Snow time: Countdown to the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games

With one year to go until PyeongChang’s Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games get underway, the preparations in South Korea are entering their final stretch.

Snow time: Countdown to the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games

With one year to go until PyeongChang’s Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games get underway, the preparations in South Korea are entering their final stretch. Despite a difficult political environment and the initial reticence of commercial partners to get involved, the feeling within the local organising committee is optimistic and expectations are high that they can deliver not only a worthy event, but a lasting legacy for the region.

By Adam Nelson

The South Korean county of PyeongChang has a marketing slogan: ‘Happy700 PyeongChang’. The phrase refers to the region’s elevation above sea level, at 700 metres, which, according to the local tourist board at least, produces the optimal conditions for human living.

In February 2018, PyeongChang will host the Winter Olympic Games and that theory will be well and truly put to the test. The total population of the county is around 45,000; the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium, with a capacity of 50,000, could seat all of them with room to spare. By the time the opening ceremony rolls around on 9th February next year that 45,000 will be more than trebled by the congregation of athletes, their supporting teams, travelling supporters and the world’s media.

Already a popular winter sports resort, PyeongChang has much of the necessary infrastructure in place though, clearly, an Olympic Games is a challenge beyond anything the region has experienced before. For now, however, it is not concerns about the infrastructural demands that are occupying the minds of the PyeongChang Olympic and Paralympic Organising Committee (Pocog).

PyeongChang 2018 marks the first of three consecutive Olympic Games set to take place in this corner of east Asia – with Toyko gearing up for 2020 and Beijing readying to become the first city to have hosted both summer and winter editions when it welcomes the latter in 2022 – presenting a unique opportunity for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in a territory where it has of late focused much of its energy. Already in 2017 a huge deal has been struck with Chinese e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba, which joins The Olympic Partner (TOP) programme for the duration of the movement’s Asian residency.

Pocog itself, too, has largely managed to overcome a difficult start, which saw the IOC intervene in 2015 and advise that the committee needed to do more to attract sponsors. Since then, a litany of official sponsors and partners have been added and, despite marginally missing the sponsorship target for 2016, the IOC is now confident that PyeongChang will reach its overall goal by the time the Games roll around.

We are filling the gaps by extending our efforts to medium and small-sized firms in the necessary industry categories, and we are lowering the bar to attract them as PyeongChang 2018 supporters and suppliers

Lee Hee-beom is the current president of Pocog, but he was only appointed to this role in May 2016 after the surprise resignation of his predecessor, Cho Yang-ho. Lee pins some of the responsibility on an initial lack of urgency.

“The current economic situation is challenging both globally and locally, but the Olympic and Paralympic Games are international sporting events, which attract international attention,” he tells SportsPro. The slowness with which PyeongChang 2018 acted is not a reflection on the status of the Games, he says, but could be indicative of an environment in which companies are hesitant about the benefits of becoming an official sponsor.

“Previous Games’ local sponsors have been the leading companies of the hosting nation, and this is also true for PyeongChang 2018,” he says, with the likes of global electronics giants Samsung and LG both signed up as partners. “To attract companies to join the league, the organising committee has to lay out the benefit for being a sponsor to the companies, and protect sponsors’ rights by monitoring any non-sponsor’s violating sponsors’ rights.

“Also, I would advise future organising committees to set a goal after thorough reviews, and draft a plan to reach the goal. The communication with companies should start as early as possible, and the organising committee needs to continue the dialogue with patience.”

Having signed up seven top-tier official partners and five second-tier official sponsors from high-profile South Korean and international companies for the Games, Lee is now focused on filling out the remaining spaces with smaller local bodies.

“We are filling the gaps by extending our efforts to medium and small-sized firms in the necessary industry categories, and we are lowering the bar to attract them as PyeongChang 2018 supporters and suppliers,” he says, noting that Pocog has now achieved ₩841 billion (US$729 million), or 89 per cent, of its ₩940 billion (US$823 billion) target.

