[2018 WINTER OLYMPICS] 'Time of Asia' set to kick off right here with Koreans hosting

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[2018 WINTER OLYMPICS] 'Time of Asia' set to kick off right here with Koreans hosting


What International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach called the “time of Asia,” during which the next three Olympics are slated to take place in East Asia, will soon begin. But before the world turns their eyes to Tokyo in 2020 or Beijing in 2022, everything starts in the tranquil mountains of Pyeongchang, Gangwon, some 180 kilometers (112 miles) from Seoul.

The 2018 Winter Olympics, officially titled the XXIII Olympic Winter Games, is the first stop for athletes in their journey to the Olympic podium. The quadrennial winter sports competition is the biggest stage in which skiers and snowboarders can prove their talents and uphold the slogan “Passion. Connected.”

Today marks a new milestone for Korea as it is exactly 365 days before the grand opening ceremony of the second Olympics in its history.

That may look like a long way from now, but for athletes such as Korean skeleton racer Yun Sung-bin and American snowboarder Chloe Kim, both of whom are looking to clinch the titles in the first Olympics of their careers, 365 days may pass by quickly as they polish their boots and skis in preparation for the Games.

According the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games (Pocog), the 2018 Olympics will feature a total of 6,500 athletes and officials from 95 countries, who will vie for 102 gold medals in seven events, or 15 different disciplines. Koreans will aim for 20 medals, including eight golds, and finish inside the top five of the medal tally.

It isn’t just athletes and coaches who will immerse themselves in preparation during the final countdown, but also authorities and locals who are readying themselves to play host to the thousands of visitors from around the world.

According to the Hyundai Research Institute, the possible economic impact of the PyeongChang Olympics, created through investment by visitors and locals, could be as much as 21 trillion won ($18.4 billion), not to mention the 43 trillion won possible ripple effect after the Games. In total, the economic effect, assessed by HRI, mounts to 64 trillion won.

Estimates by the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics & Trade also show the Games may spark 20 trillion won worth of production and create 23,000 new jobs. But it won’t be easy. Since 2000, only three of the nine Games have turned a profit: the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

More so than economic vitalization and the likelihood that Pyeongchang will emerge as one of the go-to winter sport destinations in Asia, the reputation of the entire nation is at stake.

“The Olympics will help improve the image of the nation and Korean brands,” said Park Tae-il, a senior researcher at HRI. If the 1988 Seoul Olympics was an opportunity to show the world that Korea has undergone a successful industrialization despite the devastation of its civil war, the 2018 Olympics will pave the way for Korea to join the ranks of advanced nations.

Lee Yong-sik, a professor at the Department of Sports and Leisure Studies at Catholic Kwandong University and a member of advisory board to the National Assembly Research Service, shared a positive perspective about the possible impact of the Winter Olympics in Korea.

“If we think about the 1988 Summer Olympics, Korea had just experienced a democratic movement in 1987 [the June Struggle, or June Democratic Uprising, where mass protests nationwide forced the government to institute democratic reforms],” explained Lee to Korea JoongAng Daily. “Amid political turmoil, the Summer Games heralded national unity. Our current situation is a lot similar, with the unprecedented level of political scandals shaking the country.”

He added, “But in retrospect, just as we did in the 80s, the Winter Olympics may become a breakthrough for Koreans to overcome social turbulence and achieve a new level of social integration. We witnessed a similar trend after 2002 World Cup, when the entire nation was unified.”

Lee also added, “Our sports culture may evolve as well and just like developed nations in the West, Koreans will be given a chance to adopt a ‘two sports per individual’ culture in which they can enjoy sports activities year-round despite seasonal changes. If we look at the 1988 Olympics, the percentage of people enjoying sports rose by over 10 percent.”

One of the key elements of the 2018 Olympics that will distinguish itself from the past Games is the adoption of cutting-edge information and communication technologies. Korea, a leading IT nation, holds some of the most advanced information technologies and Pocog will not shy away from flaunting this to the world.

Led by KT, one of the leading telecommunication companies here, the Olympics will showcase the 5th generation wireless system known as 5G and stream competitions at ultra-fast speeds. Visitors can also expect to be carried around venues in unmanned shuttles.

“It’s still just a plan but we are trying to get all the details with Hyundai Motor and Pocog,” said Lee Chang-ki, an official from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport. “We will conduct a test run in December this year to operate the shuttles without problems during the Olympics.”

But Pocog still has some hurdles to jump in the next 365 days. For one thing, Pocog has been hit by the influence-peddling scandal that led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. The political turmoil has left the nation without leadership in the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, one of the central government entities supposed to help Pocog prepare.

Pocog itself is also mired in controversy, with the speculation that Choi Soon-sil, the central figure of the current scandal and confidante of the president, allegedly meddled in the construction contracts for personal profit. Another impending concern that professor Lee presented was how to advertise the Olympics.

“It will come down to how well Koreans do since we are the host,” Lee said. “That way, Korean broadcasters will have more to show locals. Other than speed skating and short track, we are slowly becoming more competitive in events such as curling and skeleton and we need to spend this year boosting our edge.”

He added, “If we think about Japan in 2002, the heat of the World Cup died out quickly since the Japanese national team was eliminated early.”

Despite all this, test events intended to inspect all 12 venues for the Games are in full swing, giving the world a small glimpse of what the actual Olympics will be like. For the nation of Korea, the 2018 Winter Olympics has already begun.

BY CHOI HYUNG-JO [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]
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