The 2018 Winter Olympics will forever be remembered as a significant milestone in Inter-Korean relations, with the two Koreas still technically at war marching together under a united flag, but there was much more to it than politics.
Think back to the Seoul 1988 Summer Olympics, the country’s first major sporting event where Korea became known to the world. Korea’s hosting of the 2002 World Cup following a crippling financial crisis was also politically important and lifted a depressed domestic social atmosphere. The Republic of Korea (ROK) has since continued to surprise the world with the rise of global giants like Samsung and Hyundai, and Pyeongchang was a showcase of their incredible technological advancements and capabilities, with drones and holograms at the ceremonies wowing crowds. Korean’s had much more interest in winter sports this year, as their ‘garlic girls’ curling team won their way to unexpected success on the ice as Silver Medalists.
It was undeniably the thousands of smiling volunteers managing crowds and athletes that made Pyeongchang so successful on the ground. Hannah and Tyla, two of my Australian mates, were international volunteers at the Winter Olympics and Paralympics respectively. They were part of the 16,209 strong volunteer crew. I asked them about their experiences;
Hannah’s advice for volunteering in Korea was to embrace the local culture and language, which was the biggest challenge for international volunteers besides the freezing weather! For Tyla, the coolest thing as a volunteer was seeing the sports and meeting the Athletes and medallists from Australia. “The Vibe was very upbeat and lots of fun”
The atmosphere in Pyeongchang was still vibrant when I arrived in mid-March for the Paralympics. I was greeted by dozens of cheerful volunteers at the gate and almost instantly bombarded with photos of Olympic mascots, Korean men in traditional costume and school children clutching the unified Korea flag. The snowy mountains made for an iconic backdrop.
It’s true that the North Korean political developments overshadowed much of Pyeongchang’s sporting successes and South Korea’s fantastic showcase, especially in global media. But for the Paralympics, we started off on stable political terms, and so with Ivanka Trump and Kim Yo-Jong out of the picture, from the start, it was all about the sports and athletes.
As part of the MIKTA Next Generation Journalist Program, I attended a day of skiing finals and the closing ceremony of the Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang. The Paralympics brought with it a tolerance and community vibe that lacked the animosity and competition of most international sports. Seeing these physically and visually impaired athletes conquer steep slopes I could never dream of was incredibly inspiring and fostered a beautiful atmosphere.
I stood with Turkish, Indonesian and Mexican supporters, and although none of us had any of our nation’s athletes competing in this course we were all just as engaged in the infectious Olympic atmosphere and cheered just as loud for athletes from China, Belarus, the Neutral Paralympics Athletes and North Korea’s first two Paralympians. It was a sunny day, with the snow thawing out when we heard that President Moon Jae-In was in the stands above us!
Australia’s Ambassador to Korea, HE James Choi (Picture with me right) is also an avid supporter of Paralympics and international sports, he tells Korea’s JoongAng Daily: “[sports] allows you to meet people that you ordinarily wouldn’t, because it cuts across sectors — sports is universal, it’s one of the very few things that cuts across societal boundaries, across countries, and it’s something everybody shares regardless of where they come from and what your background is.”
Korea’s “Messi on ice”, Jung Seung-hwan, warmed our hearts as a sled ice hockey player at this year’s Paralympics. The team took bronze as their first Paralympics medal, with South Korea winning their first ever Winter Paralympic gold cross-country when skier Sin Eui-hyun claimed the men’s 7.5km seated race. Australia’s star athlete was Sean Pollard, who lost his left arm and right hand in a Great White Shark attack. This qualified electrician ranked in the top 10 for snowboard cross and banked slalom.
