Saturday 24 February 2018

Special report from Korea: Neighbours to north may be least of 2018 Games' worries

Five Irish athletes are training hard for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. But with the host nation mired in controversy, will it all go to plan? Jason O'Brien reports from PyeongChang

An aerial view of the South Korean ski resort of Alpensia, which will host some of the events.
An aerial view of the South Korean ski resort of Alpensia, which will host some of the events.
Jason O'Brien

Jason O'Brien

A whiff of corruption, a €12bn budget now bloating, widespread public lack of interest, and 'white elephant' legacy concerns - with the next Olympic Games 10 months away, preparations are, on the face of it, going about as well as they ever do.

The five Irish athletes considered our best hopes for qualification - including skiers, a snowboarder and a brave young man on a skeleton - were this week given financial support in their efforts to join an estimated 6,500 athletes from 95 countries competing.

Irish athlete Brendan Doyle competes on the skeleton. Pic: Gerry Mooney
Irish athlete Brendan Doyle competes on the skeleton. Pic: Gerry Mooney

But what can they expect?

Because we haven't even mentioned the trigger-happy guy a few hundred miles up the road developing nuclear and intercontinental ballistic weapons while debating if he will allow his athletes to compete.

The Winter Games in South Korea next February were won by a 2011 bid from Pyongchang, an area in the mountainous north-east so small and remote even most Koreans hadn't heard of it.

So it was relatively easy to push through a name change in an attempt to distinguish it internationally from the similar-sounding and increasingly infamous North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

Locals in PyeongChang celebrate winning the 2018 Games in July 2011. Photo: Getty
Locals in PyeongChang celebrate winning the 2018 Games in July 2011. Photo: Getty

They added an 'e' and a capital 'C' - the Winter Games will take place in PyeongChang. Confused?

"PyeongChang yes, Pyongyang no - it's very different, don't forget," the area's governor Choi Moon-soon told the Irish Independent. "Don't be like Daniel . . ."

That would be Daniel Olomae Ole Sapit, a Kenyan invited to a UN conference on biodiversity in PyeongChang but who managed to instead book a ticket for Pyongyang, a capital city unusual in that it doesn't exactly welcome international conferences attendees with open arms.

He was interrogated for five hours by suspicious North Korean military.

Former South Korean premier Park Geun-hye . Photographer: Lee Yong-ho/Pool via Bloomberg
Former South Korean premier Park Geun-hye . Photographer: Lee Yong-ho/Pool via Bloomberg

"When he arrived, they asked 'Who are you and why are you here?' He didn't have many answers," Mr Choi added."They regarded him as something, I don't know what, a strange spy perhaps."

He got a $500 fine and kicked straight back out.

But name recognition remains a problem not just internationally, but also nationally.

Any hopes that a 'buzz' might build in the year up to the Games have been comprehensively dashed by the sensational political and business scandal that has seen South Korea's president impeached, removed from office, and jailed - all in the last four months.

With millions taking to streets to protest, political disarray and tension palpable, and China declaring economic war, winter sports - already a hard sell in Korea - are the last thing on many people's minds.

It hasn't helped that the Games, like pretty much everything else here, were pulled into what is the biggest political scandal in decades.

Former president Park Geun-hye was jailed last week over allegations she colluded with a confidante, Choi Soon-sil, to extort money from businesses, take bribes and allow Ms Choi to illegally interfere with state affairs.

It was the latest chapter in a stunning fall from grace for the country's first female leader. The Constitutional Court ruled on March 10 to remove her from office after she was impeached in December.

Prosecutors can hold her for up to 20 days, and they are expected to formally charge her shortly. She faces more than 10 years in prison if convicted.

The most damning accusation alleges she took tens of millions of dollars in bribes from technology giant Samsung in exchange for business favours.

People continue to talk of little else here - meaning Soohorang, the white tiger mascot of PyeongChang 2018, isn't getting a look in. That's not good news for organisers who hope 70pc of ticket sales will be local.

On top of that, one of the two foundations controlled by Ms Choi into which millions was allegedly paid was sports related, and local media speculated that a jailed senior sports official helped her in alleged attempts to land Olympic construction deals.

Lee Hee-beom, president of the organising committee for the Games, said this week that a comprehensive review had not uncovered any wrongdoing, and dismissed the corruption claims as "a series of unsubstantiated rumours".

Mr Lee didn't comment on reports that some of the huge Korean firms implicated in the presidential scandal were now reluctant to sponsor the Olympics.


"It will be the perfect Olympic Games," he said, insisting that the prevailing opinion is that South Korea should try to restore national pride with a successful event to put the country "on the world map", much like the Summer Olympics in Seoul in 1988 and the football World Cup in 2002.

And, despite the political turmoil, the Winter Olympics will be very well organised - the country's twin obsession in working long hours and technological innovation will ensure that.

And that's potentially good news for the likes of Patrick McMillan, Tess Arbez and Kieran Norris (alpine skiing), snowboarder Kieran O'Connor and Brendan Doyle (skeleton) who this week secured Olympic Solidarity scholarships - worth more than €21,000 - to aid in their qualification efforts.

The unfinished developments and funding shortfalls in Rio last year, or the human rights and environmental crises that dogged Sochi in 2014, certainly won't be repeated when any or all of the five make it, nor will Sochi's estimated €45bn overall bill.

But the budget has nonetheless caused concern among South Koreans (not least because it has jumped €500m recently, mostly taxpayer-funded) as the country's economy splutters.

The €12bn is predominantly being spent on infrastructure, including a hugely-expensive high-speed 'bullet' train that will travel the 180km from Seoul - with its population of 10 million - to PyeongChang - an alpine ski resort town of 43,000 people - in little over an hour.

The nearby coastal city of Gangneung, hosting the ice events such as skating, will have a stunning €70m ice hockey stadium, among other new builds. Ice hockey isn't a professional sport here.

But Mr Lee is confident about the legacy, and dismisses concerns about 'white elephants', citing confirmed deals for professional sports facilities, educational facilities and cultural events.

"Korea is not familiar to winter sports so one of our aims is to improve that," he told the Irish Independent.

"The hope is that the Olympics can have a lasting impact on the tourism industry here and set up the area as an Asian winter sports destination."

Speaking of elephants, the one in the room is, of course, North Korea. The extremely heavily-weaponised 'demilitarised zone' is less than 80km from where athletes will compete.

Indeed the winning bid from PyeongChang included a suggestion that it may be a way to entice North Korea into reaching out more to the international community.

But that was six years ago, and before Kim Jong-un took charge.

With a third nuclear test since January 2016 expected to be undertaken by the rogue state in the near future, relations between the two countries are poor. A North Korean team is welcome, organisers say, but the administration has yet to indicate whether or not it will boycott the event, as it did with Seoul '88.

Either way, with the world's media focused on this part of the world and given Mr Kim's love of the limelight, it would be no surprise if he got himself centre stage with threats of missile launches, or worse.

Another major headache then for Mr Lee, but he diplomatically avoided it when asked which, of all the challenges, is the most difficult.

He told the Irish Independent he will be "fighting with the heavens" because light snowfall is a regular occurrence in PyeongChang in February.

In that case, he would look to artificial snow for - at least - a helping hand.

But that could add €100m to the bill.

Irish Independent

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