A virtually unknown region 31 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea is preparing to take its turn at the Olympic merry-go-round.

The Winter Games are scheduled to kick off Feb. 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in the backdrop of drug-cheating scandals, a lack of interest at home and the existential threat of a bellicose neighbor to the north.

Organizers have addressed these subjects gingerly, but also have worked tirelessly in the background to ensure the first of three consecutive Olympics in Asia is a success.

They’ve been on the ground in Sochi and Rio de Janeiro, the previous two Games that left behind decaying facilities that cost millions to build – the kind of bad optics that has led to skepticism about hosting the Olympics.

They promise it won’t happen in Gangwon Province long after the tent stakes are pulled.

“The venues have been designed as much around what happens after the Games as during” them, Pyeongchang Olympic Organizing Committee president Lee Hee-beom said.


South Koreans might have a strong legacy plan but alas, Sochi and Rio organizers made similar promises ahead of their Olympics in 2014 and ’16, respectively. Still, Lee, a former minister of trade, industry and energy, is determined to transform this mountainous area east of Seoul into an Asian winter sports hub. Korean organizers say their budget is $12.6 billion, a modest sum compared to Sochi’s spending spree of $51 billion.

The Koreans will have 17 days in February to spread the magic dust in Asia, with the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo and 2022 Winter Games in Beijing next on the docket.

But before they can get to the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium there is much to consider. Like how to pronounce the name of the host city of the XXIII Winter Games.

NBC plans to pronounce it “Pyeong-chang.” Just as long as they don’t get it confused with the North Korean capital of Pyongyang (pyeon-yung) everything should be OK.

But organizers have plenty of other obstacles to keep them occupied anyway. Like …

How to sell winter sports to your own people?


“One of the biggest challenges has been to raise the excitement levels and educate people on winter sports – many of which are new to most in Korea,” Lee said of a citizenry that follows soccer, baseball and golf.

Figure skating, speed skating and short track speedskating and the hockey finals have attracted strong interest. But ticket sales for the usually popular sliding sports of bobsled, luge and skeleton are off, as well as for the more obscure disciplines such as biathlon and Nordic skiing.

Then again, biathlon, curling and cross-country skiing have been an acquired taste for almost everyone outside of the Great Frozen North of Canada, Scandinavia and Russia. It’s one reason why IOC officials started loading up the flagging Winter Olympics with X Games events two decades ago.

But Lee remains forever the optimist, saying Koreans are “last-minute buyers.”

How to attract visitors to a potential war zone?

We’d call it the elephant in the room, but North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might fail to grasp the meaning and consider it a personal affront. Some Olympic fans have been scared of committing to travel to these Games because of the rhetoric flying between Kim and President Donald Trump. Not to mention all those missiles the North Koreans have launched in the past year.


“South Koreans have been living under such tense conditions for more than 60 years and our daily life continues without disruption,” Lee said. “While we understand the concerns that people have, the IOC, national Olympic Committees, international federations and athletes have been giving their full support.”

Well, not exactly. Earlier this year tensions between Pyongyang and Washington increased to the point where Austrian and French sports officials publicly worried about sending delegations to Korea.

Such frank talk didn’t encourage tourists to plan vacations around the Olympics located in a province that is split between South and North Korea.

In an effort to allay fears, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has championed the idea of North Korean athletes competing in Pyeongchang. Moon wants the Winter Olympics to be the engine to create better cooperation between the neighbors.

But North Korea already missed an October deadline to officially enter Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, who qualified in pairs figure skating. North Koreans also have the potential to qualify athletes in short track speed skating and Nordic combined.

Lee sidestepped a question addressing evacuation plans in the face of North Korean aggression during the Olympics.


“The country has very strong national safety and security measures in place to ensure that Korea is as safe as it can be during the Games,” he said.

How to deal with the ban of Russian athletes?

The Russian situation could cast a shadow over the Winter Games through the opening ceremony as Olympic drug testers determine which individual athletes are eligible and then whether those cleared decide to compete under a neutral flag.

Although President Vladimir Putin has rejected the idea of a Russian boycott, the specter of losing some of the world’s best athletes won’t help ticket sales. Two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva told reporters it was too early for her to decide whether to compete in figure skating, where she is the gold-medal favorite. But Medvedeva also told an IOC panel that she could not accept an option of performing as a neutral athlete.

The decision to ban the Russian delegation struck a nerve with Lee, who told South Korean radio he didn’t expect IOC officials to go to such an extreme to punish a country for government-sponsored drug cheating that included manipulating specimens at the Sochi Games.

Before disqualification over drug violations, Russia led the world with 33 medals at the Sochi Games, including 14 gold.


And now Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has insisted the country will never apologize for a government-sponsored drug program, saying the allegations are false.

How to sell a minor-league hockey tournament?

Korean organizers already were at a disadvantage when NHL officials decided to bypass the Olympics for the first time since 1994. Now the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League might boycott the Games.

Europe’s best league was expected to take two weeks off at midseason to allow its players to go to Pyeongchang, where the Russian team was a heavy favorite before the IOC ban. Some Russian NHL players stayed home this season so they could compete in Korea.

If they don’t make it to the Olympics, then the hockey tournament will be depleted even further.

As a contingency, Canada is considering adding junior players – amateurs under the age of 21 – if the KHL decides to boycott.


Before the IOC ban, Lee said organizers were disappointed for the athletes affected by the NHL’s decision.

“However, ice hockey is still a popular event,” he added. “The Korean hockey team will be participating in the Olympic Games for the first time and I am sure many people are looking forward to that. So regardless of the NHL players’ absence, ice hockey will be one of the most exciting sports to watch at the Games with a world-class lineup of athletes taking part.”

Now even that bit of optimism has faded.

The 12-team tournament will have the big countries: Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, the United States and “athletes from Russia.”

But it appears it won’t have the big names.

How to overcome distrust over building bonanzas?

Organizers have created a similar arrangement to previous Winter Games with mountain and coastal sports villages. The Alpine town of Pyeongchang (pop. 43,000) will handle skiing, snowboarding and sliding sports whereas much larger Gangneung (pop. 230,000) along the Sea of Japan will host figure skating, ice hockey and speedskating.

Ten of the 12 competition sites already have owners: The ski jump landing area will be converted into a soccer stadium for Gangwon FC while the cross-country and biathlon races will take place on snow-covered golf courses.

But whether Pyeongchang ever becomes a major winter resort seems questionable.

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