Both the IOC and the local organisers, however, could do without the headaches currently being encountered in South Korea. The organisers for Rio 2016 just about managed to steer those Games through Brazil’s choppy political waters and ultimately present a relatively unscathed spectacle to the world; PyeongChang was supposed to be plainer sailing. Instead, it has so far staged a demonstration of Karl Marx’s dictum about history repeating itself, except in this case there is only farce, only the self-inflicted wounds of self-interested politicians.

Once more, an Olympic host nation has a president facing impeachment over corruption charges; once more, the local organising committee is battling political turmoil and engaging in a PR struggle simply to convince the country’s residents that the Olympic Games are worth hosting at all in such tumultuous times.

Lee Hee-beom replaced Cho Yang-Ho as PyeongChang 2018 president in May 2016

The scandal centres on the apparent ‘undue influence’ of one Choi Soon-si, a close aide of president Park Geun-hye who holds no official office but has reportedly shaped several government policies – including, most damagingly for PyeongChang, the selection process for Olympic venues. In January 2017, the drama claimed its most high-profile victim to date with the resignation of Cho Yoon-sun, the country’s culture, sports and tourism minister. Cho was jumping before she was pushed, having been arrested on charges of abuse of authority. The fall-out could have significant implications for the Winter Olympic Games.

Furthermore, Samsung – not just an official partner of the PyeongChang Games but an IOC TOP sponsor – has itself become embroiled in the turmoil. Its Seoul headquarters were raided in November 2016 amid accusations it had sent ₩3.5 billion (US$3 million) to a company owned by Choi. This was not the environment Lee had anticipated when he was appointed as president of Pocog, after the hasty resignation of his predecessor.

That move has also come under the microscope, with allegations arising that Choi influenced the appointment. For Lee, who has during his nine months in charge fought tooth and nail to keep the Games away from the scandal, those accusations have proved an unwelcome distraction.

“The Olympic and Paralympic Games are events that transcend national or political issues,” says Lee. “Our team for PyeongChang 2018 remain focused on Games preparation, building the facilities to a standard the athletes will welcome, organising a series of test events that will help us fine-tune our preparations, and activating promotional activities as we meet the various milestones leading up to the Games.

“All these efforts continue as normal. We hope that everyone who watches or attends the test events and the Games will see that Pocog is able to rise above any difficult situations and deliver the best Olympic Winter Games.”

There are positives for PyeongChang, certainly when compared with where Rio was one year out from its own Olympic Games. Brazil’s political instability came off the back of a catastrophic economic collapse and amid a huge construction push to complete many of the venues and new infrastructure being put into place. South Korea’s economy is much more robust and, more pertinently for Lee, much of the construction is already finished or entering its final stages. Competition venues, he says, have an average completion rate of 96.3 per cent, with many gearing up to host test events over March and April, something Lee says will be of paramount importance to the final event to tinker with what he describes as the “software” of the organising committee.

“Hosting a successful Games is always a big challenge,” he says. “And there are two main aspects to this. One is hardware, meaning venues and infrastructure. The other is software, meaning operational know-how and experience. Our hardware is mostly on track. For software, the Pocog team is using every test event as an opportunity to acquire the required operational experience.

“The test events will help the Pocog team to familiarise themselves with the venues, operational excellence and conditions of the Games. We want our staff across all functional areas to deliver the best Olympic Winter Games. We will know our test events have been successful when we see that the participating athletes are able to perform at their best during competition and everyone, including the public and officials, have good things to say about PyeongChang and their experience at the event. After all, it is their positive feedback that will help enhance public interest in the Games.”

"The Olympic and Paralympic Games are events that transcend national or political issues."

Public interest in the Games is, at this point, arguably Lee’s biggest challenge. Ticket sales launch on 9th February 2017 and, though he insists that excitement for the event is “building”, it is certainly true that the political atmosphere in South Korea at the present moment is not entirely conducive to the Olympic spirit. Pocog is currently engaged in a huge PR push, utilising both online and offline communication methods to generate momentum. 

