It’s an Accessible Life: PyeongChang 2018
My Journey to the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games
By Sally Swanson, AIA
Welcome to the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympics
The third time was a charm for PyeongChang – having previously bid [2010 and 2014] to host the Winter Olympics/Paralympics!
For the 2018 PyeongChang, South Korea Olympic/Paralympic Village, Sally Swanson of Sally Swanson Architects, Inc. (SSA) was asked to work with the Director-General, Min-Sik Lee to incorporate accessibility into the PyeongChang Olympic/Paralympic plan documents that became part of the submittal to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) which culminated in the 2018 PyeongChang Games. Ms. Swanson created Universal Design (UD) standards for town/village circulation and construction, helping to ensure that an accessible path-of-travel is fully realized for the benefit of everyone.
These are critical design elements as without successful wayfinding, athletes are impeded from performing at their best. Lacking an accessible path-of-travel proves exhausting and confusing for any user having difficulty navigating the path of travel, so It felt good to see that some of our ideas had come to fruition.
As with all my long-haul travel, I arrived at Incheon International Airport a little bit apprehensive yet hopeful about the adventures ahead.
Each morning began so peacefully in PyeongChang’s winter setting in which the weather shifted suddenly and in extremes: from rain in the mountains to sunshine by the sea, then fog and wind, and back in the mountains, snow…again. As each day progressed one was swept up into the excitement and energy of the Paralympic Games.
Let me say that I am so very happy to have been in PyeongChang and feel that participating in the Paralympics gives important meaning to my work as well as my life, which I’ll speak to later in this article. I am happy to contribute to a better, more accessible society.
Throughout my stay in PyeongChang my mind was conscious of four essential parts to the wonder and discovery that engaged me:
PyeongChang’s commitment to this event was outstanding. The South Koreans were eager to pull together a world-class event (having tried three times to secure the Winter Games). This was a great opportunity to introduce accessibility to the country of South Korea. It took a financial commitment; an incredible time outlay and support for this event. South Korea supported this event in PyeongChang 100 percent. The best part of my PyeongChang experience was getting to know the people of South Korea. The South Koreans made my journey very enjoyable. The overall feeling was one of positive supportive energy. One felt that they were genuine and giving you their best. There were many volunteers and some shared that it was an anxious time waiting to be selected. Every individual I met took the extra step. Even individuals one might meet in the street. They seemed naturally inquisitive and wanted to know all about you and assist. In a funny instance that occurred in the subway, I had written where I was headed on a piece of paper, while no one spoke English many locals flocked around me to give directions telling me the number of stops to reach my destination.
PyeongChang Olympic Stadium Site
From the start I was intent on attending as many of the events as possible. At the Paralympic Opening Night Ceremony, it gladdened me that the lighting of the torch was performed with women and a man, all with obvious disabilities.
I felt the embrace of South Korea, the country, its citizens and all the PyeongChang Winter Paralympic Games support staff. Even elementary schoolchildren were bused to the Games, and the Closing Ceremony was fully booked. This was a stunning event enjoyed by all the South Koreans present as well as the team members, coaches, and everyone lucky enough to hold a ticket.
The integration of all the Paralympic Winter Games events with the different and far away locations was a formidable task. I’ve been to many Paralympic Games and pulling these events together takes a lot of work and collaboration. Over my stay, I met with Thanos Kostopoulos, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Paralympic Games Integration Director. His is a daunting role with exacting responsibilities.
From the Main Press Centre (MPC) located in Alpensia, the centre of the PyeongChang Mountain Cluster, most of the sporting venues take at least 45 minutes to travel to. Much thought went into planning especially the outdoor venues: the need to produce artificial snow and developing the ability to keep the snow acceptable for the rigors of nearly two months of competition (Olympics and Paralympics Winter Games), as well as strategizing to pick the highest and most appropriate mountain peak where the hazards of weather would not be a great concern or hindrance. Many staff were devoted to keep the slopes perfectly groomed for each competition. At the Alpine Village one certainly felt close to the highest peaks. This was where blind Paralympic athletes (fitted with a specialized earpiece) would navigate this steep terrain directed by only the motion and sound of the sighted member of the team who led the way.
