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For the three weeks of the Winter Olympics, Pyeongchang, South Korea, is playing host to nearly 3,000 athletes, 15,000 volunteers, 6,000 broadcast personnel, and thousands of officials, coaches, and crew members — and all of their laundry.
It’s an aspect of the games you won’t see on TV (with the exception of Procter & Gamble’s tear-jerker Tide ads), but if you follow the behind-the-scenes action on Instagram or Snapchat, you might catch a champion speed skater struggling with a washing machine whose settings are written entirely in Korean or come across a Swedish journalist plying his frozen socks off the balcony where he’s unwisely hung them out to dry in 15-degree weather.
For all the glamour of the gold medals and glitzy dresses, most attendees will be doing their own laundry, and with packed days of training, competitions, and press conferences — not to mention temperatures that practically necessitate wearing a suitcaseful of clothes every time you step outside — there will be a lot of it to do. P&G has been an Olympic sponsor since the Vancouver 2010 Games, and for Pyeongchang, a representative says, it has stocked all of the facilities — the paid drop-off service in the athletes village, the industrial laundry that takes care of linens and uniforms, and coin vending machines for the self-service rooms — with Tide, plus given athletes enough detergent for five loads of laundry each.
Taking followers on a tour around her room on Instagram Stories, figure skater Mirai Nagasu gestured at a box of Tide Pod packets. “And on our diet today,” she joked, proving that even history-making medalists are not immune to memes. “Just kidding! I don’t ever eat Tide Pods, but they’re great for laundry, so…”
I tried to get more information on the facilities, but the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games was weirdly cagey about it, saying (incorrectly) that the only facilities available would be self-serve. P&G clarified otherwise, and it stands to reason that thousands of Olympians aren’t washing their own towels, sheets, and gear for three weeks straight — particularly since they had limited luggage space and for some countries, like Japan, it’s common practice to do laundry every day (and what 20-something ski jumper has time for that?)
In previous years, private companies have touted the massive facilities they’ve built out to handle the incredible influx of laundry generated by the Olympics. For the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russian company Cotton Way constructed the country’s largest commercial laundry complex, covering nearly 100,000 square feet and employing 300 personnel. Two German companies, Kannegiesser and BurnusHychem, supplied the machines and detergent, respectively, which together could process up to 100 tons of laundry per day.
In Salt Lake City in 2002, Utah-based textile service company Steiner Company did the honors. Servicing athletes’ linens was “practically an Olympic event unto itself,” noted a press release from the time, as both technicians and the facility itself were subject to rigorous security screenings.
At each of the past four games, P&G offered free overnight drop-off service for athletes and their families, though this year they discontinued the program. The decision may be part of an ongoing trend among sponsors and organizers to scale back some of the costs associated with the Olympics. (McDonald’s, which has provided free food in the athletes village since 1996, came to a mutual agreement with the IOC to end its sponsorship after this year.)
Still, athletes tend to have it the easiest when it comes to keeping their clothes clean. Three-time Olympic medalist Natalie Darwitz, who played on the U.S. women’s hockey team in Salt Lake City, Turin, and Vancouver, says the experience was generally pleasant for her. The equipment manager handled jerseys, socks, and other gear, and if there wasn’t ready access to laundry in their complex, they could bring it to another part of the village and have it sent out at the expense of the National Organizing Committee.
The same can’t be said for journalists, who seem to have long gotten the short end of the stick, laundry-wise. In Sochi, members of the media were faced with a choice: line up to pay $150 per load for the drop-off service in Olympic Park (“ready in two, maybe three days”), send it out through your hotel for about the same price (if their cash register is working, that is), wing it with one of the neighboring cleaners (who would likely tell you sorry, they only wash sheets), or do it yourself in your bathroom sink. Many opted for the latter.
The situation was similarly bleak at prior Olympics. In fact, there’s practically a subgenre of sports journalism during the games bemoaning the lack of facilities: in Torino, hotels were half-finished, sewer lines were broken, and laundry was nowhere to be found (a particular problem in a country where chain-smoking was the norm); in Nagano, an armed guard staffed the machines, which cost so much a reporter complained he’d need a “part-time job to pay” for them; in Barcelona, clothes were returned sans buttons or lost entirely — until, that is, one writer explained how much his eight Brooks Brothers shirts were worth, after which they were promptly tracked down.
