17 days of living in a freezer, simply want to shake off the snow and dance.
To that end, Britain chose the perfect flag-bearer for Pyeongchang 2018 in the shape of fast-living, smooth-talking, bronze medal-winning Morgan, who had partied with such frenzy upon reaching the podium in the snowboard big air that he wound up tearing through the athletes’ village on a shopping trolley. “I sent it too hard, too early and peaked out,” he said, with a weary smile. Sending it, if you were not already aware, is boarder-speak for going more than a little wild.
Barely 24 hours later, Morgan, a go-hard-or-go-home merchant if ever there was one, appeared hellbent on pulling his second all-nighter in a row, marking his official duties for the British team by trying to balance the flagpole on his chin. Evidently, there is an intrinsic temptation at closing ceremonies for Morgan to lapse into the kinds of antics of which a Seventies Keith Richards would be proud. After all, he ended the same evening at Sochi 2014 with a toilet seat around his neck. His penchant for zany, off-the-wall extremes is one that he attributes to his father, Eddie, who has been recovering at home from an aneurysm.
“Everyone knows him as Mad Eddie, because he’s a bit of a loose dude,” Morgan said. “He’s an engineer, so he made some crazy stuff in his day. Once he even made a booby trap and shot himself in the stomach with a 12-inch cartridge – he was in the papers for that.”
Morgan is so laconically loose-tongued that his every utterance would give most press officers the vapours. But there is a precious wonder in the fact that the British Winter Olympic effort, despite all the fretting about how extravagantly to fund the Games and how to divide the money, has turned up a star so resolutely his own man.
Among Olympic suits, a fallacy exists that sport and politics exist in separate spheres
While most people inspired by Lizzy Yarnold’s gold medal in skeleton would be hard-pushed to find an ice chute on which to practice, Morgan’s talent for wringing outrageous stunts out of his snowboard is at once thrilling and relatable. Not that his achievement here is about to stir any delusions of grandeur. Asked about the possibility of an MBE in the next honours list, he replied: “What’s that?”
Informed that it would involve an encounter with the Queen, he grew apprehensive. “Oh, no. This stuff makes me nervous enough.”
Morgan’s innocence, if you could call it that, formed a stark juxtaposition with the murky politics on this final day of the Pyeongchang Games, when the elephant in the room did not so much rear its head as batter the door down. Yes, the Russians are back – or at least they soon will be. Just as the Olympic Athletes from Russia rallied against Germany to claim a last-gasp gold in ice hockey, the International Olympic Committee quietly laid the ground for them to return, in weeks or even days, under their own flag.
Among Olympic suits, a fallacy persists that sport and politics exist in separate, airtight spheres, but the past fortnight in South Korea has laid any such presumption firmly to rest.
First, US vice-president Mike Pence brought the father of Otto Warmbier, an alleged North Korean torture victim, to Pyeongchang in a ploy to highlight the malevolence of Kim Jong-un’s regime. Then, IOC president Thomas Bach, just hours before the Olympic flame was extinguished, seized the moment to suggest that Russia, orchestrators of the worst state-sponsored doping racket in sport, were about to be welcomed back into the fold.
At the Games’ vibrant denouement, featuring a giant mock pagoda and salvos of deftly choreographed Korean electro-pop, the Russians were conspicuous in continuing to march, as neutrals, behind the five rings of the Olympic flag. It had been the IOC’s intention to use this ceremony to herald Russia’s return from pariah status. Alas, two doping violations by their athletes during these Olympics – one for the heart drug meldonium, the other for banned stimulant trimetazidine, by a bobsledder who had even had the gall to wear a T-shirt branded ‘I don’t do doping’ – put paid to that idea.
It should have been the easiest decision for the IOC to prolong Russia’s suspension. Instead, they made it as torturous as possible, with executive board member Nicole Hoevertsz describing it as “one of the hardest we have ever had to make”. Really? At a time when Russia knew its athletes had to adhere to ‘both the letter and spirit of the law’ and yet still recorded two failed drug tests, when whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov has moved to the US in daily fear of his life, the IOC still perceived this as a tight call? It was not even as if they treated it as an especially important one. Of their 97 members, 45 were not even here.
Even Bach was stunningly unconvincing, suggesting he was relaxed about Russia’s imminent restoration because there was no evidence of “systemic manipulation”. It was a day to capture the essential dichotomy of the Olympics, so rich in wonderful sport and compelling characters, but so tainted by all the cosy deal-making on the side. What the Games need, surely, is less Bach, more Billy.