Nick Butler

I made my first visit to Pyeongchang for an International Olympic Committee (IOC) inspection in March 2015 and it was not easy to get here then.

A four-hour bus ride from Incheon included a stop at a service station, where I found myself sprinting back from the bathroom in fear that the non-English speaking driver would suddenly depart and leave me stranded. On arrival, I was greeted by the sight of luscious green countryside which was beautiful but hardly suggestive of an iconic Winter Olympic host city in the making.

After three days of positive platitudes, I was taken into a quiet corner by one IOC Coordination Commission member and given the sort of "off-the-record" briefing which we journalists love. 

Pyeongchang, it transpired, was making slow and frustrating progress. They were not addressing many of the concerns being raised by the IOC, their budget was going up and was not being offset by sponsorship revenue, and they were reluctant to downscale any of their extravagant new venues.

A few months later, things would get worse when Cho Yang-ho departed as President of Pyeongchang 2018 because of South Korean political chaos which culminated in the departure of the country's President, Park Geun-hye, causing more budgetary problems - much as they insisted at the time it did not. 

Then, just as preparations were picking-up speed under Lee Hee-beom, regional tensions exploded into life again. I woke-up on my last visit here in August to reports that a North Korean missile test had passed over Northern Japan before crashing into the sea.

Given this build-up, these Winter Olympic Games can only be considered something of a success.

On arrival in Incheon this time, we were ushered onto the new high-speed railway line, cutting journey-times to two-and-a-half-hours. The comparatively short distances between most venues made transport a lot easier than at other Olympics I have attended. Virtually everything was efficiently organised and backed-up by volunteers who were not only numerous and helpful, but capable of thinking-on-their-feet and dealing with issues beyond their specific responsibilities.

Much has been made of the poor atmosphere at venues and the large numbers of empty seats for many finals was disappointing, even if we were given increasingly dubious attendance statistics culminating in a claim on the final day that "107.7 per cent" of their targeted tickets had been sold...

Yet I also attended events where the stands were packed. Curling, for example, where a women's final featuring the South Korean "Garlic Girls" team mesmerised the host nation, as well as figure skating, short-track and some on snow, like the men's ski cross final.

South Korea's
South Korea's "garlic girls", left, so called because the team all hails from the garlic-producing province of Gyeongsangbuk-do, became unlikely Olympic stars despite losing the women's final yesterday to Sweden ©Getty Images

The Olympics is also about watching on television, though, and while it is too early to really analyse broadcasting figures, those viewing at home were less bothered about empty seats than by the great images and sport they were seeing.

The impression from more seasoned observers than me is that Pyeongchang 2018 falls short of Lillehammer 1994 but shapes up okay in comparison with all Winter Olympics since.

There were some amazing sporting moments. Ester Ledecká switching sports to win the women's super-G, in an outcome so surprising that NBC had already switched-away from covering it, before triumphing again in her favoured parallel giant slalom snowboarding.

Shaun White holding his nerve on the final run to spectacularly win a third halfpipe crown, Martin Fourcade winning in a photo finish in biathlon after losing in virtually the same way four years ago, 15-year-old figure skater Alina Zagitova dazzling to beat a more established team-mate...

We could go on.

Sport is about failure as well as success, however, and the most dramatic moments I watched here all seemed to involve British short-track speed skater Elise Christie. She had been disqualified from all three of her events at Sochi 2014, but had since collected an array of World and European Championship titles. 

Pyeongchang was thus billed as her moment of redemption but it did not turn out that way.

She crashed and finished fourth in the 500 metres final before being stretchered to hospital after a semi-final collision over 1,500m which resulted in another disqualification. She battled the odds to return for the 1,000m heats but was brought down in a crash on the first lap. 

The race was restarted and Christie, barely able to walk, was swiftly distanced from her rivals. She bided her time and overtook once, overtook twice and somehow, amazingly, managed to cross in one of the two qualifying positions before being carried off the ice in agony by her coach.

Alas, barely had we digested all of this when she was disqualified yet again, meaning six Olympic failures out of six.

I have not supported a sportsperson with such a strong expectation of impending catastrophe since tennis player Tim Henman played in his last Wimbledon semi-final.

Elise, please switch to long-track speed skating for 2022. Just not the mass start.

Elise Christie endured a second successive Olympic heartache in Pyeongchang ©Getty Images
Elise Christie endured a second successive Olympic heartache in Pyeongchang ©Getty Images

I spent most of the last three weeks covering the IOC and the continual mess they are making of dealing with the Russian doping scandal. The trip began with a series of attacks on the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which they created, for having the audacity to rule against their suspensions of individual athletes. It ended with yet another uneasy compromise on whether to lift the suspension of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC).

