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Behind Positive Headlines, an Uncomfortable Truth About Pyeongchang 2018

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This site, as seen in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Aug. 25, 2018, shows where the Olympic Stadium stood earlier in the year. The temporary structure was demolished following the conclusion of the 2018 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. Left behind are empty venues, feuding over who pays for upkeep and a glistening-white ski course that is now an abandoned dirt runway, strewn with rocks and unused gondolas. Photo: YANG JI-WOONG/YONHAP VIA AP

By Duncan Mackay |

Today marks the first anniversary of the Opening Ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, an event best remembered for North and South Korea marching together under a united flag to mark a symbolic break in tensions between the two nations.

Athletes from the two countries entered the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium together, joined hands, and marched under the Korean Unification flag, which displays the entire Korean peninsula in blue against a white backdrop.

The gesture of unity came at a crucial moment. Tensions between North Korea and South Korea had skyrocketed as Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes had advanced at an astonishing pace in the previous year, and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, had persistently demonstrated a readiness to make use of them.

During his New Year’s Day speech a few weeks before Pyeongchang 2018 opened, Kim reached out to South Korea and raised the idea of starting high-level talks for the first time in two years to discuss the possibility of North Korea’s participation in the Olympics.

South Korea eagerly took him up on the offer, and through negotiations at the border village of Panmunjom the two countries quickly agreed not only to march under a united flag but also to form a joint women’s ice hockey team, marking the first time they have contributed athletes to the same team at the Olympics.

North Korea then further pressed its charm offensive, sending Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, to the Opening Ceremony – the first time a member of his immediate family had set foot in South Korea since the Korean War was halted with an armistice in 1953. She shook hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the beginning of the Ceremony.

Watching on proudly throughout was International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, who since then has not wasted an opportunity to make sure the world does not forget the role his organisation played in helping orchestrate this important moment in the development of bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula. 

Probably the only other one person who has tried to grab as much credit as Bach for the ongoing peace process is United States President Donald Trump, who has claimed that if North Korea had not taken part Pyeongchang 2018 would have been a “massive failure” and that they only took part because of his hardline approach towards dealing with Kim.

There is no doubt, though, that Pyeongchang 2018 acted as an important catalyst in helping bring North Korea to the negotiating table. 

A year on, the process is continuing and delegations from North and South Korea are due to hold talks with the IOC in Lausanne next Friday (February 15) to discuss how they can work together at Tokyo 2020 and perhaps even launching a joint bid for the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games. 

But, away from these headline-grabbing photo opportunities, the IOC have been more quiet about the fact that 12 months after the Olympics and Paralympics packed up and left town many of the venues stand empty, with arguments mounting over their future and upkeep costs.

The country built six sports arenas and a stadium to host the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and renovated six existing facilities for Pyeongchang 2018 at a total cost of $800 million.

Many of these venues now stand empty and unused with still no plan in place about how to use or finance them so they do not fall into a state of disrepair. 

Causing particular concern are the Gangneung Oval, Gangneung Hockey Centre and Olympic Sliding Centre. all of them built for the Olympics and now at the centre of a row between Gangwon Province and the South Korean Government about who is responsible for providing the money to maintain them.

South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism recently has proposed establishing an Olympic Memorial Foundation, using the $55 million surplus from the Games to set it up, to manage the three facilities. But Gangwon Province has been demanding the Government cover the operating costs of the venues. That requires revision of the National Sports Promotion Act, but that has not happened, despite being proposed three years ago.

In the meantime, the facilities remain mothballed. These include the Olympic Sliding Centre, where South Korea’s Yun Sung-bin cemented his place as a South Korean hero by becoming the first Asian to win an Olympic gold medal in the skeleton, which is now locked with barriers blocking road access after being closed as organisers try to minimise maintenance of $1.1 million a year. Yun and his team-mates now train in Canada. 

Another facility built for the Olympics that local residents are fighting hard to maintain is the Jeongseon Alpine Centre, where Alpine skiing events were held, and which Gangwon Province believe could become a profitable winter sports resort and allow the area to benefit from the $10 billion spent on infrastructure before Pyeongchang 2018, including a high-speed railway from Seoul to Gangneung.

But Korea Forest Service (KFS) and the Ministry of Environment are demanding the venue, a forest conservation area, be demolished and restored to its previous natural state.

The KFS and the Ministry of Environment only permitted construction of the venue on Mount Gariwang under the condition that the site was returned after the Olympic Games. The KFS have already rejected Gangwon’s request to use the land of the Alpine centre up to 2023 and issued an order last month to restore the site to its previous state. Should the Province refuse to demolish it, the structure will be considered illegal.

The IOC, having spent all of the build-up to Pyeongchang 2018 promising there would be a legacy plan in place by the time of the Games, now appear to have kicked the problem into the long grass. Earlier this week, when contacted by insidethegames, they refused to specifically comment on the future of the Gangneung Oval, Gangneung Hockey Centre and Olympic Sliding Centre. 

It is not the IOC’s job to ensure facilities post-Olympics have a life beyond the Games but it is their problem if there is no plan in place to ensure they have a future because, ultimately, it affects their brand and their product. The fall-out from Sochi 2014 and the headlines about it costing an eye-popping $51 billion (£39 billion/€45 billion) can clearly be seen in the lack of cities wanting to bid for the 2026 Winter Olympic Games and the reluctance of Governments to back the two that have joined the race. 

For all the great coverage the Olympic Movement earned for its role in helping bring peace to the Korean Peninsula, the reality is that what Pyeongchang 2018 has left the IOC with is a problem set to cause just as many negative headlines as they earned positive ones a year ago.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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