“The education team is travelling all over South Korea to educate Olympic and Paralympic values, promote the ideas of the Olympic Truce movement, and invite students to the PyeongChang 2018 Games,” says Lee. The education team has met with over 400,000 students, he adds, making 69 school visits and promoting the Games at 24 events. Pocog is also engaging with followers across social media, with accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Weibo and Instagram.

It is not just within South Korea that the appetite for the Olympics seems to have been diminished. Beijing was awarding the hosting rights for the 2022 Winter Olympics after a low-key two-horse race with Almaty, Kazakhstan and, while the pressure may not necessarily be on the organising committee in PyeongChang, there is a sense that the Olympic movement as a whole needs the 2018 Games to be a success – as much in the aftermath as in the two weeks of competition.

The PyeongChang 2018 team is confident the infrastructural "hardware" for the Games is in place

Lee is confident that 2018 can offer a lasting legacy not just to PyeongChang but to the whole of South Korea. The intention of turning PyeongChang and the wider Gangwon Province into a winter sports hub for the region was a major part of the initial bid. The infrastructural renovations for the Olympics include an all-new high-speed train line to the region, capable of cutting the travel time from Seoul to PyeongChang from three and a half hours to just 100 minutes. These kinds of top-down initiatives are part of the long-term legacy of the Winter Olympics but, as Lee points out, the real challenge is in ensuring that the facilities created for the Games continue to be used, with the Olympics providing a platform for engaging young Koreans in winter sports.

“With our ‘New Horizons’ vision, Pocog aims to develop winter sports and relevant industries in Asia, and leave a lasting legacy in the host region by transforming PyeongChang and Gangwon Province into an Asian winter sports hub and year-round tourist destination,” says Lee.

“PyeongChang 2018 will be only the third Winter Olympic Games to be held in region, and Korea will only be the second Asian country to ever host the Olympic Winter Games after Nagano, Japan, 20 years ago. As a part of our effort to introduce winter sports to young people who do not have the opportunity to experience winter weather and winter sports, PyeongChang has hosted ‘The Dream Programme’ every year since 2004. To date, over 1,500 young people have participated in the programme, including future Paralympians.”

For Discovery-owned broadcaster Eurosport, a significant amount is riding on these Games, too. PyeongChang 2018 will be the first aired by the company since the massive €1.3 billion (US$1.45 billion) media rights deal Discovery signed with the IOC in 2015 to take the Olympic rights across Europe and, as Eurosport chief executive Peter Hutton points out, the company “finally got to put the Olympic rings on our channel” from the start of 2017.

“That was a real big step in terms of showing both externally to viewers and even to our own staff and productions teams, ‘Look, the journey has really started now,’” says Hutton. “That’s a big switch for us in that we’ve said to everybody what we’re going to do, and now we need to start delivering. In particular, we’ve got a lot of people working on research and development and on new technologies and looking at how we can tell stories in different ways. The sort of work they’re coming up with now is really interesting. And it’s all designed to be ready in a year’s time, but the work really starts now.”

Eurosport chief executive Peter Hutton says "the journey has really started now" for Europe's new Olympic broadcaster

As much as preparing for an Olympics has been a steep learning curve for Lee and his team, Hutton also admits that PyeongChang represents a significant challenge for Eurosport, with the Winter Olympic Games being on another scale entirely from the broadcaster’s traditional work, where “we’d take the world feeds in from events and put them back out again with different commentary on them”.

Now, he says, “the idea is that we’re creating something that’s relevant in each market, we have far more local presentation, we have far more adaptation of the story to make it relevant to the audience”.

“That’s a big production challenge,” he continues, “and one where we’re trying to accelerate that process towards the Olympics.”

