The Hula Report: Improbable PyeongChang

(ATR) The 2018 Winter Games seemed an improbable dream the first time ATR editor Ed Hula visited in 2003. Exclusively for subscribers! 

(ATR) It was hard to imagine even the possibility of Friday night’s opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang the first time I visited in 2003.

Spurred on largely by political ambition, South Korea was launching its first serious bid for a winter Olympics against Salzburg and Vancouver, two established destinations for winter sport. PyeongChang seemed to have little chance.

PyeongChang itself was not much more than a hamlet of a few thousand people. It still is today. While ski resorts were already developed in the modest mountains, Koreans on holiday were the only ones who came. Gangwon Province is famed in Korea for high quality beef and the cuttlefish that can be seen drying on wooden racks covering acres of ground.

Yet here was the governor of the province boastfully suggesting that Gangwon would be able to build what’s needed for a Winter Games. Even though a novice Olympic bidder, PyeongChang won the support of the Korean Olympic Committee and the national government to forge ahead.

Gerhard Heiberg, IOC member in Norway and former head of the Lillehammer Olympics, led the Evaluation Commission. For three days I followed Heiberg and company around PyeongChang, and on the coast, the most difficult to pronounce city -- Gangneung.

Potato fields lay where venues were promised to rise one day. Ski slopes that hardly looked challenging were said to be up to FIS standards. Balloons floating high above an unspoiled mountainside marked the downhill. In the coastal city of Gangneung, a dowdy arena was pitched as a figure skating venue. A couple of other new venues were proposed for skating.

We never made it to Wonju, proposed for ice hockey. The city on the western edge of Gangwon Province is about an hour from Seoul.

But what it lacked in venues PyeongChang delivered in enthusiasm. Everywhere the Evaluation Commission traveled, cheering crowds welcomed them, sometimes with banging drums and blaring trumpets.

Heiberg noted the enthusiasm in his careful remarks at the close of the visit. He also noted that PyeongChang would have a lot of work to do to get ready. But he never doubted the will of Korea to get the job done.

A few months later, PyeongChang officially lagged the rest of the field when the Heiberg commission report was published. But when decision day came in 2003, PyeongChang came within just five votes of victory.

Vancouver went on to win and PyeongChang vowed to keep trying.

PyeongChang returned with an improved plan. Construction of a ski jump and new hotels were underway. The more compact plan was a big plus, the Evaluation Commission said. But the IOC could not resist the personal urging of Vladimir Putin at the 2007 IOC session in Guatemala City. Sochi, bidding for the first time, was the winner over PyeongChang and Salzburg.

Undeterred, PyeongChang continued to build. By 2011 when it was time to choose a 2018 host city, PyeongChang – making its third bid – had plenty to show the IOC. The Evaluation Commission stayed in the new five-star hotel the IOC is using during today’s Games.The spectacular ski jump was complete. A well-defined role for Gangneung as the center for ice sports made this latest plan super compact. The IOC took two votes before selecting PyeongChang. Its competitors in Durban were Annecy, France, and Munich, led by now-president Thomas Bach.

In the seven years since, PyeongChang has had a reasonably trouble-free existence ahead of the Olympics. Venues have been completed on time. No big cost overruns are reported. Somehow the Olympics have escaped disaster while the national government was in crisis. And the much-vaunted high speed rail – talked about since 2003 – is running on time, on schedule for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Looking at those snow-covered potato fields 15 years ago it was hard to imagine what could happen here. But even as venues were completed months ahead of time, one question has persisted through each of the three bids:

Would North Korea participate in a South Korea Winter Olympics?

The answer, delivered a month ago, was something else unimaginable 15 years ago.

PyeongChang 2018. The Games of Peace. Imagine that.

Written by Ed Hulain PyeongChang.

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