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Korea’s Winter Wonderland Overjoyed At Prospect of Hosting 2018 Olympics

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

The crowds watching the news at twenty minutes after midnight in the heart of South Korea's "snow country" exploded in cheers and tears like a fizzy blast of champagne bursting from a freshly uncorked bottle. "I had to cry when I heard," said Koh Seung-hee in the lobby of a luxury hotel in South Korea's winter wonderland. "We have been waiting so long."

All the waiting reached a crescendo very early in the morning of July 7 when the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, after the vote by the IOC in Durban, South Africa, held up a paper with the single word, "Pyeongchang."

The partying extended from the base of the long-jump slope in Pyeongchang's Alpensia resort to the town square in the center of the district of hills and valleys about three hours east of Seoul. The sense of quick relief from all the built-up tension mingled with the wild anticipation of Korea finally hosting the Winter Olympics nearly seven years from now after having lost out on two previous bids.

"All people in Korea want to hold the winter Olympics in Korea," said Chang Ju-ree, who runs a small hotel with her husband, Kim Yong-tae, a short drive from the Alpensia resort, past verdant golf courses and ski slopes. More than national pride infuses the 46,000 or so people in the towns and villages nestled in the hills here as they anticipate a steady rise in business during the run-up to the Olympics. "Everyone is so very glad," said Chang. "This can be a good opportunity. We are going to open a restaurant on the first floor of our hotel. We want to offer rental of skis and snow boards - and maybe karaoke."

Husband Kim Yong-tae sees the Winter Olympics as reversing setbacks in the past few years which have occurred amid economic hard times and concerns that maybe the games would never come here. "Development has been slowing down," he said. "Now it should grow more and more. I expect big business from this year." The name of the hotel, he and his wife point out, is Green and Blue, green for the surrounding countryside, blue for the sea, another twenty miles or so to the east where the plan is to build six ice rinks in the port city of Gangneung for the Olympic ice sports -- figure skating, hockey and curling.

Just maybe, Kim observed happily, the prospect of an Olympic bonanza will lure one of the big foreign hotel chains into a joint venture with his establishment, funding expansion as a sure investment in a region that yearns for recognition as a major destination for winter sports enthusiasts from Asia as well as the U.S. and Europe.

That kind of incentive on a micro level permeates the dreams of Korea's leaders, politicos and businesspeople for turning the 2018 Winter Olympics into the basis for several billion dollars worth of investment in a region where some of the Korean War's bloodiest battles were fought some 60 years ago. Among the costliest schemes will be construction of a high-speed railroad, piercing the mountains with long tunnels, and linking the capital to the east coast in an engineering feat that should reduce the time it takes to get to Pyeongchang from Seoul to less than an hour. That's all in the vision of South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak, the conservative who rose to power from his corporate origins as the spear-carrying chairman of Hyundai Engineering and Construction Co., the original "mother company" of the Hyundai empire.

President Lee, his popularity dwindling amid upwards of 20 percent unemployment among Korea's restive youth in the 20-to-30-year-old age bracket, personally ordered the full-scale offensive. He clearly believed he needed to wrest the winter games into Korea's possession after failures in the last two attempts, first when Vancouver got it for the 2010 games and then in a near-miss to the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi, host of the 2014 games. In that spirit Lee led a delegation of several hundred aides and businesspeople to Durban, all of them delegated to buttonholing specific contacts, talking them into the need to bring the Winter Olympics to "new horizons." That phrase is now the slogan for the games, which will be the first Winter Olympics ever held in any Asian country besides Japan, which hosted them in Sapporo in 1972 and in Nagano, in the Japanese Alps, in 1998.

A stern taskmaster, Lee smiled publicly while driving his aides to distraction in the final days, hours and minutes before the voting by most of the 106 members of the International Olympics Committee. He was hardest on himself, rehearsing again and again for his final plea in Durban. "There should be no mistake until the end," he was quoted by Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, as telling aides. "Sincerity moves heaven. Let's move heaven."

