PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The hype man’s voice echoed off the empty canyon walls that surround the Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre. The dancers twitched to the strains of some piped-in K-Pop, trying to stay warm in 10-degree nighttime chill while grasping for the beat.
In the plaza below the jump ramps, a front-end loader’s bucket swung wildly, carving into a man-high pile of snow with all the grace of a kid hacking at a piñata.
Welcome to PyeongChang, home of the 2018 Winter Olympics. They’re not quite ready for company yet, but they’re closer than anyone would have expected.
“You see Korea is smiling,” said IOC president Thomas Bach, speaking about 48 hours before the start of the Opening Ceremony.
“The facilities are really excellent,” he continued. “To my knowledge, to my experience, these villages are among the best we’ve ever had in Winter Games, if not the best. … We can look forward with great confidence to excellent Olympic Winter Games in really outstanding venues.”
That’s the standard everything-is-better-than-perfect Olympic puffery that’s an IOC specialty, but this time there’s evidence that Bach might be correct. Set against the memories of the last two run-ups to the Olympics — the half-completed facilities in Sochi and then the political turmoil, water pollution and crime fears in Rio — PyeongChang already has its game face on.
You know how frantic those last moments of cleanup are before company arrives at your place? Imagine hearing the doorbell ring and knowing there are tens of millions of people outside, just waiting to come in and size you up.
Welcome signs and images of the two Olympic mascots — Soohorang the white tiger and Bandabi the black bear — blanket Gangneung, the seaside town that’s home to ice-based sports like hockey, curling and the skating disciplines. Head west into the Taebaek Mountains, and you’ll find Phoenix Snow Park and the Jeongseon and Yongpyang Alpine Centres, where Olympian skiers will snap in, quaint destinations against a jagged skyline.
Right in the midst of all these venues, roughly a 45-minute drive from both the coast and the snowboard venues, stands the Alpensia Ski Resort, home to ski jumping, sliding sports and cross country.
Neo-Bavarian architecture, quick-food stops alongside high-end restaurants, a chill in the dry air so cold you can see your breath five steps indoors — it’s all so familiar American visitors could mistake it for Colorado, except for the fact that the entire resort is crisscrossed with eight-foot-high security fencing and checkpoint after checkpoint.
Those checkpoints — which feature an unnerving Blade Runner-esque tracker that displays your ID badge on a four-foot-high screen as you walk through the detector — are the most visible element of the new Olympic reality.
Security is on everyone’s minds here, not the least because we’re only about 50 miles away from some of the most heavily guarded territory on the planet: the DMZ, the border between North and South Korea.
North Korea has been pulling the diplomatic carrot-and-stick of sending athletes to the Games, but 2018 will be the first time both Koreas have ever marched under a unified flag. North Korea will send 22 athletes to PyeongChang – 10 will compete with South Korea as part of the joint hockey team – while at the same time scheduling a massive military demonstration the day before the Opening Ceremony.
It’s a dichotomy that the rest of the world isn’t letting pass unnoticed. The only predictable element of the North Korean regime is its unpredictability; it’s an omnipresent yet abstract threat.
“We’ll be ensuring that whatever cooperation that’s existing between North and South Korea today on Olympic teams does not cloud the reality of a regime that must continue to be isolated by the world community,” said Vice President Mike Pence, scheduled to be in attendance at the Opening Ceremony, earlier in the week.
Of more immediate concern in PyeongChang is the outbreak of the highly contagious norovirus. Dozens of security officers contracted the virus, and hundreds more are being watched to see if their stomachs began somersaulting. Residents and visitors throughout the city wear masks, and signs throughout the region — posted everywhere from restaurants to elevators — advise vigorous hand washing for at least 30 seconds.
It’s not much, but somehow being able to do something as simple as washing your hands helps, far more than worrying about what a demonstration by North Korea or a tweet from President Trump might unleash.
Back at Alpensia, athletes — some just hours off the plane — are beginning their practice runs. At the Biathlon Centre, the soft plink-plink of targets dropping and the gentle schuss of skis traversing open snow are the only sounds. Kiosks sit waiting to be filled with souvenirs as volunteers roll out large mats over slippery, packed snow.
Further up the mountain, at the top of the vertigo-inducing switchbacks that run to the Sliding Centre, shuttle buses and moving vans engage in tense standoffs, horns at the ready, both trying to fit into the same tiny stretches of road.
And at the Ski Jumping Centre, jumpers are sailing down a 35-degree incline at 50-plus miles an hour, flying nearly 350 feet, and then popping off their skis and walking back into the warmth of of the center as if nothing amazing had just happened. That kind of effortless grace is the hallmark of the Olympics, and in just a few hours, it all begins once again.
“I’m so ready to get started,” says William Rhoads, a ski jumper from Salt Lake City making his Olympic debut. “I’ve been ready for four years now.”
More Olympic coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• 10 things you didn’t know about Lindsay Vonn
• Drone-catching drones to be used as security tactic
• The joint Korean women’s hockey team is coached by … a 29-year-old Minnesotan?
• The 1 Winter Olympic sport U.S. has never medaled in
• Top five American stars to break out in 2018 Winter Olympic Games
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.