Of course, for journalists, clean clothes are primarily an issue of comfort and common courtesy. For athletes, they’re a matter of performance and potentially even health.
Performance fabrics typically have special qualities like moisture-wicking and water-repellency, which can be impeded by oil buildup, says Mary Johnson, a senior scientist at P&G. She adds that while the average adult sweats out 1 liter of sweat per day, for athletes, that number is more like 2 to 4 liters. Excess chlorine, which can occur in wash water, can also cause spandex to become brittle and lose its stretch (naturally, she recommends Tide to make sure this doesn’t happen).
For Jolie Kerr, a cleaning expert and host of the podcast Ask a Clean Person who’s written about laundering figure skating costumes and workout gear for Racked, hockey gear is a particular bugbear: “So look, realistically players aren’t washing much of that gear, like ever. But they should be, because, in addition to the vile and rank smell that hockey gear is known for, pads retain an unholy amount of bacteria. And if that bacteria comes in contact with an open wound, it can lead to staph infections. And no one wants a staph infection!”
Figure skating dresses, meanwhile, should be hand-laundered, she says, which generally speaking “is a much, much easier process than most people think, especially when it comes to items like spandex, which are quick to dry.” When I reached out to U.S. Figure Skating to ask about arranging an interview with an Olympian about their laundry habits, however, a representative declined on the basis that figure skaters “don’t really wash their costumes” and would rather not go on the record about it. (And to be fair, when a loose hook or stray feather can bring you to the brink of a wardrobe malfunction and ultimately hurt your score, it’s hard to blame them for the reluctance.)
Even for those with more straightforward competition outfits, there are still some hurdles to get around, particularly in Pyeongchang. Over the weekend, the pipes froze in one of the buildings, and every machine was marked “closed for repair.” “Olympics not going to smell so good for the days to come,” tweeted German snowboarder Silvia Mittermüller on Friday, February 9th, the first official day of the games.
More than 6,000 athletes, officials, and media personnel are currently housed between two separate villages — one in Pyeongchang and one in nearby Gangneung — each of which have their own laundry facilities. At the Gangneung media village, rows of washing machines and dryers are housed in an underground parking garage staffed by local volunteers.
In laundry rooms that are unmanned, language barriers present another challenge. The accommodations are being turned into apartment buildings after the close of the Paralympics in March, and the washing machines and dryers will be used by the new tenants. Naturally, that means that all the labels are in Korean — which isn’t very helpful if you only speak, say, Dutch or German.
Jamie Anderson, the U.S. Olympian snowboarder who took home a gold medal in slopestyle earlier this week, compared the experience to the laundry room in a college dorm, with the added bonus of a language barrier. “It’s been a bit challenging to know exactly what you’re doing,” she says, adding that the smaller machines mean that five days into the games, “I just did a round of laundry and already feel like I need to do more.” For quick fixes, she says, she packs Tide-to-Go pens, along with Downy’s Protect & Refresh fabric conditioner (Anderson is a Downy-sponsored athlete). While millennials may be killing fabric softener in the States, in South Korea, it’s going strong — more than 80 percent of the population uses Downy, according to P&G.
Athletes also have to be careful they don’t hit the wrong button, since Korean washing machines are equipped with a feature that many other countries don’t have: a boil cycle. 56 percent of Koreans boil their laundry, according to Johnson, and the extreme heat can be particularly lethal on athleticwear.
On the other hand, laundry can be a great occasion to socialize: After the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, several athletes recounted fond memories of running into Rafael Nadal at the machines — although the tennis superstar didn’t exactly seem to know what he was doing.
”I didn’t bother him, but he was shoving all his colors and whites in together,” eight-time cycling medalist Bradley Wiggins told BBC Sport. “I really wanted to say, ‘Dude, you’re going to have a nightmare with that. You can’t just put the whole bag in — there are reds in with whites.’ But what can you do?”
The Winter Games may not have quite the same star power, but one can imagine that a chance encounter with Adam Rippon in the laundry room would be something to brag about. That said, we’re pretty sure any guy who can rock a sequin leotard like he can at least knows how to separate his whites.