Let the Games begin: PyeongChang’s rocky road to the 2018 Winter Olympics

PyeongChang’s nearly seven-year journey towards hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics has been a rollercoaster ride, one that has lurched and spluttered though a wider Olympic malaise and often struggled to capture the imagination, both at home and overseas.

Let the Games begin: PyeongChang’s rocky road to the 2018 Winter Olympics

Having failed in its attempts to host the 2010 and 2014 editions, PyeongChang’s successful bid for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games was a case of third time lucky.

Seeing off competition from Munich, Germany and the French city of Annecy in July 2011, the little-known mountainous region in South Korea’s Gangwon Province claimed the 2018 instalment in impressive fashion, registering a margin of victory that was one of the largest in Olympic bidding history to secure the country’s first Games since Seoul, its capital, hosted the summer edition in 1988.

Six and a half years after the bid was won, it remains unclear how the Games will be received. Public indifference, wariness among corporations and a challenging political climate in the host country have been evidenced by an initially sluggish commercial programme and lacklustre ticket sales. Meanwhile the lingering furore surrounding the fallout of Russia’s Olympic doping regime and a diplomatic effort to unite North and South Korea on winter sport’s greatest stage continue to dominate the international discourse, diverting attention away from the action to come.

Still, the first major international sporting event of 2018 arrives amid the usual hype and anticipation, ensuring that all eyes will be on PyeongChang once the Games finally begin. Ahead of Friday’s opening ceremony, a lavish occasion that is sure to reprise the glitz and glamour of past Olympic curtain-raisers, SportsPro looks back at how the first in a run of three Games to take place on Asian shores came to be, and what’s to come.

A slow start

Despite storming to victory in the summer of 2011, officials overseeing preparations in PyeongChang, a winter resort in the Taebak Mountains 80 miles northeast of Seoul, were initially slow to get moving on building out their domestic commercial programme. In fact, it would be a full three years before the PyeongChang Olympic and Paralympic Organising Committee (Pocog), the 129-member local body established to oversee preparations, would announce its first sponsorship deals.

In July of 2014, the committee unveiled KT Corporation, Korea's largest telecoms company, and Youngone Outdoor, a local distributor of international sportswear brands including The North Face, as the first two domestic partners of the Games. Yet any hopes they had of swiftly adding more sponsors were dealt their first major blow when Jin-sun Kim (left), the Pocog president, unexpectedly resigned later in the month.

Kim’s departure left his replacement, the Hanjin Group chairman Yang-ho Cho, facing mounting international pressure to get commercial preparations back on track, and while Pocog was able to sign up two more companies - Samil PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Pagoda Education Group - before the year was out, the hosts’ inauspicious start prompted the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to intervene in early 2015.

Under direction from their overseers in Switzerland, it wasn’t long before more deals began to trickle in for the local organisers. Over the course of the year, Pocog’s commercial activity gathered noticeable momentum as some of Korea’s most powerful corporations and conglomerates, including Korean Air, Samsung and Hyundai Motor Group, finally declared their support for the Games.

By May of 2016, however, organisers were left dealing with yet another leadership change when Cho, who had been credited with agreeing many of the early deals, stepped down to focus on Hanjin Group’s ailing shipping division. His successor, South Korea’s former industry and energy minister Lee Hee-beom, took up the helm at Pocog immediately, but the ensuing months would nevertheless come and go with the committee only managing to sign a handful of new agreements.

With time increasingly of the essence, the local organisers’ lurching commercial efforts were hardly helped by events happening elsewhere. As well as suffering by comparison with the apparent ease with which their counterparts at Tokyo 2020 were able to knock off deals - and with several high-profile Olympic officials under investigation in other countries, contributing to a broader mood of skepticism shrouding the Olympic movement - Pocog’s stuttering preparations remained mired in a difficult domestic political environment, not to mention rising tensions between the hosts and their reclusive, increasingly antagonistic neighbours to the north.