There were two personal highlights here.

The first was when we clocked "Putin Presidential aide" Igor Levitin stealthily leaving the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel the day after he had met IOC President Thomas Bach. As the youngest and naivest of the press pack, I set off in pursuit and spied him clambering into an official-looking car 100m ahead. 

I broke into a sprint as the car performed a U-turn and was on the verge of banging on the windows in the vain hope of getting a comment, despite my lack of Russian, when it dawned on me that this was not only stupid but dangerous.

A few days later, we were watching the ice hockey semi-finals when a journalist from the excellent Russian website Sport Express next to me suddenly broke into "I have a breaking story to write mode". He wouldn't elaborate, so, after waiting for a few minutes, we lost patience and left the venue and swiftly became distracted by a last-ever Olympic visit to McDonalds, away from the confines of WiFi. I returned to technological existence 45 minutes or so later to my phone exploding into life. It turned out the journalist who had exclusively broken the second Russian doping scandal of the Olympics was the one seated right next to me...

Our daily Olympic final was the 11am press briefing with IOC spokesperson Mark Adams. In 2016, these affairs were dominated by questions surrounding the latest disaster involving Rio de Janeiro. Their spokesman Mario Andrada's answer of "chemistry is not an exact science" when asked why the diving pool had turned green has entered into press conference folklore.  

There were less problems with Pyeongchang 2018 so the focus was on Adams and the IOC. There were also less of us, so more chance for follow-up questions and a pre-planned bombardment on the same issues. Adams' problem was that he could not answer, or "speculate", about most questions or could only give responses which stretched the boundaries of believability, such as how Levitin's meeting with Bach lasted only "four minutes" to wish him happy birthday.

Around 80 per cent of questions to Thomas Bach at a closing press conference yesterday concerned Russian doping ©Getty Images
Around 80 per cent of questions to Thomas Bach at a closing press conference yesterday concerned Russian doping ©Getty Images

The suspension of Russia in December, after months of delays, contained a clause permitting its lifting before the Closing Ceremony here so long as they respected the "letter and spirit" of the IOC rules, something which most of us agreed did not include incurring 50 per cent of all the positive drug tests to so far emerge at these Olympics.

Still, though, the IOC seemed reluctant to upset Russia in any way. An Executive Board meeting was adjourned overnight and a report by their Implementation Group was changed to show how the ROC was not responsible for the two failed drug tests. We were suddenly told over and over again how they were "individual" rather than "systematic" cases and were therefore less significant, even though this was a distinction we had never been told was important before. 

The suspension was maintained for the Closing Ceremony, but it will be automatically lifted within the next 48 hours so long as no more positive cases emerge.

I understand that the IOC do want to draw a line under the situation and move-on, but the feeling from virtually everyone I spoke to yesterday was that Russia has got off lightly. 

They have not fully acknowledged the problem and could not stop at least two of their athletes doping at these Games. Russian IOC member Shamil Tarpischev even attempted to pin the doping scandal on a "lack of cultural education".

I expect we will see world governing bodies from summer and winter sports act with similar leniency over the next few months and attempt to kick both individual and collective punishments in the long grass.

Perhaps they are right from a purely pragmatic stand-point as fans still watch sport despite the suspicions of doping?

But a firm stand for clean sport it was not.

China won just one gold medal and finished 16th on the medals table here four years before they host the next edition of the Winter Olympics. A World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigation is supposedly underway into historical failures there, but what will really be done to stop this happening again in China, Russia or anywhere else? 

Norway's medal table success here will, for some, always have an asterisk next to it due to their associations with asthma medication in some sports, even if they are not breaking current rules.

North Korea's presence, including their cheerleading squad, was a highlight of Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images
North Korea's presence, including their cheerleading squad, was a highlight of Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images

The IOC, for the record, did do many things right at Pyeongchang 2018.

North Korean participation was partly down to luck, but the IOC and others used all their diplomatic nous to negotiate a unified ice hockey team and ceremonial march. 

No, I don't think this will do much for long-term Korean relations, yet it was nonetheless a symbolic moment in its own right.

New events added onto the programme in Pyeongchang have been roaring successes, such as mixed doubles curling, mass start speed-skating, big air snowboarding and an Alpine skiing mixed team event. The Olympics is also leading the way in terms of sporting gender equality and it barely needs reminding how female events have hogged the headlines just as much as male ones over the last 16 days.

But the ad-hoc and overly political way the IOC have dealt with the Russian doping scandal over the last three years has partly overshadowed their own achievements as well as an otherwise successful South Korean Games.