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Korea’s passionate sports diplomacy outshines rivals

Tens of millions of Koreans across the world rejoiced as the International Olympic Committee announced PyeongChang as the host of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, a dramatic triumph of the country’s sports diplomacy preceded by two painful failures.

President Lee Myung-bak shakes hands with International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge during a session in Durban, South Africa, Wednesday, where bidders for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games made their final presentations. (Yonhap News)
President Lee Myung-bak shakes hands with International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge during a session in Durban, South Africa, Wednesday, where bidders for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games made their final presentations. (Yonhap News)

Over the past 11 years, Koreans have turned the potato fields of the mountainous region into world-class ski resorts. Authorities have invested more than $1.5 billion to build facilities in and around PyeongChang, which has a population of only about 50,000 including its surrounding county.

A number of Korea’s high-profile figures including the country’s president, leading athletes and business tycoons joined forces to promote PyeongChang and win over IOC members until the last minute in Durban, South Africa.

Samsung chairman and IOC member Lee Kun-hee, who had been convicted of breach of trust, was even pardoned last year to resume efforts to promote PyeongChang.

Led by Cho Yang-ho, another IOC member and chairman of Korean Airlines, the PyeongChang bid committee pulled off the nation’s biggest win since the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul. Park Yong-sung, chairman of the Korean Olympic Committee, Gangwon Province Governor Choi Moon-soon, taekwondo star and IOC member Moon Dae-sung and ex-Gangwon Governor Kim Jin-sun also played key roles in the latest sports diplomacy.

Renowned sports persons such as Kang Kwang-bae, vice president of the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation; Kim Na-mi, vice president of the International Biathlon Union and former member of the national ski team; and Chun Lee-kyung, a former member of the national short-track speed skating team also joined all-out efforts as the PyeongChang committee members.

To ensure PyeongChang’s successful bid, President Lee Myung-bak flew over to Durban, South Africa, for a make-or-break promotional face-off against his German and French counterparts days ahead of the IOC vote. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, German President Christian Wulff and French Prime Minister Francois Fillon also attended the IOC meeting in the South African city.

Hosting the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang has been a national task for years. Lee visited PyeongChang in 2009 and in February this year when the IOC evaluation commission were there.

Lee has long pleaded with world leaders for their support of PyeongChang’s bid during summit talks and state visits, while meeting with numerous IOC members for the same purpose, Cheong Wa Dae said.

The president sent out letters and made phone calls to each of the IOC members via his ambassadors or special envoys last month.

Upon arriving in Durban Saturday night, Lee held one-on-one meetings with several IOC members, attended official IOC events, held media interviews, strategic meetings with bid committee officials and rehearsed his speech “until his throat hurt.”

Lee said it was his responsibility to help PyeongChang win the right to host the 2018 Winter Olympics and create a new mecca for winter sports in Asia.

“I consider it as a duty and a mission to deliver this for Asia,” he told a group of foreign press earlier this week in Durban.

“I am here on behalf of the government to reassure you of our commitment to this bid.”

Pyeongchang has by far the biggest budget for non-Games infrastructure projects among all three bidders, including a $3 billion high-speed rail connecting Seoul and an international airport nearest the capital with PyeongChang.

Figure skating Olympic champion Kim Yu-na also played her part by contributing an article to a South African daily newspaper, explaining why PyeongChang should host the 2018 Games and appealing for support for its bid.

By Kim So-hyun (sophie@heraldcorp.com)
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