The untimely events that led to the impeachment in December 2016 of Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president, rocked the country’s political and corporate elite. That major Korean companies like Samsung - not just an official partner of the organising committee but also an IOC TOP sponsor - were caught up in a sprawling corruption scandal further exacerbated matters, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and fuelling a backlash against big business within the host country that has been reminiscent of that which blighted the chaotic build-up to Rio 2016 within Brazil.

In spite of those tough market conditions, however, business at Pocog continued to progress, albeit slowly. A year out from the Games, the committee had managed to secure seven top-tier official partners and five second-tier official sponsors, achieving ₩841 billion (US$729 million), or 89 per cent, of their ₩940 billion (US$823 million) target. Since then, the number of partners signed up has climbed dramatically as South Korea’s political climate has gradually softened. Having taken to filling gaps in their commercial programme by bringing in companies from important industry categories, Pocog claimed towards the end of last year that revenue from domestic sponsorships had exceeded the US$918 million mark, far higher than their original target.

Still, the committee had been forced to rely on a good deal of corporate goodwill and handouts from public entities to get there. To help ensure a successful Games and offset any budget shortfall, South Korea’s National Federation of Banks made a ₩20 billion (US$17.9 million) donation last October. The payment was the second contribution made by the consortium after it purchased ₩1 billion (US$894,000) worth of Games tickets a month earlier, and followed a separate donation from the GS Group in late 2016.

On reflection, it is fair to say that the events of the past four years have done little to rouse public awareness of the Games. In October, with less than four months to go until the opening ceremony, it was revealed that only 30.3 per cent of tickets had been sold, while less than five per cent had been snapped up for the Paralympics.

Those figures have risen markedly since the Games’ torch relay began in November. Last month, organisers announced that 69.7 per cent of tickets had been sold - a total of 744,822 tickets - while sales of Paralympics tickets had spiked dramatically to 70.4 per cent. Nevertheless, Lee Hee-beom (right), the Pocog president, has since said “emergency measures” are required to shift the remaining tickets, with nearly a quarter still unsold in early February. 

Setting the stage

In contrast to the Games’ sluggish commercial programme, construction and renovation work on competition venues in PyeongChang has progressed altogether more smoothly, even if the final cost of the Games, including newly built roads and auxiliary infrastructure, has spiralled to around US$12.9 billion, far more than the US$8 billion they were projected to cost when South Korea won the event in 2011.

The hosts have built six new venues and refurbished a further six existing facilities for the Games, many of which staged test events several months ago. The majority of the competition venues are clustered at the mountain resort known as the Alpensia Sports Park, where the main Olympic Village and the 35,000-seat, US$109 million Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - host of the opening and closing ceremonies - are both situated. Ski jumping, cross-country skiing, Nordic combined, luge, bobsleigh, skeleton, and some alpine skiing and snowboarding will all be staged at the park.

The Alpensia Sports Park, site of the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium and the Games' main Olympic Village.

Many ice events, including ice hockey - sans the stars of the National Hockey League (NHL) - curling, speed skating and figure skating, will be held inside venues located at the coastal cluster in Gangneung, around 60km east of PyeongChang, while separate standalone facilities will be used for freestyle skiing and snowboard events, and certain alpine skiing competitions. All told, the Games will feature 102 events across 15 sports, with four new disciplines in existing sports set to make their debut: big air snowboarding, mixed doubles curling, mass start speed skating, and mixed team alpine skiing.

Other key Games venues include the International Broadcast Centre (IBC), which will house more than 50 broadcasters and more than 8,000 personnel, and the Main Press Centre (MPC), the Games-time home to over 2,900 accredited media from around the world. Both opened in early January, with Pyeongchang and Gangneung's Olympic Villages officially inaugurated later in the month.

The Main Press Centre (MPC) will play host to nearly 3,000 members of the international media during the Games.

As it stands, it is not clear what will happen to many of the venues after the Games, which are taking place in one of South Korea’s poorest and least developed provinces. The main Olympic Stadium will be downsized and much of it repurposed, but mooted legacy plans for other venues - including a left field proposal to use the 8,000-seat Gangneung Oval speed skating venue as a giant seafood refrigerator - have been rejected by local officials amid ongoing wrangling over maintenance costs with the national government in Seoul. According to the Associated Press, the Gangwon provincial government will manage at least six Olympic facilities after the Games, resulting in a deficit of around US$8.5 million each year.

