100 days and counting until the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics

October 31, 2017

As the Olympic torch begins to make its tour around South Korea, today marks 100 days until the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. It has been nearly 30 years since the Olympics were last held in Korea, and since then, the political and economic landscape in the country has dramatically changed. Now with the spotlight back on this prosperous nation, the Pyeongchang games provide a valuable opportunity for Korea to showcase to the world just how much it has developed as a world power. However, at the same time, the looming threat of North Korea could cast a dark cloud over these winter games.

Pyeongchang, a region with a population of only roughly 44,000 people, was selected as the host city in 2011 by the International Olympic Committee in its third bid over competitors Munich, Germany and Annecy, France. When it is not hosting the Olympics, the region is known for the beauty of its national parks and Buddhist temples. The region is also home to many of South Korea’s ski resorts and some of Korea’s tallest mountains. Nestled in these mountains is the “Pyeongchang mountain cluster” of venues, including the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium and multiple slopes for various mountain sports. The other venues for the games are located in the coastal city of Gangneung, where events such as hockey, curling, speed skating, and figure skating will take place. The venues are only about 110 miles (180 km) – or approximately a two-hour drive – west of Seoul, the South Korean capital city of 26 million people. For easier accessibility, high speed train lines, or “KTX” lines as they are known in Korea, have recently been completed and will be running from Incheon International Airport directly to Pyeongchang and Gangneung.

South Korea will have 70 athletes competing in sports ranging from figure skating to curling. However, Korea shines most in speed skating events. Since 1992, 25 out of 26 of South Korea’s gold medals have been won in speed skating by both men and women. In the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, South Korea finished with eight total medals, three of them gold, and all in speed skating. With a strong “home-field advantage,” the Korean national team is expected to outperform that showing four years ago.

Amidst the excitement and potential of the Pyeongchang games, there is no ignoring the elephant in the room – neighboring North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un. The escalating tensions with North Korea, brought on by a rapid increase in missile tests, nuclear weapons tests, and threats coming from the hermit kingdom, have become cause for concern for visitors worried about the safety of attending the games. Ticket sales have taken a significant hit as a result. Fortune.com reported last month that only 52,000 of the 750,000 tickets available to South Koreans and only half of the 320,000 allocated international tickets have been sold so far. Even participating countries have made note of the potential threat less than 60 miles north of Pyeongchang. France has threatened to withdraw if the safety of its delegation cannot be guaranteed, according to France’s sports prime minister, Laura Flessel. Whether or not such pronouncements are an overreaction, there is no doubt that the actions of the North will play a role in the success of these winter games. North Korea has two athletes that have qualified for the Winter Olympics, but it is unknown whether or not they will participate.

After years of unsuccessful bids, South Koreans finally get their chance to again host one of the biggest sporting events in the world. In the next 100 days, the headlines of these winter games may have as much to do with politics and security as they do with Olympic venues and athletics. For now, however, it is up to South Korea to finalize preparations to welcome the world to Pyeongchang for what Koreans hope will be the finest Winter Olympic games ever.

<Elan Zohar, Korea Times Student Intern Reporter / Brentwood School Senior>

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