With the curtain having finally closed on the Sochi Olympics, all eyes are turning on the 2018 Winter Games, with some wondering whether Pyeongchang, South Korea, will be able to pull off a Games as successful as those hosted by Russia.
It’s been almost 30 years since the Olympics came to Korea, when Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics in 1988. The country bid twice to host a Winter Games, but lost twice, first to Vancouver for the 2010 Games, then to Sochi.
Pyeongchang organizing committee chief, Kim Jin-Sun, told reporters this weekend that South Korea wants to illustrate to the world how rapidly its economy has developed since the 1988 Games.
“Thirty years ago, the world saw a developing country,” Kim told a news conference this past weekend. “Just one generation later, the world will see a truly developed Korea through these Games.”
Kim added that winter sports are relatively under-developed in Asia compared with Europe and North America, but that’s beginning to change.
“Recently, the interest in winter sports and related industries has grown dramatically,” he said. “Asia has a great potential to become a huge market for winter sports. In that sense, I believe Pyeongchang will offer a window of opportunity for Asia.”
Will Pyeongchang be ready for the tens of thousands of athletes, coaches and spectators that will descend on their city for the Games?
Sochi earned plenty of derision for the late construction of many of its hotels, appearing to many Western reporters as though they had been cobbled together at the last minute. Others criticized the poor transit system that shuttled reporters and athletes between the village and the sporting venues.
Unlike Sochi, Pyeongchang has many of the facilities it will need already in place, at a ski resort called Alpensia. A ski jump tower has been built, and its Olympic Stadium is in the early stages of construction.
Pyeongchang’s infrastructure budget is projected at a modest $7 billion, more than half of which is expected to pay for a high-speed rail line that will speed the commute from Seoul to Pyeongchang.
Of course, $7 billion is hardly pocket change, but that figure pales in comparison to the estimated $51 billion it cost Russia to host the Sochi Games, or the $40 billion Beijing laid out for the 2008 Summer Games.
One aspect that ate up a large portion of Sochi’s $2 billion operating price tag was security. Organizers deployed tens of thousands of security officers to keep the Games running smoothly, particularly amid threats from Muslim insurgents.
Security is an issue at any Olympic Games, of course, but it will likely be intense for the Pyeongchang Games, too. The city is located close to the demilitarized zone that separates North and South -- the world's most heavily armed border.
Relations between the two Koreas have never been friendly in the 60 years since the Korean War ended in an armistice. The last few years have not seen the harsh rhetoric and threats of military strikes that once marked the two countries’ relations. But experience has shown that things can change quickly between the longtime rival nations.
Pyeongchang organizer Kim said this weekend his team is confident the 2018 Games will promote peace among the divided peninsula. He said he even held out hope that North Korean athletes will compete in 2018.
“I know North Korea has some winter sport facilities and interest is growing in these sports,” organizing committee president Kim Jin-sun.
“I hope winter sports will develop in North Korea, and four years from now North Korean athletes will be able to come… If that happens, it will be a very good thing.”
Plenty of snow
Many wondered whether Sochi, with its palm trees dotting the Black Sea waterfront, was even the right venue to host a winter Games. And indeed, temperatures did as expected, soaring into the double digits Celsius in the village at times, leaving many to joke that it felt more like a Summer Games at times than a Winter Games.
That shouldn’t be a problem in Pyeongchang. The city is a traditional alpine resort with plenty of snow. Just this past weekend, the temperature dropped to minus 17 C before climbing to a more comfortable 4 C.
NHL at Games?
One closely-watched aspect of the 2018 Games is whether the NHL will allow its players to compete.
The arrival of pro players into the Games in 1998 made hockey watching a must-see for many Olympic fans. But NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly has said the league needs to consider a few things before deciding whether to participate.
The NHL does not earn any revenues from the Olympics, and players are not paid to attend, but the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) reimburses the NHL for player participation costs, including travel.
Daly says the leagues need to consider the logistics of travel to and from the host city, the issue of player insurance, and access for NHL media platforms.
Kim said he hoped to see players at the Pyeongchang Games.
“Ice hockey is one of the most important sports on the Olympic programme,” he said.
“NHL players have participated in every Olympics since Nagano in 1998 and their participation has made a great contribution to the worldwide expansion of winter sports… In that sense we sincerely hope and believe that they will come to the Pyeongchang Games in 2018.”