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Highs and lows of the PyeongChang Olympics: Team USA soars — and stumbles

Here's how the PyeongChang Games will be defined beyond the brilliance seen on the slopes and the ice.
Image: Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson celebrates after Team USA defeated Canada in a 3-2 victory during the gold medal match on Feb. 22, 2018.
Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson celebrates after Team USA defeated Canada in a 3-2 victory during the gold medal match on Feb. 22, 2018.Matt Slocum / AP

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — For 16 days, PyeongChang was paved with Olympic gold.

American snowboarders Chloe Kim, Red Gerard and Shaun White owned the slopes. The U.S. women's ice hockey team edged out the rival Canadians in a thrilling shootout, claiming the top of the event podium for the first Winter Games in 20 years. And the U.S. men's curling team shocked by winning their first-ever gold as Ivanka Trump, the head of the U.S. delegation for the closing ceremony, cheered them on.

Related: How to watch the Winter Olympics closing ceremony

Host country South Korea also scored bragging rights: Yun Sung-bin — nicknamed the "Iron Man" — seized skeleton gold with a superhuman finish, and the bespectacled, stone-faced members of the women's curling team — collectively called the "Garlic Girls" — won silver, cementing their newfound status as internet sensations.

After the 23rd Olympic Winter Games draws to an end Sunday night (6 a.m. ET Sunday) with a closing ceremony that will shower this fir-filled mountain resort in fireworks, futuristic wonder and the peppy sounds of K-pop, organizers of the sports extravaganza can breathe a sigh of relief that, for the most part, it went off without any major hitches.

Fears that these Olympics would be overshadowed by security concerns and the unpredictable tensions engulfing the Korean Peninsula did not come to pass, although a cyberattack targeted the opening ceremony and political gamesmanship among delegations was very much an event of its own.

Here are the biggest takeaways from the PyeongChang Games:

Team USA stumbles in the standings

While Norway proved to be the dominant force these Olympics, winning 39 medals, the U.S. couldn't quite live up to expectations of past games, when it was vying for pole position. Winning 23 medals, this was the worst finish in the medal standings for the U.S. since the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, when it won 13.

America's No. 4 finish in PyeongChang is certainly thanks to athletes like Kim and the women's ice hockey team. (U.S. women, in fact, outpaced the men in medals.)

But the U.S. chances of medaling more diminished after American alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who did win a gold and silver, chose not to compete in as many events as anticipated.

American Nathan Chen falls as he competes in the men's single skating event during the Winter Olympics on Feb. 17, 2018.MLADEN ANTONOV / AFP - Getty Images

And perhaps one of the biggest upsets was men's figure skater Nathan Chen, who was favored to win or at least medal in the individual competition. After a disastrous short program, he finished just out of the medals in fifth place in the free program.

None of the American women in figure skating managed to medal in the individual event either.

Related: Here's every U.S. gold medal winner at the PyeongChang Games

Other big names at these Olympics failed to clean up, although skier Lindsey Vonn won a bronze in the women's downhill.

Americans also performed less well than expected in sports such as speed skating, bobsled and luge.

Alan Ashley, the U.S. Olympic Committee's chief of sport performance, told The Associated Press that medals "are one story" but in the end, the "commitment level and intensity of the athletes, you can't ask for more than that."

Korea scores with unified team

Once again, North Korean and South Korean athletes will parade as one in the closing ceremony, capping an Olympic experience that for the first time had the two nations — which technically remain at war — putting some of its athletes on the same roster.

That unity was showcased when the Korean women's ice hockey team — made up of players from both countries — laced up their skates in a display of gutsy determination. The team didn't actually win any of their matches and scored just twice in the entire competition.

But for the fans who packed each game at the Kwandong Hockey Center, that wasn't the point.

"Politicians made that executive decision" to form a joint team, said their coach, Sarah Murray, an American. "Our players and staff are the ones that made it work. I definitely give our team a lot of credit."

