HIGH HOPESPYEONGCHANG, Gangwon
The Asian skies definitely smiled on Pyeongchang last weekend.
Citizens of this snowed-in city could not have asked for finer weather as they greeted the International Olympic Committee’s evaluation commission with colorful banners. It was chilly enough to feel like this was a city bent on hosting the Winter Games, but mild enough to allow visitors to comfortably tour the area and even test the ski slopes.
The people of Pyeongchang, a candidate city for the 2010 Winter Olympics, were exuberant as they welcomed IOC members and other officials to city of 43,000, two and a half hours east of Seoul. That Saturday was Daeboreum, the first full moon of the Lunar New Year, only added to the merriment.
Pyeongchang calls itself “Happy 700,” referring to the city’s location -- 700 meters above sea level. Being the first of three candidate cities to host an IOC evaluation commission’s field visit ― Salzburg, Austria, and Vancouver, Canada, the two other cities vying for the honor, will be evaluated next month ― Korea’s Olympic bid committee and the Gangwon provincial government unleashed a torrent of welcoming events for its guests. For three days, the JoongAng Daily shadowed Olympic evaluators as they visited Gangwon’s facilities and other experiences.
Day 1: Presentations
On Friday, the Korean hosts present IOC officials with lectures focused on various aspects of the candidate city, such as its overall geography, sporting facilities, transportation and accommodations. From the start, however, the media are not allowed to speak with IOC members, who were in turn prohibited from commenting. The only exception comes when the committee’s chairman, Norway’s Gerhard Heiberg, speaks on behalf of the entire international delegation.
Day 2: Field trip
9: 10 a.m. ― After fueling up on a Western buffet of toast and eggs, the 18-member commission travel by bus to the area where the Olympic stadium, ski jumping and cross-country skiing sites are to be built. The area is now largely undeveloped, with only snow-capped mountains and pine forests.
Speakers discuss proposed construction plans and answered questions posed by commission members on technical issues such as how an arena can hold the anticipated number of spectators, how the opening ceremony won’t conflict with the ski jump area and what would it all cost.
Some IOC members listen intently while others jot down notes as they huddle to discuss plans. Meanwhile, television crews and other media buzz about a white tent where the 40-odd officials from the Olympic commission and the Korean bid committee meet. Before leaving the site, Mr. Heiberg says the bid committee, “I wish you good luck and hope you can do it.”
10 a.m ― On the way to the next location, the bid committee’s publicity team notifies the press that due to the media overload, the IOC commission ask that all future discussions occur behind closed doors. This causes an uproar among reporters, who haggle with bureaucrats at the Yongpyeong Hotel for half an hour over their lost rights. Finally, the media are given permission to take photos and trail the commission ― under the condition that interactions were strictly monitored. In the meantime, the commission members visit other venues such as the biathlon area and the Yongpyeong Dome, where curling is set to be held.
10:50 a.m ― Fireworks greet the foreign guests at the day’s third destination, the Media Village, where they inspect detailed plans via miniature models and diagrams. Bid committee members emphasize the city’s compactness as a key advantage: All event sites are within an hour of each other. TV crews dart here and there, hoping to snatch a word or two from IOC members. No soap.
11:20 a.m ― At the alpine area known as Rainbow Valley, the issue of transportation from the main venue is discussed. Proponents pull out all stops, noting for instance that the International Ski Federation has already approved construction plans by the city. “So far everything looks good,” says Mr. Heiberg.
11:50 a.m ― Taking a break from the paperwork, several IOC commissioners skied down the mountain to satisfy their curiosities about snow conditions. At a lunchtime press briefing, the spokesman for the bid committee says, “We have prepared for this field evaluation as if we were actually hosting the games. I have no regrets whatsoever because we did our best.”
2:30 p.m ― Next on the agenda for the officials is the Gangneung ice skating rink, although four members head for the hockey rinks in Wonju. In the streets, locals wave banners and placards and Korean traditional dancers welcome officials at the entrance. But that’s only the beginning: The evaluation team is greeted by Gangneung’s Green Silver orchestra, a village band composed of middle-aged men and women. The trumpet and accordian-playing townsfolk create such a spirited atmosphere that IOC member Rita Van Driel even dances to a number. After viewing the site of the proposed new rinks, Olympic officials take some archery lessons from a set of skillful Gangneungers.