As in the cases of past Olympics, local authorities hope the global prestige that comes with staging the Games will help drive tourism to the region. Back in 2011, the Hyundai Research Institute, a local think tank, optimistically predicted that PyeongChang could benefit from as much as US$40 billion in tourism spending and an additional one million foreign visitors every year for the next decade thanks to the Games. However, the institute has since downgraded that projection without releasing revised figures.

Whatever happens to the Games venues, the local population should at least benefit from a new Hyundai-built, multi billion-dollar high-speed bullet train line, which has already improved access to the capital. Completed in November, the Korea Train Express (KTX) service ferries passengers between Seoul to Pyeongchang at speeds of up to 300kph, reducing what was previously a three-hour journey by road to a far shorter ride of less than two hours.

PyeongChang's 35,000-seater Olympic Stadium, pictured in September.

Geopolitical headwinds

After an IOC-sanctioned ‘ban’, announced in December, left a side door open for Russian athletes to attend this year’s Games, the reality that many of the country’s elite sportsmen and women are free to compete in PyeongChang is a sore point, to say the least.

While Russian Olympic officials have been barred from the event owing to the fallout of investigations into the country’s alleged state-sponsored doping programme - an elaborate scheme that functioned all-too-successfully at London 2012 and at the last Winter Games in Sochi in 2014 - Russia is set to send scores of athletes to South Korea after the IOC permitted those would could prove they are clean to participate as independent competitors - or ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia’ (OAR), as they will officially be known.

For observers worldwide, the entire episode has served to undermine global anti-doping efforts and the integrity of the Olympic brand itself. While the Russian anthem, flag and national team branding will not feature in the upcoming Games, it is likely that there will be nearly as many Russian athletes in Pyeongchang as there were at Sochi 2014 - or, to put it another way, the second biggest Russian continent ever to attend a Winter Games.

Each of those athletes has been subjected to an IOC vetting process, although the committee’s refusal to publish a set of eligibility criteria has been criticised by some anti-doping bodies who say it shows a lack of transparency. The IOC itself claims that more than 80 per cent of the 389 athletes invited to participate in PyeongChang did not compete at Sochi 2014, which, it argues, ‘shows that this is a new generation of Russian athletes’. Yet few are convinced that forcing athletes to wear neutral uniforms and a different logo constitutes punishment for what the IOC has described as an ‘unprecedented systematic manipulation’ of doping samples.

If the Russian doping episode has served to shine yet another negative light on the Olympic brand, the IOC itself has been at pains to showcase some of the good its cherished movement can inspire.

In recent weeks, historic plans have been put in place that will see representatives from South Korea stand side-by-side with their neighbours from North Korea at the Games. After a series of high-level talks held at the demilitarised zone that separates the two nations - the world’s most heavily fortified border, located just 50 miles from the PyeongChang site - both sides will come together in a unique demonstration of harmony and unity, all in the name of the Olympic Games.

During the opening ceremony, athletes from both Koreas will stroll through proceedings under one unified flag, marking the first time they have stood shoulder to shoulder at an international competition for 11 years. The neighbouring countries, who are still technically at war, will also unite to field a joint women’s ice hockey team for the Games, as well as collaborating in cultural events over the course of the 17-day occasion.

A North Korean delegation arrives for the Games.

At the behest of its supreme leader Kim Jong Un, the North is sending a delegation of 22 athletes to compete in five disciplines, including alpine skiing, figure skating, short-track speed skating and cross-country skiing, as well as women’s ice hockey. Under the terms of a multi-stakeholder agreement dubbed the ‘Olympic Korean Peninsula Declaration’, they will be accompanied by 24 coaches and officials, 21 media representatives, a 140-member orchestra and a cheering squad.

IOC president Thomas Bach has described the North’s participation and the apparent thawing of tensions as “a milestone in a long journey”, adding that the Games “are hopefully opening the door to a brighter future on the Korean peninsula”. Doubts remain, however: not only has the combined ice hockey team proved controversial in the South - North Korean flags and effigies of Kim Jong Un were recently burnt by protestors - but the North has also planned a major military parade for this week, delivering a show of hostility just as the global media arrives for the Games and somewhat undermining international efforts to use the event as a platform to promote peace.