The long-term impact of these Winter Olympics will be felt by the Gangwon Province in the North East of The ROK where Pyeongchang, Gangneung and the other Olympic venues were built. At their local media center, I met with Spokesperson of Gangwon Province: Kim Yong Chul to discuss the success of this Olympics and the region’s future plan. Gangwon is one of the poorest parts of South Korea, located only 50 miles from the North Korean border, so preparations for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics were meticulous. This popular seaside summer getaway is planning to become a hub for winter sports too, utilising the sports facilities and new hotels all year round. Arguably the most impressive installation was the high-speed railway from Seoul. Having taken the overnight bus to Gangneung myself just a few years ago, I was amazed to zip on the speed train from Seoul in less than two hours this time. These transport corridors will persist after the Olympics, bringing Gangwon significantly closer to the capital city, allowing the increase in regional tourism. It is the hope that Korea will become known globally as a skiing destination in Asia, where until now Australians usually only think of Japan.
Mr. Kim claimed this is going to be the most profitable Olympics in recent times, with spending quoted at around $13billion. The Pyeongchang Olympics committee stuck to a rigorous Sustainability Program with great success in harnessing wind power and certifying all of the 6 new constructions for smart and green capabilities. However, the long-term environmental clean-up costs have elsewhere been forecasted to be up to $90million. The majority of Pyeongchang’s Olympic venues were existing structures returning to their original purpose and Regional Governments have already implemented longevity plans for most of the newly constructed buildings, like building a swimming pool in the basement and creating new performance arenas to accommodate for Gangwon’s expected rise in tourism.
Mr. Kim and his passionate team are positive about Pyeongchang 2018 so far, boasting the record low crime rates, especially for visitors. Throughout the winter games, foreign visitors have been able to enjoy thousands of Korean cultural performances and experiences. Even in Incheon Airport, there are cultural pavilions with music shows and craft activities exclusively for foreigners and a mind-blowing Samsung VR demonstration! I was very impressed with the already award-winning airport.
As well as sharing Korea’s 4,000+ years of history and culture, this Olympics was a showcase for Asia. The next 2 Olympics will take us to Tokyo in 2020 and the next Winter Games Beijing in 2022.
As a networks engineer, I was invited on a tour of the International Broadcast Centre in Pyeongchang (Images below). It is from here that the live video feeds of Olympics coverage are sent to channel 7 and Olympic channels all over the world. The chief of the international network was a fellow Australian engineer, Steve. This was his 9th Olympics, and he was impressed with Korea’s preparation. The venues were ready well in advance, and the team has been setting up their network for almost two years! It was great to see another way Australians have been making this Olympics possible.
What about the Koreans?
I found that the atmosphere in Seoul didn’t reflect the Pyeongchang hype. In 1988 almost every South Korean participated in the Summer Olympics in one way or another, every family gathering around the TV to cheer on their picket girl daughters and swelling national pride that still remains today in iconic fashion. However, the youth of the ROK today are more concerned with maintaining their future career prospects than the hype or politics around the Olympics. Many Koreans I spoke to in Seoul had not even had a chance to watch the games on TV! Right now in Korea the youth unemployment and academic pressures are persisting, with students and young professionals not affording to indulge in anything other than studying, rigorous job applications and always working late. The Korean Government this week announced progressive reforms that will incentivise young Koreans to pursue start-ups or enter small businesses, but only time will tell.
Pyeongchang 2018 was a culmination of the recent growth in Korea’s sports profile, notably with Chung Hyeon becoming the first Korean to reach the semifinals of the Australian Open last year. And as E-sports continues to grow in Korea, their next place on the world sporting stage might be in front of the big screen!
If Seoul 1988 was to put Korea on the world stage, Pyeongchang 2018 was to flaunt its technological advances; world first 5G networks, self-driving buses, heated toilet seats, drone shows and elevators optimised with artificial intelligence. The event was a catalyst for progressing inter-Korean relations and we can look forward to the upcoming summits between North Korea, South Korea and the US as a result of the thawing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula through sport.
Hopefully the success of Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics will endure and help to spread the Korean wave for culture and tourism globally.
Asia Option’s Korea Correspondent Michelle Howie was invited to Seoul by the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the first MIKTA Next Generation Journalist Program.
Feel the Paralympics action live with Michelle’s video streams; dancing with the crowd, cheering Korea in the 1km sitting sprints, and meeting French Gold Medallists. Follow Asia Options on Twitter and Facebook to see more updates like this.
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