After the buzzer sounded in Team Korea's final match, Murray — and some in the stands — shed tears. "I told [the players] just to enjoy the moment because you may never play a game with these people again," she told reporters, "and you'll never get this moment back."

North Korea brings the noise

The sight of senior North Korean officials stepping foot inside the South for the Olympics riveted Koreans. The North's opening ceremony delegation was led by ruler Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong, who sought to show a different side to the secretive state.

She came with a 230-member cheering squad and musicians tasked with mesmerizing crowds outside of venues and livening up the atmosphere at hockey matches and other events where North Korean athletes participated.

Image: North Korean cheerleaders chant during the women's ice hockey preliminary game
North Korean cheerleaders chant during the women's ice hockey preliminary game between Korea and Japan at the Winter Olympics on Feb. 14, 2018.Carl Court / Getty Images

"We are one!" the all-female squad would chant while tilting their heads and waving their arms in crisp formation.

Vice President Mike Pence had warned before the games began not to be swayed by the apparent charm offensive, reminding how North Korea continues to build its nuclear weapons program and allow for human rights abuses.

During the opening ceremony, Pence was seated in a row in front of Kim Yo Jong, although the two exchanged no words or acknowledgments. It was later revealed that a pre-planned meeting between Pence and the North Korean delegation at the games fizzled after the North backed out of the meeting, Pence's office said.

Still, the North extended an invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang at a later time, with some looking to these Olympics as a bright spot in the easing of inter-Korean relations.

Norovirus brings the funk

Even before the games kicked off, officials were scrambling to contain the spread of the norovirus, a nasty stomach bug that hit nearly 250 people, mainly workers and security staff outside of the Olympic Village.

At least two competitors staying outside of the athletes' village — identified as freestyle skiers on the Swiss team, according to Reuters — were affected and hundreds of people were isolated as a precaution.

Bottles of hand sanitizer also became readily available throughout the Olympic Park and the dining halls.

Russian doping returns

Team Russia was forced into Olympic exile in PyeongChang over the state-sponsored doping allegations during the 2014 Winter OIympics in Sochi, Russia.

While nearly 170 Russian athletes were required to compete under the neutral team the Olympic Athletes from Russia, their presence at the games got a further setback when two of them tested positive for banned substances.

Related: Russian fans spurn 'stupid' ban on athletes at Olympic Games

Russian curler Alexander Krushelnitsky, who won bronze in the mixed-doubles event, was stripped of his medal along with his partner. Meanwhile, Russian bobsled pilot Nadezhda Sergeeva was disqualified this week. She had finished 12th in her event.

The IOC did dangle one promise: If the athletes appeared to play by the rules and not make overt political statements, they could officially march in the closing ceremony under the Russian flag.

But the committee voted Sunday hours before the closing ceremony that the suspension would be upheld, meaning the Russian athletes cannot march under their own flag, the AP reported.

Winds rankle competitors

As expected, these Winter Olympics delivered the cold — plunging to subzero lows on many nights. The winds were equally paralyzing, gusting upwards of 45 miles per hour.

The weather was so threatening that several events, including the men's downhill, had to be postponed, putting athletes in the torturous position of having to wait days to compete. The winds, in part, derailed Shiffrin's hopes to compete in five events.

Skiers also complained how the rock-hard snow damaged their equipment, and the slalom race course had to be injected with water as a softener, Reuters reported.

Practice conditions for athletes were also dangerous, and some competitors tweeted about injuries and the rough conditions.

Tess Coady, who at 17 was Australia's youngest Olympian, said on social media that she suffered an ACL injury in a practice run amid high winds, bringing her Olympic dream to a "screeching" halt.

Meanwhile, lackluster attendance at these games was partially blamed on the frigid conditions. More than 90 percent of tickets were sold, organizers have said, but the empty seats in venues were glaringly noticeable.

The games ended up costing South Korea an estimated $13 billion — still lower than the $50 billion-plus price tag for Sochi.