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Friday, July 8, 2011     GET REAL

2018 Winter Olympics is a ‘dream come true’ for highly-competitive S. Korea and its snow country

By Donald Kirk

PYEONGCHANG — Third time was a charm for South Korea’s “snow country”.


South Korea's 2010 Olympic gold medal-winner in figure skating Kim Yu-Na during the presentation of the Pyeongchang bid, in front of the 123rd International Olympic Committee (IOC) session in Durban, South Africa, on July 6. AP/Rogan Ward
After failing in two previous bids to get the Winter Olympics, the great machine of the Korean government, business and politics is reveling in the triumph of persuading the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to vote overwhelmingly in favor of staging the 2018 Winter Olympics in this little known district that’s emerged over the past generation as a serious destination for winter sports lovers.

For the people of the town, the joy of beating bids from two of winter sports’ primary destinations, Germany and France, is the ultimate proof of their important place in a society driven to prove it’s up there with the big powers of Western Europe and Asia.

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As the throng in the center of town burst into a spasm of dancing, singing, shouting and cheering the moment Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC, held up the piece of paper on Wednesday night with the word “Pyeongchang” scrawled in big handwritten letters, people began talking about how they would prepare for the influx of visitors before the games begin nearly seven years from now.

“We will welcome foreigners like members of our family,” said one woman. “We will make Pyeongchang a city of which we can be proud.

Just what kind of welcome foreigners will really get here is not exactly clear. An American schoolteacher from Kansas, whom I met in a coffee shop the morning after the great victory celebration in the center of town, said she rarely communicates with anyone outside the two schools where she’s been teaching for the past year.

She does ski, she told me, but chooses to spend winter weekends among the bright lights of Seoul, a three-hour bus ride to the west, rather than take to the nearby slopes, where she’s never ventured. Next year, she adds, she’s looking forward to teaching in a much larger city where “at least there’s something to do.”

About 5,000 people live in this town, at the center of the district of the same name, in the midst of mountains and valleys of distinctly non-Alpine proportions. For them, the most fearsome visitors are likely to be not so much the foreigners as the thousands of officials, business people and entrepreneurs who have been descending on the area for years, building the venues and accommodations to the point at which Pyeongchang could successfully compete against Germany’s Munich and Annecy in France.

Now the bid is won, construction of facilities for athletes and visitors alike will zoom into a frenzy of nationalist and cultural pride in this ultimate accolade of success for a country that’s constantly comparing itself with long-established global powers in a game of rankings, whether it comes to gross domestic product, car exports or academic achievement.

For people here, there is no doubt the 2018 Winter Olympics will be a boon. The final test will be whether Pyeongchang can seriously emerge as a winter sports destination — not just for Koreans, but for foreigners who rarely make it their first choice over just about anywhere else from North America to Europe.

If Koreans can unite in pride over the choice of Pyeongchang, however, they’re still too deeply divided as to imagine that the 2018 Winter Olympics will have much to do with covering over the deep fissures in Korean society. Victory in Durban represents a temporary personal triumph for the conservative President Lee Myung-Bak, who flew to South Africa to lead a delegation of several hundred officials, business people and influential private citizens to press Korea’s case for the final vote by most of the IOC’s 106 members on Wednesday. (The final tally was 65 for Pyeongchang, 25 for Munich and seven for Annecy.) Lee still faces rising discontent over policies that favor the chaebol, the huge conglomerates that dominate the economy, as well as student protests against rising tuition fees and the seemingly intractable problem of unemployment among young people. His aides view with disdain the “populist” efforts of the opposition Democratic Party to exploit such issues.

It seemed emblematic of the divide in Korean society that Korea relied on the influence of its richest man, Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, as a member of the IOC, to sway the voting. The two Lees, president and chaebol chieftain, were conspicuously side by side at critical moments.

The sentiment against Lee, the president, is such that his popularity ratings are consistently low despite whatever temporary gains he might achieve by garnering the Winter Olympics. The fortunes of the Democratic Party seem to have risen considerably after the humiliation of the 2007 presidential election, in which the Democratic candidate went down to crushing defeat in a vote against a decade of rule by presidents best characterized as leftist-leaning or liberal.

The twin issues of economic problems and the soft-line “Sunshine” policy of reconciliation with North Korea, introduced by the late Kim Dae-Jung after his stunning victory in 1997, both propelled Lee, a former chairman of Hyundai Engineering and Construction Co, Korea’s biggest builder, into the presidency.

Lee, under a democracy constitution that dates from massive protests against military rule in June 1987, cannot run for a second five-year term, and his ruling Grand National Party is divided over a who will succeed him. The leader of the Democratic Party may not have real answers for unemployment but is sure to demand talks with North Korea, which does not appear at all likely to agree to have anything to do with the South at least until Lee steps down in early 2013.

The sense of protest evokes comparisons with the Seoul 1988 Summer Olympic Games, a coming-of-age party that was more significant than the Winter Olympics for one basic reason: Korea then was rising economically and beginning to get noticed worldwide as the global economic power that it’s now become.

The prospect of bringing the Olympics to Seoul for the first time did nothing for Chun Doo-Hwan, the general who seized power after the assassination of his equally dictatorial predecessor, the long-ruling Park Chung-Hee, in October 1979.

Chun still had to yield to demands for open democratic elections, setting the stage for the first such contest in December 1987 when his military ally, General Roh Tae-Woo, defeated the two main civilian candidates, Kim Young-Sam, who won the next election in 1992 over Kim Dae-Jung, the upset winner over the conservative candidate at the height of economic crisis five years later.

For now, however, such political talk appears distant if not irrelevant amid the outburst of unadulterated joy shared by everyone here. The responses are universal: “A dream come true,” “I’m so happy,” top the list of quotes, cliches no doubt, but what everyone’s saying — other than, “I’m speechless,” the words of those to whom “a dream” just doesn’t seem enough to convey the emotion of the moment.

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