To return to Lee’s earlier analogy, Eurosport demonstrably already has the ‘hardware’ in place, but the remaining 12 months before the Games will be used for developing its ‘software’, with a series of high-profile events across 2017 representing a chance to practise Olympic broadcasting before its big debut in South Korea.

“The other part is looking at those events that clearly lead up to Korea for us in terms of scale, in terms of our vision, and make sure that we do a good job around those but that we use them as part of our warm-up,” says Hutton. “That can be things like the world championships of the winter sports or even things like the IAAF World Athletics Championships and the Fina World Championships that we’re covering on our channel this summer. They’re all part of a process for us, which is a process towards PyeongChang.

“We’re testing things, whether it is VR tests or new technology tests in terms of timing; we want to make sure that by the time we hit the Olympics that we’re completely ready. We don’t want things to be a surprise on day one. Anyone who’s worked in big productions for a long time knows the real challenge is being ready from the first minute of the first day. We’ve got a year and a bit to try and make sure that things are seamless when they go on air, and that our teams realise the new levels of quality expected from them.”

PyeongChang also represents a first Games since the launch of the Olympic Channel, which finally debuted, after months of speculation, in the aftermath of the Olympics in Rio. Operated jointly as an over-the-top (OTT) service between Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) and the IOC, the channel shares in Eurosport’s aim, Hutton says, of “making the Olympics a year-round, relevant brand and taking it to a younger audience”.

“Our position is obviously around major events, and they have a very democratic ambition in terms of taking a lot of Olympic sports that search for exposure to a wider audience,” he adds. “So I don’t see a conflict between those two things. Hopefully we can find ways to work together to cross-promote each other because I think if they work, then we work.”

"Anyone who’s worked in big productions for a long time knows the real challenge is being ready from the first minute of the first day."

The Winter Games is particularly well-suited to the Olympic Channel’s modus operandi, which relies heavily on viewers tuning in for short spells of time and sharing clips across social media. The landscape of Gangwon, combined in particular with the more spectacular sports on the Winter Olympic programme – such as the ski jump and the luge – should produce some captivating imagery and unique stories. Eurosport is hoping to lead the way in producing that imagery and telling those stories, Hutton explains, and is currently engaged in a lengthy research and development phase looking into various emerging technologies which will help in that endeavour.

“We’re never sure exactly what’s going to work and what’s not going to work,” says Hutton. “In general terms, we’re working with OBS to find out exactly what’s possible. We’re looking into wearable technology, both in terms of timing and the other content you can take from that technology – things like heart rates or glucose levels, or so many different things that you can monitor on an athlete.”

To many, it is still incredible that this kind of data can be collected at all so quickly and accurately, but its usefulness to a broadcaster is minimal if it can’t be translated into a meaningful narrative; as Hutton says, “It’s one thing to be able to get that volume of information; it’s another to then use it editorially to tell stories with it.

“Over the next year or so you’ll certainly see us taking trials with wearable technology and saying, ‘How can we use that data to tell relevant stories?’ I don’t pretend to have all the answers because this is developing on a day-to-day basis but you know that it’s got great potential to make the sports more relevant and to tell stories where commentators are not guessing about what an athlete is feeling but know what they’re doing.”

The IOC, Hutton says, is “really excited” by some of the ideas it has seen from Eurosport so far, as are the PyeongChang organisers. While the IOC has made no particular editorial demands of the broadcaster, both organisations are aware that the stakes are higher than usual in PyeongChang. For Eurosport, it represents a major opportunity to demonstrate its new role as “the custodian of the rings”, as Hutton puts it, and to justify the money spent.

For the IOC, meanwhile, the first of three east Asian Games will be expected to reignite wider interest, from fans and potential host cities alike, in the Winter Olympics. Both the IOC and Pocog will be hoping over the next 12 months that their oft-repeated refrain that the Olympics transcends national politics holds true, and that the turmoil infringes no further on the preparation for the Games. It could yet be a ‘Happy700 PyeongChang’ indeed.