But for a handful of votes, Pyeongchang would have hosted the Winter Olympics instead of Vancouver four years ago. Or instead of Sochi two months ago. Which is why the South Korean resort that was a two-time loser in the five-ringed race came back for a third go — because the prize was so tantalizingly within reach.
“For me, it was a very difficult moment to come back after the second loss and persuade people to go for another bid,” said organizing committee president Kim Jin Sun. “People were disappointed and let down. They were skeptical. Why do we have to bring the Games to South Korea? But we lost very closely and the IOC encouraged us to bid again.”
Koreans are nothing if not persistent, and Pyeongchang won the 2018 bid in a landslide over Munich.
After two decades in North America and Europe, it was time that the Lords of the Rings looked east again for a site for the Winter Games, to a continent that has held them only twice, both times in Japan.
Thus the “New Horizons” concept that is Pyeongchang’s theme, with the Games meant to create an upsurge of interest in snow and ice pastimes in South Korea and elsewhere in the region.
“Asia is a bit underdeveloped for winter sports when compared to other continents,” said Kim.
The evidence is in the medal table, where the Asian countries won only seven golds in Sochi, one fewer than the Dutch speedskaters. The South Koreans won three golds and only eight medals overall, six fewer than they did in 2010.
“We know it is very important to have a good Korean team,” acknowledged Kim.
That likely wouldn’t happen if the country weren’t hosting the Games. But building five ice facilities from scratch and improving the snow venues already in place will be a boon to Korea’s Winter Olympic team, which traditionally has relied upon its short-track speedskaters and one figure skating goddess for its precious metal.
After the $50 billion that Russian president Vladimir Putin spent turning summer into winter by the Black Sea, Pyeongchang’s $9 billion price tag, which includes infrastracture improvements like a high-speed railway, is a relative pittance.
“Sochi had a large cost because they had to build a lot of facilities,” observed Kim. “For Pyeongchang, we already have started with many existing facilities. That is why it will cost less than Sochi.”
Like Sochi, Pyeongchang will have both coastal and mountain venue clusters. Unlike Sochi, the mountains will be the centerpiece, with the Olympic Park at Hoenggye serving as the site of the temporary 50,000-seat stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies.
The coastal cluster will be in Gangneung, a city of 230,000 that is 105 miles east of Seoul and a half-hour’s drive from the mountains. Except for the 3,500-seat curling arena that hosted the 2009 women’s world championships, all of the indoor ice venues are being built from the ground up.
They include two hockey arenas — the $73 million, 10,000-seat Union Hockey Center that later will be dismantled and moved to Wonju, the province’s largest city, and the 6,000-seat Kwandong University Arena — plus the $85 million, 12,000-seat Gyeongpo Ice Hall for figure skating and short-track speedskating and the 8,000-seat Gangneung Sports Complex for long-track.
While Pyeongchang is significantly ahead of where Sochi was four years ago, its organizing committee still sent more than 200 officials to last month’s Games to observe day-to-day operations.
“We are learning a lot because this is our last chance to learn on-site,” said Kim. “We focused on the functional aspect, learning how the Games can be delivered in a more accurate, convenient, and prompt manner.”
If the superb Summer Olympics that Seoul staged in 1988 are any guide, Pyeongchang will produce an exceptional winter version — modern, compact, solvent, and green — much as Lillehammer did in 1994. The eight years of deferred gratification probably were a blessing since South Korea now is better positioned on the world stage and Pyeongchang is much better known than it was in 2003 when the 2010 Games were awarded.
Pyeongchang then was in an impossible position in the wake of the Salt Lake City bidding scandal, since IOC members were forbidden to visit contending cities that again might be tempted to bribe them.
Vancouver and Salzburg, Austria (Mozart’s hometown), needed no GPS for the voters. Pyeongchang was such a remote locale that then-IOC president Jacques Rogge reckoned it would be fortunate to get 15 votes.
Thanks to relentless lobbying that some Olympic insiders felt went beyond the limits, Pyeongchang came within three votes of winning on the first ballot and lost by that many to favored Vancouver on the second. Had Putin not turned up in Guatemala City in 2007 and promised that he would create a winter wonderland where Stalin and his pallid comrades used to sun themselves, Pyeongchang would have been tapped for 2014.
The third time was all but a walkover, a 63-25 count that affirmed the obvious. The Winter Games, which were held in Sapporo in 1972 and in Nagano in 1998, belonged in Asia.
The Olympics have been tilting eastward ever since Beijing played host to the Summer Games in 2008. After Pyeongchang, the 2020 Summer Games will be held in Tokyo, and two Asian bidders — Beijing/Zhangjiakou and Almaty, Kazakhstan — are in the mix for the 2022 Winter Games.
For the Koreans, Pyeongchang will not be so much a coming-out party as Seoul was, but more a ratification that their homeland now plays in the major leagues.
“Thirty years ago, the world was seeing a developing nation,” said Kim, the former governor of Gangwon, the nation’s wintry province that will be at the heart of the Games. “One generation later, the world will be able to see a truly developed nation.”