Amid Many Storylines, PyeongChang 2018 Takes Shape

(ATR) Aaron Bauer reflects on the present situation after his visit to PyeongChang. Part one of his dispatch is here.

This is part one of a two part story. Check back tomorrow for the second half.

(ATR) Ever since Il Sun Choi, 50, was a young girl she wanted to leave PyeongChang.

The small cluster of mountain villages in northwest Korea was too cold and never big enough for Choi, who longed for something more adventurous. Eventually, she moved to Seoul to work, but found life in the big city was not what she dreamed it would be.

Then, in 2001 PyeongChang began the process to bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Choi realized she needed to return home. Now, Choi works as a volunteer for the PyeongChang regional tourist agency as a way to promote her hometown region. She has been with the agency during PyeongChang’s three attempts at securing the Winter Olympics.

"Progress has had both negative and positive aspects, but I think for any development there must be both," Choi said to Around the Ringsthrough a translator. "I think it has been more positive, here. This Olympics concept is a cultural Olympics, so the people in PyeongChang are looking for what they can do for the PyeongChang Olympics but also for the region.

"Of course [after the Games] it will go back to normal life. We are a little worried about all the lodging they have built, but we think it will make the progress for PyeongChang’s future."

Choi’s worldview is not uncommon in PyeongChang, a county located in Gangwon province. With the 2018 Winter Olympics less than a year away, organizers and residents are hosting cultural festivals aiming to bring awareness to the region. One example was bringing an Olympic theme to the annual PyeongChang Snow and Ice Festival, as well as hosting daily firework shows. The shows were coordinated with similar ones in Tokyo and Beijing to celebrate the next three Olympiads, all in Asia.

Yong Son Nam, 34, is a kindergarten teacher from Gangneung, who was taking her students to the festival in PyeongChang. She told ATR that it was important to bring her students to learn about what is coming to the region next year.

"I am really happy to teach the Olympic Games because it is not well known, especially the Winter Games," Nam said through a translator. "I think [the Games] are a really good thing. If only PyeongChang were to hold events it would not be helpful to Gangwon Province, but there are three places which will hold the events so it is good."

Inexperienced PyeongChang Testing Well

An advantage for the Games, according to organizers, is that venue construction will be completed before test events finish in April. The chaotic, cramped schedule this winter will give PyeongChang 2018 plenty of time to review how the test events worked and to fix any issues ahead of the Games next February.

"During the last test events, everybody said the quality of snow and quality of ice has been perfect and operations and management is very much satisfactory," Hee Beom Lee, PyeongChang 2018 President, said to ATR. "Preparations of venues… are all completed. Unlike some of the previous games the venues were not prepared until just before the Games, but we are already perfect."

Also, organizers will have time to continuously address issues of both accommodation and transportation, major questions looming over PyeongChang. After the chefs de mission meeting from Feb. 1-3, PyeongChang 2018 heard concerns about both issues, and then began addressing them with the IOC in a technical meeting.

Lee says the "total quantities" of accommodations will not be a problem for the Games, but organizers must work to provide enough four- and five-star hotels for the Olympic family. Organizers will lean on mobile accommodations in order to prevent building more hotels than the region needs post-Games.

The high speed rail is expected to transport nearly 17,000 people a day from Incheon and Seoul to PyeongChang and Gangneung within two hours. A deal with Hanjin logistics will make sure that necessary luggage for athletes and teams will still make it to the Olympic Villages, as it will not fit on the train. Still, the trains won't be able to handle all the visitors, with buses being required to make up the difference for transportation from airports to Gangwon Province. A bus from Incheon to Gangneung takes up to four hours, an added burden on top of long flight times.

Compact Venues Bet on Tourism

PyeongChang 2018 has two advantages in keeping the Olympic family happy and courting visitors: the compactness of venues and the region’s natural aspects. After visiting the PyeongChang and Gangneung clusters it is clear to see how close venues are to one another, allowing spectators to easily attend multiple sports.

In Gangneung, all five ice arenas are within a single Olympic Park, which is less than 10 minutes by cab from the city center. Traffic could be a major issue, although organizers say they took note of traffic jams formed during this week’s fireworks festivals.

PyeongChang’s venues are a bit more spread out, but all within 10 minutes driving distance. Shuttle buses should easily carry athletes, officials, and spectators between venues, given the lack of traffic there. Two more venues are within 30 minutes of the PyeongChang cluster. Lee said that federation officials described the snow in the mountains as "perfect" for the test events.

A region not known for its world renowned ski slopes, PyeongChang boasts a frigid climate not seen in the past two Winter Olympics. Organizers are staking the project on increased winter tourism from the Games, which Il Hong Choi, manager of the Alpensia sports park, tells ATR has been visible in the years leading up to the Games.

"Previously there were about 10,000 spectators [a year] that came to the observatory deck, but now 30-50,000 people come [each year] to the town to see it," Choi said through a translator. "From the spring to the autumn it is used as a golf course, and the golf course is an international level golf course. After the 2018 Games I see the popularity growing stronger. There will be more tourists after the Olympic Games."

Another claim for organizers is that PyeongChang will become a training base for athletes preparing for the 2022 Winter Olympics and beyond. Athletes said competing or training in PyeongChang for test events was their first time in the area, which may also be the case ahead of the Beijing 2022 Olympics. PyeongChang would be an established base for athletes to acclimatize before hopping over to Beijing.

But one only has to look at the outcomes from Sochi and Rio de Janeiro to see how Olympic promises can be broken under the guise of sporting legacies. Sochi has hosted a few international caliber events, but it is far from considered a winter sports hub. Rio’s venues are already abandoned six months after the Olympic Games. PyeongChang has many charms, such as its small mountain town feel, but lacks the winter sports history that smaller, established Winter Olympics hosts leaned on post-Games.

Written by Aaron Bauer

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