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Eyes on Korea as PyeongChang readies to host next Winter Olympics

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Published : 2014-02-24 05:46
Updated : 2014-02-24 09:39

As the 2014 Winter Olympics drew to a close here in Russia, the eyes of the sporting world turned to the South Korean town of PyeongChang, the host of the next Winter Games in 2018.

The Olympic Flag was handed over from Sochi to PyeongChang during the closing ceremony at Fisht Olympic Stadium on Sunday, and it will be kept in the South Korean host over the next four years.

It will have been a long time coming for PyeongChang, some 180 kilometers east of Seoul.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach (left) applauds as Lee Seok-rai, mayor of Pyeongchang, waves the Olympic flag during the closing ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP-Yonhap)
PyeongChang won the bid to host the Winter Games on its third try. It first lost to Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics and then to Sochi for this year's competition. Finally, PyeongChang edged out Munich in its third bid in 2011, and will stage South Korea's first Winter Olympics.

Kim Jin-sun, the chief organizer of the PyeongChang Games, stayed in Sochi throughout the Winter Olympics here, promoting the 2018 competition and trying to learn from the Russian host.

In an interview with Yonhap News Agency on Saturday, Kim said he leaves Sochi feeling confident that PyeongChang can host a successful Olympics.

"I don't think the size or the scale of the Olympics will be so absolutely important," Kim said. "We have to meet technical requirements as set by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and we should have no problem there. We have to add more 'software' to the picture, and build a creative and comprehensive festival."

Kim was involved in all three bids by PyeongChang. He'd been the governor of Gangwon Province, where PyeongChang is located, and served as the top bid official in the first two bids. In the successful, third bid, Kim served as a special envoy.

Kim said he and the rest of the PyeongChang organizing team tried to pick the brains of the Russian hosts. Some staffers job-shadowed Sochi officials throughout the Olympics, and Kim himself held technical coordination meetings with individual sports federations.

Kim said he has been impressed with Russia's nationwide support for the Sochi Winter Olympics.

"I think Sochi has been able to put together a good Olympics thanks to Russia's national backing," Kim said. "Corporations and the private sector also made tremendous contributions. We have to learn from them. Russians also displayed plenty of enthusiasm for sport, and the success of the Olympics hinges upon such an atmosphere and people's participation."

PyeongChang has vowed to stage a compact Olympics, with venues and facilities all close to one another. In essence, PyeongChang has been preparing to host the Winter Games for more than a decade, and it likely won't deal with construction delays for venues that so hampered the buildup to Sochi.

This doesn't mean PyeongChang will sit back and take its time, Kim noted.

"We have to be done with the preparation with one year remaining and start making final adjustments," he said. "That means we have three years left, and there's no room for even minor mistakes."

Kim said IOC members and other international sports officials also expressed confidence that PyeongChang could thrive as the Olympic host.

"They seemed to believe that PyeongChang has already made progress and South Korea has enough financial clout," the South Korean official said. "They advised that we should build an Olympics that everyone could enjoy"

 Another potential area for improvement for the host will be South Korea's athletic performance.

Prior to Sochi, South Korea had ranked among the top 10 nations in medals at five of the previous six Winter Olympics. The country, however, has never won a medal outside three ice sports -- short track, speed skating and figure skating -- and has never even come close in some of the marquee events, such as alpine skiing and ice hockey.

"It's important for athletes from the host country to excel at many different sports," Kim said. "We're not as competitive in sports other than ice events, and the international officials said we should make strategic investments into new areas. If our athletes can perform well, the officials say it will be the icing on the cake."

South Korea did see hope for PyeongChang as young athletes made their mark in Sochi.

Short track has long been the country's biggest Winter Olympics gold mine and a teenage phenom Shim Suk-hee showed that the sport is in good hands.

Shim, 17, grabbed three medals in her Olympic debut. She anchored the women's 3,000m relay team to the gold while also earning the silver in the 1,500m and the bronze in the 1,000m.

She admitted her inexperience cost her a shot at winning the 1,500m, when she lost her lead to Zhou Yang of China over the final two laps, and vowed to return to PyeongChang mentally and physically stronger than ever.

Skeleton's Yun Sung-bin, 19, is another teenager eyeing a better performance in PyeongChang. Unlike Shim, Yun didn't come close to a medal, finishing 16th in his event. It was still the country's highest Olympic finish in a sledding event and an impressive feat for someone who only picked up the sport about two years ago.

The women's curling team held its ground against the favorites in their Olympic debut, going 3-6 in the round robin stage. The South Koreans took down Japan, Russia and the United States, despite being the lowest-ranked team in Sochi at No. 10.

South Korea qualified for Sochi by reaching the semifinals at the 2012 world championships, and the team is hoping to build on the Olympic experience and take the next step for PyeongChang.

Speed skating yielded only one gold medal this year, after producing three titles four years ago, and Mo Tae-bum, who failed to defend his 500m gold medal here, has vowed to return with a vengeance in PyeongChang. He will turn 29 during the Feb. 9-25 PyeongChang Olympics, and should still be in his athletic prime to carry the speed skating team. (Yonhap)

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