A new year of sport: the finest live drama. Whilst 2018 may be best known for being a World Cup year, with football’s grandest event taking place in Russia this summer, it is also an Olympic year. The 23rd Winter Olympics takes place in Pyeongchang – not to be confused with North Korean capital Pyongyang – in February, with 89 countries travelling to South Korea to compete over two weeks in 15 different sports.
Despite the inevitable excitement amongst snow and ice fanatics, the Games has thus far been overshadowed by underperforming ticket sales, coupled with political tensions linked to North Korea. With the International Olympic Committee (IOC) keen to avoid the controversies that marred the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, we take a look at the fundamental problems organisers face with just over a month to go, and the potential impact it could have on the Games and its legacy.
The political tensions in the Korean peninsula have rarely been higher since the Korean War in the 1950s. On one hand, South Korea has had a rough time of it lately regarding internal political scandals, with President (now ex-President of course) Park Geun-hye jailed for corruption allegations in March 2017 alongside his wife. The general morale amongst the population has been fairly low, and the Games has done little, so far, in whetting the appetite of the average Korean local.
“A reoccurring theme emerges: with the eyes of the world on South Korea, the North can’t help but attempt to steal some of the limelight.”
On the other hand, the well-publicised tensions between the South and the North has been exacerbated in the last year, following 23 nuclear missile tests in 2017 from King Jong-un’s North Korean military. The consequential farcical war of words between North Korea’s authoritarian leader and U.S. President Donald Trump has left the South in a state of apprehension, and its tourist numbers decimated by 24%, according to Bloomberg, in 2017 due to the growing threat.
Although activity in the North has been somewhat quieter in the last month or two, there has been history of provocative North Korean activity during a global showpiece held across the border. In 1987, a year before the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, agents from Pyongyang bombed a Korean air flight killing 115 passengers and crew. More recently, during South Korea’s joint hosting of the 2002 FIFA World Cup with Japan, North Korean patrol boats crossed into disputed waters, sparking a naval clash that sunk one South Korean ship, claiming the lives of six sailors. A reoccurring theme emerges: with the eyes of the world on South Korea, the North can’t help but attempt to steal some of the limelight. With the Pyeongchang venues taking place a mere 60 miles from the Korean border, we can only hope the North keep themselves to themselves.
Irrespective of wider political issues, event organisers are seriously struggling to engage locals. The long-term legacy aim is for Pyeongchang, a scenic mountainous region of eastern Korea, to become the new hub of Winter Sports in Asia. And yet, local motel owner Gu In-mo commented, “I don’t think the Games will do anything to improve my life. The tickets are too expensive for ordinary people like me. I’ll just watch it on TV.” The message is failing to engage, as Gu puts it, “ordinary people”; the local civilians, who it is a necessity to engage with both during the Games and its aftermath. Currently, most local residents seem more concerned with buying items of fashionable merchandise than buying tickets – though admittedly, everyone loves a bit of stash!
In all seriousness, more ticket sales have come from foreigners. Bloomberg reported in December that 179,200 out of a total 330,000 tickets bought have been foreign purchases… the explanation for this? Ticket prices, particularly for premium events such as figure skating and the ceremonies, are unaffordable, with the cheapest standing at $500. Figures from December, show that only 31% of the 1.1 million ticket sales target have sold so far according to Bloomberg, and with empty seats overshadowing the most recent Olympics in Rio, event organisers are attempting to engage local schools and institutions in the weeks leading up to the Games. Further afield, in attempt to raise tourist numbers, South Korea has allowed visa-free entrance for Filipino’s and Indonesians, and waived the visa-fee for Chinese nationals.
“Olympic Games rely on a plethora of visitors from all corners of the globe”
This may not be enough however. “I will tell you the truth: I do not expect too many spectators at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. The current political crisis in the region does not encourage Europeans to travel to South Korea.” The words of Gian-Franco Kasper, President of the International Ski Federation, are chilling – Olympic Games rely on a plethora of visitors from all corners of the globe. Regrettably, current political issues seem like the biggest obstacle in relation to attracting tourists, and in similarity to the 2014 Games in Russia which had its own political problems (Russian athletes, incidentally, will not compete under their own flag if at all for the second Olympics running following continued allegations of state-sponsored doping), event organisers are praying it doesn’t overshadow two weeks of sporting drama.
There’s just under a month to go. South Korea has a lot of work to do.