SBJ/February 6-12, 2017/Olympics

An under the radar Olympics

Pyeongchang lacks buzz – and crises

Pyeongchang 2018: The quiet Olympics?

As the world prepares to mark one year until the first Korean Winter Games, the preparations so far have drawn little of the outsized attention — good or bad — that consumed the buildup to the last two Olympics in Sochi and Rio. Enthusiasm from American travelers is muted, one travel agent said, but at the same time, Pyeongchang is mostly avoiding the high-profile, multi-front crises of confidence, security and competence that dominated the headlines of recent Games.

“[Interest] is definitely way down,” said Brian Peters, CEO of Bucket List Events, which sells luxury ticket and accommodation packages. “We’ve got more bookings in Toyko [in 2020] than for Pyeongchang right now. It just blows my mind that people are more inclined to book three years ahead than one year.”

Ultimately, Peters said, he expects travel demand to Korea to roughly mirror Sochi in 2014, which was off compared to Vancouver in 2010 and Turin in 2006. This despite South Korea’s much better flight availability and lack of visa requirements for Americans.

He hopes demand will pick up after NBC starts marketing the Games in earnest, an effort that starts with an Olympics-themed “Today” show on Wednesday morning (see related story).

On the ground in South Korea, work to prepare the Games footprint is far from complete. But even the last construction projects on the organizing committee’s to-do list are projected to be delivered with weeks and months remaining before the Feb. 9, 2018, opening ceremony, not hours or days like in Brazil and Russia. And both corporate and athletic stakeholders say they are confident in the organizing committee, depriving the world of the “can they pull it off?” storylines.

“After a slower start, the work in Korea gives us confidence that all areas will be delivered on time and at the level we require to implement our operation,” said Ricardo Fort, vice president of global assets and partnerships for Coca-Cola, which will be celebrating its 90th anniversary as an Olympic sponsor. “We still have a year to go and there is a lot to do but, at this point, we are feeling good about Pyeongchang.”

Fan and sponsor interest is starting to build, said U.S. Olympic Committee Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Baird, and word will spread soon enough of the high quality, if somewhat obscure to Americans, host city. “The sport in Pyeongchang is going to be great, no question,” she said. “The ice venues are great, the snow is great, the mountains are gorgeous.”

The Winter Games are always slower to enter the public consciousness than their larger summer equivalent, but the juxtaposition between Rio and Pyeongchang is especially stark. Rio had both headline-grabbing problems and a long-standing reputation as one of the world’s premier vacation destinations. Pyeongchang has neither.

Of course, a less sensational buildup isn’t necessarily a problem for the Olympic movement, which is plenty busy with its own struggle to address the Russian doping matter and fatigued by the host-city struggles in 2014 and 2016. But it may not last.

A major political scandal has been unfolding for months in South Korea, and it has hurt the Games’ organizing committee’s promotional and sales efforts, its leader acknowledged last year. If evidence emerges to back up allegations of corruption directly connected to the Games, the storyline could turn south quickly.

At the moment, the nation’s highest court is deciding whether to uphold parliament’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, who stands accused of conspiring with a friend totally outside of government, Choi Soon-sil, to extort millions from businesses.

Choi also is alleged to have influenced bidding on Olympic venues and the replacement of the former organizing committee CEO last May. Olympic sponsor Samsung also has been caught up in the scandal.

That, combined with growing unease over the export-heavy South Korean economy’s future, could yet make for a witch’s brew of problems for Pyeongchang 2018.

Whatever broader issues may become part of the South Korean storyline, the hosts appear to be more or less on top of infrastructure preparations. Competition venues are, on average, “96.3 percent complete,” the organizing committee said Jan. 19. USA Bobsled & Skeleton CEO Darrin Steele was at the bobsled track in October and was impressed when the organizing committee assigned a work crew to fix track problems noted by the contingent as they were discovered.

“They definitely gave us a lot of confidence,” said Steele, who’s also vice president of sport for the International Bobsled & Skeleton Federation.

Organizers insist non-competition venues also will be ready with plenty of time. They’ve promised September delivery for the main Olympic plaza and two athlete villages. The potential trouble spots seem to be the international broadcasting center and the media village, which they promised would be done by the end of 2017, just six weeks prior to the Games.

The high-speed rail line connecting Seoul and the Games region will be ready for testing in the summer. That rail link is a linchpin to relatively easy travel from the capital, which some sponsor guest programs are counting on.

While these deadlines may seem to be cutting it close, remember Rio. There, the $2 billion subway line built especially for the Olympics opened with just four days to spare.

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