There has been political turmoil, protests and scandal in South Korea — but with one year to go until the start of the 2018 Winter Olympics the country is hoping that one of the world’s biggest sporting events can help restore national pride.
From February 9 to 25, 2018, the city of PyeongChang will welcome nearly 3,000 athletes from nearly 100 nations for the first Winter Olympics to be held on South Korean soil.
It will kick off a series of high-profile sporting events in Asia over the next four years, with Tokyo hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics and Beijing the host city for the Winter Olympics in 2022.
To avoid any potential confusion with North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, the PyeongChang resort — which is 50 miles south of the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries — has changed its name for the Games, capitalizing the C for the first time.
A record 102 gold medals will be up for grabs in 15 disciplines at PyeongChang 2018, while four events will be making their Winter Olympic debuts, with the introduction of Big Air snowboarding — athletes performing tricks after launching from large jumps — giving the Games a youthful vibe.
A $78 million, 50,000-capacity temporary Olympic Stadium, which will host the opening and closing ceremonies, is set to be completed in September. It’s one of six new venues being built.
In total, 13 venues, split between PyeongChang and neighboring city Gangneung, will be used during the 17 days of the Games.
Impeachment & political scandals
Yet, as the 12-month countdown begins, South Koreans have been distracted by other events.
The country’s Constitutional Court is deliberating a motion to impeach President Park Geun-hye over a corruption scandal which sparked weeks of protests in the capital Seoul.
It is a far cry from the deafening cheers which greeted the 2011 announcement that the ski resort of PyeongChang, about 180km east of Seoul, would host the Winter Olympics.
Companies have reportedly been reluctant to sign up to sponsorship deals, leaving the organizing committee with a shortfall. The total cost for the Games is said to be just over $10 billion, a contrast to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics which cost five times more.
Lee Hee-beom, president of PyeongChang 2018, told reporters this week: “Some part was affected by the political scandal, and some part by the situation of the economy.”
He said he’s hoping the Games can help shake off the “negative image” that came from what he called “a series of unsubstantiated rumors” associated with the political scandal.
“Some even went as far as saying we should give up on hosting the Olympics,” he said. “But, fortunately, the prevailing opinion is that we should all try to restore our national pride with the Olympics. And we’re concentrating only on holding a successful Olympics.
“I know that we are criticized for little public awareness of the 2018 Winter Olympics. I expect the one-year countdown event will add momentum to boost public awareness worldwide.”
‘North Korea is not the exception’
The Games are being held in a province which witnessed fierce battles during the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce not a peace treaty.
South Korea had rejected the North’s suggestion to co-host the Games by holding some of the skiing events at its Masik resort, in Kangwon, east of the capital Pyongyang.
North Korea has previously sent teams to participate in recent international sporting events held in the South and Lee urged North Korea to send athletes to the Games.
“The basic principles of Olympics is peace,” he told reporters.
“Anyone who loves peace should participate, have the right to participate. There is no exception. North Korea is not the exception.”