One sure vote was that of Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, South Korea's wealthiest man. As a member of the IOC, Chairman Lee was frequently seen at President Lee's side. His influence is assumed to have won widespread support among representatives of companies with which Samsung, by far Korea's biggest conglomerate, or chaebol, does business. In the end, of course, the Korean machine did so remarkably well that the final tally was basically no contest. Pyeongchang got 63 votes against 25 for Munich, seen until the final days as almost an even contender, while Annecy in France, never really viewed as a threat, won only 7.

The third time was a charm, it seemed, for a district that's emerged over the past generation as a serious destination for winter sports lovers. For the people of Pyeongchang, the joy of success in competition with bids from two of winter sports' primary destinations, Germany and France, was proof of their own importance in a society driven to prove it's up there with the big powers of western Europe and Asia. Now people are talking about all they will do to prepare for the influx of visitors before the games begin nearly seven years hence. "We will welcome foreigners like members of our family," said one woman. "We will make Pyeongchang a city of which we can be proud.

Just what kind of welcome foreigners will really get, of course, is not clear. An American schoolteacher from Kansas, whom I met in a coffee shop the morning after the great victory celebrations, said she rarely communicates with anyone outside the two schools where she's been teaching for the past year. She does ski, she told me, but chooses to spend winter weekends among the bright lights of Seoul, a three-hour bus ride to the west, rather than take to the nearby slopes, where she's never ventured. Next year, she adds, she's looking forward to teaching in a much larger city where "at least there's something to do."

For Pyeongchang, the most intimidating visitors are likely to be not so much the foreigners as the thousands of officials, businesspeople, and entrepreneurs. They've been descending on the area for years, building venues and accommodations to the point at which Pyeongchang could successfully compete against Germany's Munich and Annecy in France. Now they'll be coming in still larger numbers as construction of facilities for athletes and visitors begins to surge in a frenzy of nationalist and cultural pride.

For a country that's constantly comparing itself with long established global powers in a game of rankings, whether it comes to gross domestic product or exports or academic achievement, the selection of Pyeongchang was an ultimate accolade. The final test of success, however, will be whether Pyeongchang can emerge as a major winter sports destination not just for Koreans but for foreigners, who rarely make it their first choice over just about anywhere else from North America to Europe.

Kim Yeon-ho, owner of a construction company, asked foreigners, "Please give us your support," as Pyeongchang began to prepare for its place in Olympic history. In the end, the emotional drive, the national desire to prove Korea's standing as a global power, made the difference. "We're so happy. We've been preparing for this for ten years," said Cho Yang-ho, talking on Korean TV networks in Durban. "The biggest factor is each and every citizen gave us support, so I didn't feel it was so difficult. I never felt pessimistic about anything." Soh Min-kyung, who runs a restaurant, spoke of how sad it would have been to lose the bid. "It would be bad for Korea, bad for Koreans," she said. "This is a great thing. All Koreans are extremely happy."

If Koreans can unite in pride over the choice of Pyeongchang, however, they're still too deeply divided as to imagine that the 2018 Winter Olympics will have much to do with covering the fissures in Korean society. President Lee faces rising discontent over policies that favor the chaebol while the opposition Democratic Party exploits such issues as student protests against tuition and the intractable problem of unemployment among young people in the run-up to the next presidential election in December 2012. Lee, under Korea's "Democracy Constitution," in force since massive protests shook the regime in June 1987, cannot run for a second five-year term but would love another conservative to pick up the baton. The leader of the Democratic Party may not have real answers for unemployment, but is sure to demand resumption of talks with North Korea, which do not appear likely until Lee steps down in early 2013.

For now, however, that kind of politicking appears distant if not irrelevant in the outburst of unadulterated joy over getting the 2018 Winter Games. The responses among Koreans were universal: "A dream come true," "I'm so happy," were on everyone's lips -- other than, "I'm speechless," the words of those to whom "a dream" hardly seemed strong enough to convey the emotions of the moment.

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