Place: Gangneung Curling Centre
Time: February 2018
In 2018 I volunteered at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
I spent 3 whole months living in the middle of the snowy Korean mountains and took a bus everyday to my job at the Olympic Curling Centre in Gangneung. The whole experience felt a little bizarre to me, from having to watch the eagles win the Superbowl from an illegal streaming site at 6AM, to being woken up by two job phone interviews at 3AM, to spending my day off traveling 80 miles by bus and taxi just to find a nearby Pizza Hut. But by far the most bizarre part was the actual job I was given.
My main job in the curling centre was being the bodyguard for the Olympic mascot, a giant white tiger named Soohorang. Although I wasn’t so much protecting him from others as I was protecting him from himself. The fella inside the suit was a Korean guy named Justin, and since he wore a giant tiger head with two holes (the nostrils) with which to see out of that are the size of quarters and covered in black felt, I was Justin’s eyes.
This was the daily procedure: Every morning at 8:55am I go to Justin’s dressing room, where he’s already dressed and ready to go. I grab his hand and guide him through a small concourse of people and through a large double doors into the arena. We walk through an even narrower aisle with people in it while he waves to the crowds of people that see him and call his name. Then we get to some stairs where I hold both hands and he takes it one step at a time. At 9AM the Olympic athletes line up behind him at the event floor and when the announcer says “And now please welcome the athletes led by Soohorang”, he walks out onto the ice, waving and dancing the whole time until the athletes come out and he can walk back to me. We get back to the dressing room the same way we came, me holding his hand and guiding him the whole way.
We did this every morning and evening for two weeks and we had it down to a science, we we’re killin' it on the reg! A dynamic duo, we couldn’t be stopped. But one morning I get to Justin’s dressing room at 8:55AM, just like always, and I walk into the dressing room to a less than ideal Soohorang. Justin was 1. Not in his costume, 2. Passed out on the floor, and 3. He REEKED of cheap booze and shame.
The average mascot bodyguard might’ve been thrown by this, however the dozens of times I’ve had to wake up, carry, or even dress my many drunk roommates has prepared me for this moment! I threw Justin on his couch and shook him awake. “Justin, we have 5 minutes to get down to the ice! Put your uniform on!”
“I can’t, I’m too drunk… You do it.”
Now I admit, what I did next doesn’t make for as interesting a story as if I had accepted his terms and conditions, but I assure, forcing Justin into that adult-onesie and sticking his adult feet into white tiger boots, is just as interesting. I zip up his suit in record time, it’s 8:58AM. We leave the dressing room and I grab his hand to guide him through the crowd.
But I guess I must’ve put the suit on too tight because Justin immediately shakes his hand loose from mine and starts blindly charging through the crowd with all the confidence of a drunk part- time curling mascot with nothing left to lose. The crowd somehow gets between Justin and I and I’m frantically trying to chase him down. Not only is he bumping into EVERYONE, but he’s also yelling at people to get out of his way! There’s not many rules to being a mascot, but we understood the cardinal sin is to actually verbalize your feelings to the audience, because last time I checked, tigers, white or orange, can’t tell people to get out of their f#&@ing way.
I reach him by the time he gets through the double doors to the arena, but the aisle we walk down is so narrow I can’t get in front of him to guide him. He continues to bump into people and push children aside. Now let me be clear, I thought this was HILARIOUS! As much as I wanted to be upset and do our job, I also could not stop cracking up at the complete absurdity of this situation, and all I can think is, “No one’s going to believe me when I tell them this.” I thought no one would believe me not only because it’s just that ridiculous, but also because it was very similar to a scene from the movie “Blades of Glory” where Will Ferrell’s character gets a job as an Ice-capades mascot and drunkenly harasses the audience.
When we get to the stairs I grab one of his hands and remind Justin to “take it slow, these are steeper than you think.” But wadya know, he didn’t get one step in before he slips onto his back and slides down the first 5 steps. And to make it worse, an audible “Oof” resounds throughout the stadium. As the laughs begin to rise, I look up, and Justin and I have been on the jumbo tron screen for God knows how long, but long enough for everyone to get the hint.
But we make it to the event floor just in time. The announcer calls out Soohorang, and he and the athletes stomp onto the ice, no waving, no dancing. Just a slouched sad tiger slowly walking down the ice. Finally he comes back to me, this time letting me hold his hands, and we get back up the steps and through the aisle as every eyeball is on Justin just waiting for the next hilarious fall.
And they were in luck, because again Justin decided to go ahead of me at the exact wrong time, and he walked straight into the closed double doors and fell back like a 2x4. I slowly get him back to his feet, through the doors and back to his dressing room.
As you can imagine, that was the last time I saw Justin at the Olympics. And the guy they replaced him with wasn’t nearly as fun or cool to hang with, but the mascot biz is a cruel one and it’s a tiger-eats-tiger world. So the next time you see a mascot at a sporting event and wonder, “how can they even see out of that thing?” just remember, they really can’t.
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