After the Winter Olympics in Sochi, many people here have been expressing concern that Korea may not be able to stage the 2018 Games in PyeongChang with opening and closing ceremonies as impressive as those in the southwestern Russian city. I am neither too optimistic nor too pessimistic. My humble suggestion is that we simply hold a different kind of Olympics.
Last week, local newspapers ran headlines about Korea ranking ninth among the G20 on the National Power Index, quoting a report by a Seoul-based think tank. The Hansun Foundation, represented by Park Se-il, announced that (South) Korea climbed up four notches from 13th in 2009 to ninth in 2014 among the world’s 20 wealthiest nations, thanks to significant progress in its ability to cope with changes and its strengthened defense capability. The United States ranked first, naturally, and Japan was eighth, just above Korea on the list.
After Korea finished 13th in Sochi in overall medal standings ― failing to make good on its pre-Games vow to rank 10th or higher for the third straight Winter Games ― the ninth-place showing on the National Power Index helped soothe Koreans’ wounded national pride. We are obsessed with international rankings, hence the headlines: “With a gold medal in figure skating, which Kim Yu-na fully deserved, and just one other gold in short track skating, Korea should have ranked ninth, well above China or even France …”
The people of “Dynamic Korea” have lived the past few decades with a national zeal for development and progress. “Joining the advanced group of world nations” has been a key phrase in political leaders’ campaign speeches and inaugural addresses, while we have spent the past few years in frustration as the forward march slackened amid recurring global economic crises and political and social complications at home.
The 1988 Seoul Olympics, held 40 years after Korea gained independence, was self-affirming for the nation, showing that it was an active participant of the world community in the economic, political and cultural spheres. The 2018 Winter Games, taking place here 30 years after the Summer Olympics, should convince the world of Korea’s maturity in diverse areas. The 2002 FIFA World Cup, which Korea shared with Japan, was likewise an opportunity to show that the nation was continuing its upward momentum.
So, the PyeongChang Winter Olympics have to be the best ever to prove Korea Inc.’s high standards of technology, artistry and, of course, hospitality. Whether in ninth or 13th place, Korea must assert that it is in the top rank globally with everything that comprises the greatest festival on ice and snow ― facilities, communications and logistics ― and the opening and closing gala. All involved in the 2018 event, from working-level organizers up to the president, will be seized by these thoughts.
Korea sent a large team of inspectors to Sochi to observe the overall organization of the Games and collect technical details about every event. But the officials and experts, including PyeongChang Winter Games Organizing Committee chairman Kim Jin-sun, must have felt like the Israelites who surveyed the land of Canaan after the exodus from Egypt. Along with the television viewers at home, they were struck by the spectacles of the opening and closing ceremonies demonstrating Russia’s rich cultural and artistic heritage.
Commentators here wondered what Korea should offer to impress the world to the extent Russia did with the sounds and images of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Chagall, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and others. Some were so moved by the fantastic nighttime show that they regretted the less glittering performance of Jo Sumi, Lee Seung-cheol and Na Yun-seon in the short Korean program to promote PyeongChang 2018.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics showed the Great Wall, Confucius and China’s advanced ancient industries; London in 2012 boasted about how Britain started the modern era with the Industrial Revolution; and Sochi tried to remind the world of Russians’ cultural contributions to humanity. How can we compare, and what do we have to or compete with them? The Hunminjeongeum alphabet, the geobukseon turtle ship, the movable type of the early 13th century or the hallyu stars?
Yes, we have a great history and culture, but it was confined to the Korean Peninsula for millennia. The Miracle of the Han River is a miracle because Koreans thrusted into the world just a few decades after a long history of foreign depredation. We are the model of a very unique process of nation building, something that can genuinely interest world viewers if visualized by our imaginative stage artists.
Last week, yet another international ranking was released by a joint research team from Harvard and Sydney universities, which conducted the Electoral Integrity Project. Researchers gave Korea’s 2012 presidential election a score of 81.2 points out of 100, putting it in sixth place among 73 elections held by 66 nations between July 2012 and December 2013. They calculated PEI (Perceptions of Electoral Integrity) scores by surveying voting laws, the balloting process, media reporting, election funding and several other aspects.
This is much to be proud of considering that we had our first direct presidential election in 1987 after a long period of dictatorships. We are also proud to have gone from having a poor agrarian economy in the 1960s to supplying the world with the best ships, TVs and mobile phones, and with quite dependable cars. This was done while considerable human and material resources were used to defend the most volatile border in the modern world. These are our realities that deserve to be shown to the world in excellent artistic renditions.
Russia spent $50 billion on the Sochi Winter Games. As a result, it gained 13 gold medals to clinch the top place in the overall standings and wowed spectators around the world with mesmerizing shows illustrating the nation’s significant soft and hard power. But now the Ukrainian crisis threatens to change Vladimir Putin’s self-assumed image as an apostle of peace to that of a nationalist leader bent on regional hegemony.
PyeongChang is a small town in a northeastern province of Korea. It does not have any political agenda. We should offer venues with the best conditions for the world’s bravest and most talented men and women to compete in. Some extra efforts to let the world know how we have built the nation through hardships will help increase Korea’s brand value. Excessive luxury will only earn scorn. As the saying goes: “A crow tit trying to walk like a stork will break its legs.”
By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ― Ed.