A new vision for Olympic broadcasts

Dubbed the first truly digital Games ever staged - an event that will feature an array of technological advancements befitting South Korea’s reputation as a hub for innovation - PyeongChang 2018 will mark another step forward in the delivery and consumption of sport as a broadcast offering, with major networks around the world announcing plans for digitally focused coverage featuring new production techniques and replete with never-before-seen features.

In perhaps the greatest leap for Olympic broadcasting in a generation, PyeongChang 2018 will be the first Games in the life of the Olympic Channel, the IOC's youth-targeted digital over-the-top (OTT) service which launched at the conclusion of Rio 2016 and is operated by the Madrid-based Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS).

The Olympic Channel’s raison d’être is to produce and deliver Olympic programming year-round. Come Games-time, however, the channel’s staff will be working overtime, collaborating with broadcasters on the ground in PyeongChang and distributing competition and auxiliary content to social platforms like Snapchat, which has come to be seen as an important avenue through which stakeholders in the Olympic movement can reach an all-important younger demographic.

Joining the Olympic Channel for its first Games will be Eurosport parent Discovery Communications, which paid some €1.3 billion (US$1.45 billion) in 2015 to take the Olympic rights across Europe until 2024. Since signing that landmark deal, Discovery has been doing the rounds in the 50 markets covered under its agreement, securing sub-licensing tie-ups with national broadcasters or confirming coverage plans of its own.

Eurosport’s output will, however, have a heavy digital focus centred around its OTT streaming service Eurosport Player. As well as teaming up with the Olympic Channel on branded content in multiple markets, the broadcaster has also struck its own advertising and content partnership with Snap Inc to promote its Games coverage, agreed a carriage deal with Amazon, and is working with the Wasserman agency to share content across its digital channels.

A view inside The Cube, Eurosport's all-new virtual reality studio. (Credit: Getty)

In another Olympic first, Eurosport's coverage will be headlined by a new production offering called The Cube, a virtual reality (VR) studio that will use augmented reality (AR), enhanced data and 360-degree graphics to use immersive and interactive elements to help explain the subtle nuances of winter sports.

Additionally, in partnership with Publicis Media, Eurosport will introduce a first-of-its kind methodology to measure viewership and audience behaviour across all devices in each of its markets. In a move similar to the Total Audience Delivery metric developed by US network NBC, Discovery will monitor three new metrics to build a more complete picture of ‘Total Video’ viewership - or what the company has taken to calling ‘the new TV’ - across Eurosport’s free-to-air, pay-TV, online and social platforms, as well as those of all its broadcast partners.

The first of these metrics, video, will tally the total number of videos, and the total hours of video, viewed during the Games. The second, users, will represent the sum of total users accessing Olympic content, while the third metric, engagement, will show the total number of likes, shares and comments across digital and social platforms.

When it comes to broadcasting the Games, Intel Corporation, a newly minted TOP partner of the IOC, will have a central role to play, bringing its full arsenal of products, services and expertise to bear on what will be its first Olympics since becoming a worldwide sponsor in June of last year.

Besides providing technical infrastructure and supplying its 5G communications network to Games venues, Intel and its in-house production team of around 50 staff will work with major international broadcasters, including both Eurosport and NBC, to capture and deliver virtual reality (VR) coverage through the use of the company’s Intel TrueVR system, its Intel 360 Replay technology, and a fleet of drone cameras. Live feeds and archive footage of Intel’s immersive content will be stored in the cloud and distributed across VR headsets and platforms such as Google Daydream, Samsung Gear VR and Windows Mixed Reality, and through each broadcaster’s respective apps and digital offerings.

Like Eurosport, NBC has planned 50 hours of live VR coverage with the help of Intel and OBS. For the first time ever at a Winter Olympics, the network will also air primetime competition live across all US time zones via its extensive family of channels, including, in another first, Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA, a new linear TV offering established last year in collaboration with the IOC and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC).