The proverbial “third time’s the charm” proved true for PyeongChang, which was finally chosen to host the 2018 Winter Olympics after two unsuccessful bids starting in 2003. With 50 days to go before the 2018 PyeongChang Games, all the venues and nonsporting venues as well as the international broadcasting center have been built. However, there is no palpable sense of excitement about the games.
Perhaps it is Olympic fatigue. While PyeongChang was chosen as the host city of the 2018 Winter Games in Durban, South Africa in 2011, the Winter Games have been with us like unfinished homework for more than 14 years, as Korea tenaciously launched bid after bid for the Winter Games, undeterred by failures.
Perhaps the PyeongChang Olympics do not seem as momentous an occasion as the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Back then, Koreans saw the games as an opportunity to show the world how far the country had come since the Korean War that had left the country in ruins, and how the country had achieved democracy after successive authoritarian regimes. They seized the opportunity wholeheartedly, determined to put the collective best foot forward for the rest of the world to see.
Or perhaps winter sports are still beyond the reach of most Koreans and do not enjoy popular followings, aside from a few sports at which Korean athletes excel. When there is no home team to root for, naturally, there would be little public interest.
On Tuesday, President Moon Jae-in met with 37 sports news editors aboard the presidential train en route to Gangneung, one of three cities, along with PyeongChang and Jeongseon, where sporting venues are located. Since coming into office in May, Moon has pledged his full support for the PyeongChang Games and has expanded the central government’s contributions. Public corporations have followed suit as have private corporations.
One of the major reasons PyeongChang failed to elicit popular support -- even many PyeongChang residents have viewed the PyeongChang Games as an unwanted child -- was the prospect of huge losses after all the bills have been settled. The cost of maintaining the facilities after the games has also been seen as prohibitive by residents of Gangwon Province, where the venues are located.
In fact, it was projected that the 2018 Winter Games would end with a loss of 300 billion won ($277 million). Now, there is the possibility the games might break even, Moon said Tuesday. Lee Hee-beom, chairman of the PyeongChang Organizing Committee, offered an even rosier picture later the same day, saying the games may come out 56.1 billion won in the black.
Such news should ease people’s anxieties about the burden of hosting the Winter Olympics and allow them to finally enjoy the prospect of watching world-class athletes compete.
There are some issues that need to be addressed: Ticket sales are still slow, especially for less popular sports, and accommodations are scarce, a problem compounded by some operators charging excessive amounts. However, the PyeongChang Organizing Committee and Gangwon Province are confident that these problems will be resolved in the coming weeks, especially with Friday’s launch of the new high-speed rail service that makes it possible to travel from Seoul to Gangneung in just two hours.
As we count down the days to the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, the government is also waiting to hear if North Korea will be sending its athletes. At a time when inter-Korean tensions are running high without a channel for dialogue, the upcoming Winter Games are seen as an opportunity for engagement. The International Olympic Committee is of the view that the North may participate, but judging from past experiences, we know we will have to be patient.
The 2018 PyeongChang Olympics will be a celebration of the global community with more than 99 countries registered to participate so far and 6,500 athletes expected to compete. Some 43 heads of state are also expected at PyeongChang, making it a truly global gathering. What is needed now is for Koreans to take ownership of the event and prepare to enjoy the great games.
By Kim Hoo-ran
Kim Hoo-ran is the General News editor at The Korea Herald. She can be reached at email@example.com - Ed.