By Cathy Rose A. Garcia,
PYEONGCHANG — Thirty years after Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics, this town in Gangwon Province is getting ready to welcome thousands of athletes and tourists for the Winter Olympic Games in February.
Located 127 kilometers from Seoul, PyeongChang gets top billing as the host of the 33rd Winter Olympic Games, but other venues are actually located in the neighboring towns of Gangneung and Jeongseon.
South Korea is going all out in ensuring that its staging of the Winter Olympics will be a success. Organizers have tapped President Moon Jae-in, sports stars Kim Yuna, Lindsey Vonn, Park Ji-sung, and Hines Ward, and Hallyu stars Lee Min-ho, Kim Woo-bin, and Taeyang, as honorary ambassadors.
The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games is only the second time an Asian country has hosted the event. Japan hosted the Winter Olympics twice — Sapporo in 1972 and Nagano in 1998. The 2022 Winter Olympics will be staged in Beijing, China.
At Incheon International Airport, visitors are greeted by the Olympic mascot Soohorang, a white tiger, and Paralympic mascot Bandadi, an Asiatic black bear.
A clock in front of Seoul’s City Hall counts down the days, hours, and minutes before the Games’ opening ceremony on Feb. 9.
Time is ticking and PyeongChang is humming with construction activity as it makes final preparations. BusinessWorld last month visited this mountain resort town which sits 700 meters above sea level, and boasts of fresh air and picturesque views.
Traveling by car on newly built expressways, PyeongChang is more than three hours from Seoul.
However, organizers are hoping to cut travel time to just 50 minutes when the high-speed train connecting Incheon airport to Gangneung is completed by December. It will run 51 times a day during the Games, and transport around 20,000 people daily.
South Korea is spending around 14 trillion won ($12.4 billion) for the Olympics. Of the amount, 11 trillion won ($9.7 billion) was allocated for roads, railways, and stadiums.
Organizers are hoping these investments will pay off, estimating the Winter Games’ economic benefits will reach 65 trillion Korean won (KRW) and make PyeongChang and Gangwon Province a hub for winter sports in Asia.
The Winter Olympic Games venues are divided into two clusters — the PyeongChang Mountain Cluster and the Gangneung Coastal Cluster.
Chun-mi Kwon, a project manager of public engagement team of the PyeongChang Organizing Committee, said PyeongChang will host the opening and closing ceremonies at the newly built Olympic Stadium, as well as outdoor snow sports events like ski jump, cross-country skiing, and bobsleigh.
Not all the venues are new — some facilities were built in previous years when PyeongChang was still bidding for the Winter Olympics. For instance, the Alpensia ski jump was built in 2009, while PyeongChang won the bid in 2011.
“There are five stadiums inside Alpensia… Usually in PyeongChang, we have heavy snow during winter, like 100 centimeters of snow… But we will also use artificial snow,” Ms. Kwon told BusinessWorld during a personal tour of the Olympic venues in Alpensia Sports Park on Oct. 16.
At the time of BusinessWorld’s visit, the ski jump was closed to the public, but some skiers who were doing practice run down the slope. It doesn’t take much to imagine the slopes covered with snow, and around 10,000 spectators cheering them on while trying to keep warm in -10° Celsius temperatures.
Ms. Kwon emphasized that the five venues in Alpensia are within 10 minutes’ distance from each other.
“That’s the unique thing. It’s a player-oriented design. Players can access the different stadiums and venues easily. Only the Bokwang Snow Park and Jeongseon Alpine Center are far, 30 minutes away,” she said, noting that Jeongseon will be the site of the alpine skiing events.
The newly built Olympic Stadium is located in the Olympic Plaza, just three minutes away from Alpensia. Ms. Kwon noted that the pentagon-shaped stadium, which can seat 35,000, ensures that wherever spectators are seated, they will have the same view.
“After the Games finish, parts of the Olympic Stadium will be dismantled. It will become a smaller venue with 5,000 capacity. But the (seven-storey) main building will remain and become a museum,” Ms. Kwon said, adding this would ensure PyeongChang will not have any “white elephant” structures after the Games.
Gangneung, on the other hand, will host ice sports events like hockey, figure skating, speed skating, and curling. Venues such as the Ice Arena, Oval and Hockey Center are newly built, and have been hosting test events and practice runs to ensure they are up to Olympic standards.