In the PyeongChang Mountain Cluster were the Alpensia Biathlon Centre (ABT) for events such as Biathlon and Cross-Country Skiing, and the Jeongseon Alpine Centre (JAL) for Alpine Skiing and Snowboard.
At the lower elevation was the Gangneung Coastal Cluster which also had two venues: the Gangneung Curling Centre (GCC) for Wheelchair Curling and the Gangneung Hockey Centre (GHC) for Ice Hockey.
Gangneung Coastal Cluster
The Non-Competition Venues included the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium (POS) where the Opening and Closing Ceremonies took place; the PyeongChang Medals Plaza (PMP) for the Victory Ceremonies; and the PyeongChang Paralympic Village (PVL) which is where the athletes residential areas are located.
PyeongChang Paralympic Village
Needing exceptional integration, each location had its own support facilities for the public. Like the events themselves, each location was distinctive and made a statement. It amazed me that each event paired so well with its venue, belying the years of effort behind bringing each venue’s special character to fruition.
The Press buses and their inconsistent schedule, however, was a challenge to me. It’s a mystery why in such a tech savvy country that there wasn’t something as simple as an electronic board announcing bus arrivals/departures. One depended on the buses to get to the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) as well as to transfer to other venues and competition sites. Later, I learned that the bus for volunteers with disabilities had limited hours, running only several times a day in each direction.
While our departing Press waited for the bus to go to the airport on the final day everyone wondered if it would show up on time, or even at all. And we all had a big laugh one last time.
The Paralympic athletes!
There, of course, would be no Paralympic Games without the participation of the magnificent Paralympic athletes! I could not believe their incredible drive, excellence and their desire to participate in their sport of choice.
It is this unwavering commitment and hard work that gives each Paralympic athlete focus to face each challenge throughout their intensive training. The support that the IPC offers is an opportunity of a lifetime. For these Paralympic athletes, each country’s best of the best, are given a boost to advance them further in their pursuit. Their goals and ultimate achievements are possible through a team effort, for each Paralympic athlete is paired with a coach, a therapist, a masseuse, plus a donor or support organization to enable them. Every member of the team commits to their Paralympic athlete working together to succeed.
I certainly respect the dedication it takes to become a top athlete as this was a skill I always wanted. In my twenties I was an accomplished rock climber in the mountains of Seattle in the State of Washington. For five years I religiously climbed a peak each weekend and did more moderate practice climbs to keep in shape during the week. Always, I was afraid I was not in the best condition. But my experience pales considering the Paralympic athletes.
When I saw the Paralympic athletes in competition, no matter their discipline, I knew how much time it took to achieve their goal and I thoroughly admired this commitment to a higher purpose. At the medals ceremonies the thrill was exhilarating as each Paralympic athlete beamed at the glory of their achievement. Some of the winners were so overcome by emotion that they cried at the enormity of their accomplishment – some even bit the medal as if to make sure it was real. It was exciting to see the IPC members and community members give out the awards.
Paralympic athletes from Russia could participate and won many awards, but only as “Neutral Paralympic Athletes”. I thought it was sad not to have one’s country recognized but I understand the reasoning behind the exclusion.
No matter if the medal was bronze or silver or gold. This was the realization of hard work and many dreams. Through the eyes of the Paralympic athletes I fully realized the scope of their accomplishments.
PyeongChang Medals Plaza
For me, it was an emotional experience as well. With more than 30 years dedicated to the mission of achieving accessibility for those with disabilities the Paralympic Games hold much meaning, the entire experience was touching, and I literally found myself moved to tears.
Having worked on PyeongChang’s winning bid to host the 2018 Winter Games, the purpose for my visit, of course, was to assess the level of accessibility achieved.
Putting the Paralympic Games together is notably a huge undertaking, but there are issues to make the event fully inclusive that need to be addressed.
Each country has a different perspective on accepting the disabled community. From the start, when a country is awarded the Summer or Winter Games is the ideal time to begin to understand how to make the environment supportive. How each country takes this on is a challenge and commitment in itself.
I was glad to meet with Thanos and his colleague, Ileana Rodriguez, IPC Accessibility Specialist (a swimmer with disabilities who participated in the London Paralympics). I shared with them why going forward with a wayfinding plan should be part of the IPC agenda. My idea to create informational videos and/or interactive workshops to illustrate what a disabled person faces in navigating their environment, how an accessible environment can support being inclusive, and convey the breadth of what’s required to achieve accessibility and wayfinding solutions was well received by Thanos and Ileana.
There are many countries that have a hard time understanding accessibility standards, or lack the political will to implement, so we need to educate them about what these standards hope to achieve. It’s a slow process, but I really think the videos are a good next step going forward not only to advance access in the built environment, but to facilitate an embrace of equity and inclusiveness.
I also shared with Thanos and Ileana the success of the Rio Metro (Summer 2016 Paralympic Games) and how accessibility and wayfinding elements of that station have been incorporated into the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) guidelines to be adopted by the United States government.
Looking at the accessible solutions in PyeongChang through the lens of my life’s commitment to access and equity, it was apparent that this undertaking had been, indeed, a challenge. And, it was clear that the access compliance codes we take for granted in the U.S. were misunderstood. I was concerned to see the lack of access in many venues and, where access was provided, that the access was not useable. Some examples where access was lacking included most restrooms, truncated domes that were used inappropriately, and their new rail station which [shockingly] was not accessible to any person with disabilities or one with mobility issues. These are mistakes that are costly to remedy. Let me be clear that if anything was sorely needed it was how to create an inclusive society for everyone. Clearly direction is needed if future Olympic/Paralympic Games are to reach for the highest level of accessibility to be achieved. The Paralympic athletes set a very high bar for themselves, so why shouldn’t we, not only as a host country but as a society, set as high a bar for accessibility?
Room to Improve
A Social Engagement
My time in PyeongChang was coming to a close, when the wonderful opportunity presented itself for me to take a lift to the Alpine Village high in the mountains, where the slopes of the peaks actually startled me. Never before had I seen such treacherous slopes. The mood at the Alpine Village was joyful and buoyed by a Korean singer that seemed utterly adored by the audience. The energy generated by his performance provided the audience a perfect sendoff as we all headed in our different orbits to depart from Incheon International Airport.
Time flew by these past two weeks. And, I left with warm feelings for the South Koreans who graced my visit. But, more than that it was a genuinely emotional experience in which I grew as a person – this Paralympics seems to have validated who I am and my life’s work. I will never forget this time and place.
The one overriding feeling I have is the enormity of putting this event together. The incredible coordination of physical integration and new construction tying this entire event together. Certainly, the enthusiasm and support from the volunteers, performers, and the participation from all the South Koreans and other families that attended and supported the Paralympics made this event the success it rightfully deserves.
It was great to see President Moon Jae-in with his beautiful wife: he was so happy, smiling and waving to everyone at the Closing ceremony. The performances were breathtaking. And the artistry and talents presented reflected and celebrated the South Korean culture.
I can comfortably say that I visited most of the primary competitions of these Paralympic Games and recognize the enduring presence of the built facilities supporting each event. I found that the Paralympic athletes are wholeheartedly committed and serious about competing and that being in the Paralympics is a major focus of their lives.
The United States won 36 medals and the IPC followed with the Neutral Paralympic Athletes winning 24 medals. I was very surprised that the Scandinavian countries did not come to the forefront as they did in the Olympics garnering only 8 for Norway, 3 for Finland, and 1 for Sweden.
The flight home from PyeongChang provided hours of quiet reflection about this momentous moment in time which I had the good fortune to witness. And, the Paralympic athletes were joyful – throwing their prosthetics up into the plane’s carry-on bins – in obvious accomplishment and relief. And their spirit was contagious as I got caught up in their vibrant mood.
Onward to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics/Paralympics Games where much more work is to be done. I can’t wait to lend a hand and move the spirit of equity and inclusiveness a step further. And, I hope that many more leaders in the field of accessibility will attend these events, for I felt very alone.