PYEONGCHANG, Korea — It’s the morning of the Olympic women’s snowboard cross finals, and the grandstands packed with flag-waving, sign-carrying spectators are already throbbing.
“Are you ready for some snowboarding snowcross,” booms the voice of announcer Brad J. Lilley, he of the golden tones that are familiar to X Games Aspen audiences.
DJ Naka G, aka Michael Nakagawa, cues the music, and the action begins. “We are racing!” Lilley shouts.
It’s a tight fit up here in the announcer’s booth, where Naka G, a 1995 Aspen High School graduate, works in concert with Lilley and director Matthew Johnson. Together, they coordinate a symphony of sorts to complement the rough-and-tumble racing on the undulating snowcross course here at Phoenix Snow Park.
“With sports production, our job is to entertain, engage and educate the crowd,” Nakagawa explained.
Down on the course, snowboarder Faye Gulini is lagging behind, and there’s a clear break in the action. Nakagawa turns up Pink Floyd’s “Happiest Days of Our Lives” as a fill-in measure to keep the spectators engaged.
“It’s a good drama track,” he explained of the song, which has a heavy bass line.
Pyeongchang is Nakagawa’s fourth Olympics, as he also worked the Rio summer Games and the Winter Games in Vancouver and Sochi. DJ Naka G, as he’s better known, cut his teeth on the X Games starting in 2002, after being plucked from his job spinning tunes at the now-defunct Shooter’s bar.
“For events like this, my job is to play high-energy music during the races,” he said.
Naka G also tries to accommodate special requests by athletes when they launch out of the start gate or await a golden moment. Metallica was Shaun White’s choice during the seconds before his medal-winning score was announced.
Naka G must also respond to accidents on the course, like when snowboarder Markus Schairer of Austria broke his neck during the quarterfinals last week.
“That’s when we bring the music down, bring down the tension,” Nakagawa said. Schairer “got back up and came across the finish line. Don’t ask me how,” he said.
As the riders continued through elimination rounds, Lilley explained the riders’ strategy to the on-site crowd. “We talk about the hole shot, it’s who gets the lead from the start.”
Naka G cues up “Feel it Still” (known by its refrain “Rebel for Kicks”) before segueing into an instrumental track. The transition is smooth, as befits a production team that has traveled to Korea for test events in the past two years.
This is Nakagawa’s third visit to Pyeongchang, having traveled here in 2016 and 2017 for Olympic test events in the downhill and halfpipe, and he’s also worked the parallel snowboard, aerials and moguls events during that tenure.
In the upper reach of the grandstands here in Phoenix Park, not far from the announcers’ booth, a pair of middle-aged men are grooving to Naka G’s choice of “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith. Their shirts have come off despite the wintery temperatures.
“Somebody cover those guys up,” Lilley announced with a laugh.
There was plenty at stake in this final heat of racing action as U.S. Snowboard Team member Lindsey Jacobellis hoped to vie for the elusive gold medal that she’s long been criticized of throwing away during the 2006 Torino Games by pulling a grandstanding move at the finish line.
Jacobellis pulled into the early lead but got tangled up along the way and finished three-hundredths of a second out of the medals. Despite having 10 X Games medals in her possession, she has come up empty in the past three Olympics. Here in Phoenix Snow Park, it’s Michala Moioli of Italy’s day for gold.
The music starts to wind down as the winners head to the makeshift podium on the snow. Naka G lines up another English-language track, despite an audience that appears to be heavily comprised of Korean spectators.
“The majority of the Korean music we play is for the cheerleaders. Or if there’s a Korean athlete with a special request, I’ll go into the library” and find the song, Nakagawa said. He offered a caveat and suggested there’s a temporary moratorium on playing the overused “Gangnam Style” by home-country musician PSY.
No need really, as Naka G has plenty of other songs in his traveling repertoire.
“Music has always been a huge part of action sports. It just ties it together,” he said.
Madeleine Osberger is covering the Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea, as part of a collaboration between Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News.