“In terms of capacity, the Gangneung Ice Arena is the biggest stadium in Gangneung,” Jin-soo Lim, a member of the public engagement team of the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, told BusinessWorld while giving a tour of the various ice sports venues on Oct. 16.
Had he qualified, Filipino skater Michael Christian Martinez would have performed before a crowd of 12,000 fans at the Ice Arena. Aside from figure skating, the arena will also host short track speed skating events.
“Some people can be curious if the stadium can take on a real function, but they don’t have to worry about that. From last November to April, we have had 25 types of test events,” Mr. Lim said.
After the Olympic and Paralympic Games end, the Ice Arena will be turned into a sports center.
Located next to the Ice Arena is the Oval, which hosts the speed skating events. It has a 400-meter double track, and can accommodate 8,000 spectators.
“Speed skating is one of the most popular winter sports… You can imagine the shouting and screams of people… The lights will be hot… And the heat affects the ice, and during the games the ice will be melting. We have to maintain the quality of the ice, following the IOC (International Olympic Committee) criteria,” Mr. Lim said.
The Oval is expected to be packed with Korean fans when speed skater Lee Sang-hwa takes to the ice. Ms. Lee is hoping to win a third consecutive Olympic gold medal in the 500-meter competition.
“(Ms. Lee) is trying to make history. If she takes one more gold medal, she will be the first female Asian skater to have gold medals from three Olympic Games,” Mr. Lim said.
Next door is the Gangneung Hockey Center, which has a capacity of 10,000 and is the venue of the men’s hockey games. At the time of BusinessWorld’s visit, the Korean men’s paralympic team was practicing, so no photos were allowed.
Outside the hockey center, Mr. Lim pointed to an empty running track, saying this will be turned into a festival area that will be part of the Gangneung Olympic Park.
“At the Gangneung Olympic Park, you can enjoy sports and cultural components together. Unlike in PyeongChang, where the games are in Alpensia, and the cultural parts are in Olympic Plaza,” he said.
Across town, visitors can drop by the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics “PR House” to learn more about the games. The PR House has a 4D theater and virtual reality simulators where visitors can experience what it’s like to do a ski jump, or try snowboarding for free. Kids can also get free postcards and coloring sheets featuring the Olympic mascot.
To encourage more visitors to watch the Winter Olympic Games, the South Korean government announced on Nov. 3 that visitors from the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia will be allowed to enter South Korea without a visa if they arrive at the Yangyang International Airport near PyeongChang until April. However, the Philippines has only direct flights from Manila to Incheon (near Seoul) and Busan.
While ticket sales have been sluggish, tickets to the PyeongChang Olympics are not as expensive as one might think.
“People have misunderstood that the tickets to all the events are expensive. But for as low as 20,000 won (around P900), you can watch some snow sports events (held outdoors). It may be very cold, but it is worth it,” Ms. Kwon said.
The most popular events such as hockey, figure skating, short track, speed skating, and ski jump are understandably more expensive.
At venues located in PyeongChang, Ms. Kwon said the most expensive ticket is 200,000 won (around P9,000) for the men’s finals of the ski jump.
For the ice sports games in Gangneung, a ticket can go for as much as 600,000 won (around P27,500) for figure skating and 900,000 won (around P41,000) for the men’s hockey finals.
“It depends on supply and demand. Some events are more popular than others. For instance, we have gala show for figure skating and that’s 800,000 won (around P36,700),” Mr. Lim said, referring to the show featuring the Olympic medal-winning skaters.
There are 1.18 million tickets available for sale, with 70% allocated for Koreans and 30% for foreigners. Foreigners can buy tickets on tickets.pyeongchang2018.com, but only Visa cards or bank transfers are the form of payment.
Aside from entrance to the games, ticket-holders can ride any of the 1,200 shuttle buses from the train station to the Olympic venues, as well as from the Park-and-Ride areas.
However, the recent tensions in the Korean Peninsula may have dampened foreign interest in the games. It also doesn’t help that PyeongChang is located around 80 kilometers south of the de-militarized zone (DMZ), which separates North and South Korea. And for most non-Koreans, the name sounds quite similar to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
North Korea, which is still technically at war with the South, has yet to say if it will send a team to the Winter Olympics.
“For the government, the more the North Korean team can participate in the Games, the more safer it will be and the Olympic Games will be more successful,” an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said during a briefing for ASEAN journalists on Oct. 18. “Sports is the best opportunity to unite all people.”