3:10 p.m. ― The entourage arrives at the athletes’ living quarters. Here again, rallyers are on hand, chanting “Gaja Pyeongchang!” (Let’s go Pyeongchang) to the rhythm of the World Cup chant “Daehanminguk” (Great Republic of Korea).
5 p.m. ― Temporarily shifting their attention, the group visits a historic 18th century home of an aristocrat of the Joseon Dynasty and views a traditional masked dance in the building’s courtyard. Inside, officials crossed their legs on the floor to partake in dado, a tea drinking ceremony.
Gangneung resident Gwon Hyeok-gi, 61, sums up the passion of local citizens. “We wouldn't be here if we didn’t think we had a chance of winning their [the IOC committee] hearts,” he said. “After all, no one can beat the fervor and passion of Koreans.”
7:15 p.m.― Back in Yongpyeong, IOC members write down their wishes for Daeboreum, and tie the wishes to a straw rope (The Prince of Orange, from Netherlands, testifies later that he wrote his wish in Dutch). Then the members light up a gigantic haystack with fire as part of “setting the moonhouse on fire,” a Korean tradition of warding off evil spirits. For this occasion, the entire ski resort had gathered near the base of the mountain. Among the group of more than 100 gathering for this event, people play with burning cans lighted on fire and dance in circles.
“The atmosphere is very positive here,” says Mr. Heiberg. “We can feel the warmth and enthusiasm of the people. Other members agree 100 percent.”
Day 3: Down to the nitty gritty
On Sunday, presentations continue about legal, tax, immigration and other issues continue all afternoon. In the late afternoon, the IOC team visits Jungbong, where the downhill ski competition will be held. After visiting Phoenix and Sungwoo ski resorts nearby, the group finally returns to Seoul on Monday afternoon.
When asked about Korea’s odds of capturing the Winter Games, Ed Hula, editor of the Olympic information site www.Aroundtherings.com, puts it bluntly: “Long.”
Salzburg and Vancouver have better recognition, he says.”
But Korea’s bid committee refuses to look at the cup as half empty.
“Lillehammer [Norway] and Nagano [Japan] had virtually no recognition” before they were chosen as Winter Olympics host cities, says Kim Man-ki, the group’s public relations director. “What’s important here is the will to host and the feasiblity. In both respects, we have what it takes.”
“Pyeongchang,” adds Mr. Hula, “does have its own color and seems ready enough.”
The IOC group will select the host city of the 21st Winter Games on July 2. Whether Korea’s tense international climate will play a role in the decision-making process is hard to compute.
“You don't need that kind of crisis when you're bidding,” Mr. Hula says.
But Yun Kang-ro, the ebullient co-secretary general of the bid committee, maintains a positive outlook. “The North Korean matter is a politically sensitive issue that is separate from the objective of the members.”
Many factors will determine which of the three cities will win the bid in July, but the people of Gangwon province are unequivocal: “We are ready to meet you in 2010,” their banners cry.
Interview with Kim Jin-sun, Governor of Gangwon province
QSo far, what has been the response of the IOC commission?
AThey were astonished that Korea had such ski facilities and comments such as “Excellent” and “promising” were regularly heard from the group.
How long has the province been preparing for the Winter Games?
The first discussion came when we were bidding for the 1999 Asian Winter Games in 1993. Pyeongchang was thought of as a great location because it is a small mountainous city that has everything: wonderful ski resorts, clean air, breathtaking scenery and proximity to the sea.
How do you intend to overcome the perception that Gangwon is unknown outside the country?
I believe things will change after the evaluation. Korea’s foremost mountain ranges, Geumgang and Seorak, are in our neck of the woods. This is a promising city that has the potential to grow infinitely ― what I would call ‘the hidden treasure of Korea.’ We lack nothing to host the Winter Olympic Games.
Do you suppose the nuclear issue will be a factor in the decision making?
The tension on the peninsula gives us all the more reason to host this event. The Olympic Games embody peace, so such an international event would only contribute to peace in our region. Also, political status does not determine the evaluation commission’s decision because they are here to assess the region’s feasibility not to analyze its geopolitical context.
by Choi Jie-ho