Russians from Sochi have been visiting Pyeongchang in preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Go figure. Shouldn’t it be the other way around since Sochi was chosen over Pyeongchang and other places to host the 2014 games? So what brings the Russians to Pyeongchang?
Sochi was the dark-horse candidate for the 2014 games when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) met in Venezuela to choose a venue following the 2006 Torino games. Pyeongchang was there, too, submitting its second Winter Olympics bid. Even though Pyeongchang wasn’t the favorite, it was much better prepared than upstart Sochi, which entered the revolving bidding door behind Pyeongchang and others yet somehow exited in front of them.
Vladimir Putin was the difference. He was Sochi’s ace in the hole. The then-Russian president took a keen interest in its bid, leading a delegation to Venezuela and throwing around his considerable weight, which was bolstered by petroleum power. Putin personally guaranteed the bid, and Sochi was chosen.
The former Soviet Union dominated the Winter Olympic Games from 1956 until the union’s collapse in 1991, but it never hosted the games. And since Sochi didn’t have the old Soviet system to guide it or a viable replacement, it began looking around for models to emulate. Thus we have Russians visiting Pyeongchang, because the Gangwon county has been planning for the games since 2003, when it made a bid for the 2010 games. Its bid for the 2014 games was being considered seriously until Putin twisted arms in Venezuela.
Sochi is a Black Sea resort located in a remote area of Russia. Most of its commerce passes through its port. Its infrastructure ? roads, airport, etc. ? is poor. Sochi certainly has its work cut out for it. But Putin’s guarantee meant that no expense would be spared for the 2014 games and that anything less than stellar success was not an option. These would be Putin’s games.
With Putin’s prestige on the line, Sochi is under tremendous pressure to meet IOC deadlines. That’s why I wasn’t surprised to read that Sochi was already being criticized by environmentalists for abusing the environment in its preparation for the games. Wildlife habitat including that of bear is being stripped to make way for Olympic facilities.
One is reminded of a huge ecological crime that occurred in the days following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when almost everyone and everything in that failed union could be bought. At that time, Hyundai made a deal that allowed it to strip a humongous swath of old-growth forest in the interior of Siberia, a swath so large that once it was denuded it was visible from space. And let the habitat, and everything in it, be damned. Shame on Russia and Hyundai!
Pyeongchang will face stiff competition from bids by Munich, Germany, and Annecy, France, when the IOC meets to choose a host in Durban, South Africa, next year. The Germans are a Winter Olympics powerhouse with very deep pockets, while the nimble-minded French are a distant third, but not to be counted out. I believe Pyeongchang will prevail and host the 2018 games because of location.
The Winter Olympic Games have been for the most part a European and North American affair, with the games being staged outside of these two continents only twice, both times in Japan. A Pyeongchang venue would be the first time the games were held on the Asian landmass. This is a golden opportunity for the Winter Olympics to be more global and to promote esoteric winter sports in Asia.
And with the balance of global financial power shifting inexorably toward Asia, it would be in the IOC’s financial interest to choose Pyeongchang. Some place in cash-flush China, of course, will be the next Asian venue.
Unlike 1981, when Seoul came out of the darkness to garner the 88 Summer Olympic Games, South Korea is on the international radar screen. World Cup 2002 was its coming-out party. South Korea is now on the international shortlist to host so many events, like the incongruous Snowboarding Festival in Kwanghwamun, which was PR for Pyeongchang 2018.
The year 2010 has been a watershed for Seoul, what with it hosting the G-20 and being designated the World Design Capital. Seoul has been playing catch-up with the prestige cities of the world for decades. Now it’s time for them to catch up to Seoul. The New York Times has ranked Seoul third in its “Places to go in 2010.”
What’s more, it seems as if a day does not go by without an article, by Choe Sang-hun, about the cultural, social and political life of both Koreas appearing in the International Herald Tribune. This is a far cry from a 1984 Newsweek cover story on English as the international lingua franca - including the teaching of English around the world - that did not even mention Seoul. It is hard to imagine this given that today’s Seoul is a magnet for the English teaching peoples of the world.
What was significant about the 2010 Winter Olympic Games for South Korea was not the trove of medals won by its speed skaters or even the incomparable Kim Eu-nah, the Ice Queen. Rather, it was seeing Koreans competing in the Luge, Ski Jump and Bobsled events for the first time. The results were middling, but their participation meant that South Korea is committed to the Winter Olympic Games; that it wants to participate fully in the games, not just host them. We have the deep pockets of Samsung to thank for supporting these athletes.
Anyone who skis Pyeongchang’s slopes knows how passionate its people are about hosting the Winter Olympic Games, a passion, I hazard to say, that does not accompany Munich’s and Annecy’s bids. How could the IOC not be swayed by a third impassioned bid? What more can Pyeongchang do to convince the IOC grandees?
If there is one thing I’ve learned about Koreans, it is that once they have made up their mind that they really, really want something, they won’t give up, nor will they be denied. Should Pyeongchang not be chosen to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games when the IOC meets in Durban, then it will be Pyeongchang 2022. Pyeongchang shall prevail!
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