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The air is crisp and the scent of pine is unmistakable in this picturesque mountain resort town of 43,000, located about 120 miles from Seoul. Since the country's first ski resort opened here some 40 years ago, it has been the center of South Korea's small but growing winter sports culture.

Now this sleepy town is getting ready for a major turn in the spotlight, as Pyeongchang and the nearby city of Gangneung (population 230,000) prepare to welcome thousands of athletes, spectators and media for the Winter Olympics, which will be held Feb. 9-25, and the Paralympics, which begin 12 days later.

But there's a lack of local buzz about these Games, and concerns are mounting about sluggish ticket sales and relations with next-door neighbor North Korea.

In terms of preparations, no one can accuse the Pyeongchang Games of having the troubles of the last Olympic host. Rio de Janeiro rushed to finish venues, housing and infrastructure before hosting the 2016 Summer Games. Several of the venues were falling apart within months, and a federal prosecutor recently dismissed the Games as having "no planning."

Pyeongchang also offers a stark contrast to Sochi, the Russian host city that spent a staggering $51 billion on the 2014 Winter Games. The budget for Pyeongchang is coming in at roughly $12.6 billion, according to organizers. The operations budget has risen by about a half-billion dollars since initial estimates, but that is largely due to the increase in sporting events. The initial budget accounted for the 86 events that were contested at the 2010 Games. There will be 102 Olympic events next winter.

Construction of venues and infrastructure are progressing as planned. So organizers are doing a good job of building and planning for the Games, but will anyone care?

Until recently, the Games have been overshadowed by political scandals that rocked the country and led to the impeachment and arrest of President Park Geun-hye in March. Dozens of business leaders also have been swept up in a wide-ranging corruption and influence-peddling scheme.

The cloud hovered over Olympic preparations as well, with reports that organizers were pressured to award contracts to firms linked with an associate of President Park.

But Lee Hee-beom, head of the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee, said a thorough review of all contracts was conducted and everything has remained aboveboard.

"While Pyeongchang might have been a target of such corruption, I can tell you that no such attempts actually materialized," he told reporters in January.

A delegation from the International Olympic Committee was satisfied with the preparations when it visited in March, bringing IOC President Thomas Bach to declare, "I trust Korea, and I trust Koreans 100%."

All 12 competition venues have hosted test events. Construction is on track for athletes and media villages and major new infrastructure projects that will serve the two clusters where events will be held. A high-speed rail line, which will bring visitors from Seoul to Pyeongchang in just 69 minutes (half the current travel time), is slated to open before the end of the year.

And while Rio has been stuck with costly white elephants, Pyeongchang organizers have strong legacy plans. Currently 10 of the competition venues have owners in place after the Games, and many have been designed for year-round use.

Still, the impact of national scandals has left a mark, from a business standpoint and by how the Games have been perceived.

"I'd be lying if I said we haven't been affected at all," said Nancy Park, a spokeswoman for the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee. "That dark cloud ... what it does affect is the excitement. It also affected our sponsorship sales -- sponsors were a little reluctant to do a lot of promotional activities because you don't want to be associated with it."

Organizers aimed for sponsorship targets of 940 billion Korean won ( $824 million, U.S. dollars) but came in below their target of 90% by the end of 2016. They say that figure has increased to about 94% after several sponsors have signed on.

Public enthusiasm for the Games, however, has remained muted. Organizers had anticipated selling up to 600,000 tickets in the first phase of sales, held on a lottery system, but received 384,000 applications. Until now, about 160,000 tickets have been allocated domestically. Overall, 1.18 million tickets will be made available.

A survey taken in April by the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism found that only 35.6% of Koreans were interested in the Olympics.

That mood was echoed by many on the street in Seoul, the capital city of 25 million people.

High school student Gong Sang-hyuk, 16, said the Olympics aren't a hot topic among his friends. "There's not much interest," he said through an interpreter. "It's a waste of money, a one-season thing. After winter, no one will ever go back (to Pyeongchang). The taxes that go to the Winter Olympics should be spent on something else, like health or welfare."

Sang Lee, a photographer based in Seoul, also said the country's focus is better spent on more pressing matters. "We have a lot of political and social issues to solve right now," he said. "The government doesn't have enough money, and we're struggling right now with a number of crises."

Politically, tensions with North Korea have escalated. North Korea has launched a number of missile tests since the beginning of the year, and the USA sent a pair of aircraft carrier groups into waters near the Korean Peninsula. The border with North Korea is 50 miles from the Olympic sites.

Jung Jae-min, marketing coordinator for the Korean Tourism Organization's Los Angeles office, said concerns about North Korea have been common among Americans interested in traveling to Pyeongchang for the Olympics. But he said interest is growing as the Games get closer.

Optimism also reigns among organizers that the corner has been turned on the political scandals at home, and many hope President Moon Jae-in will help thaw relations with North Korea.

Choi Moon-Soon, governor of Gangwon Province, where Pyeongchang is located, said the election of Moon will offer a fresh start for the Games.

"I would like to make it as a turning point from all of these issues overshadowing us," he said. "The new president is very enthusiastic about the Olympics. He would like to use the Olympics as diplomacy for political issues within Korea, China, Japan and the U.S. as well. We would like to make this a peaceful moment."

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June 13, 2017
 
 
 

 

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