August 17, 2018

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Opinion

Winning Olympic bid a pyrrhic victory for Pyeongchang

David J. Phillip / Pool / The Associated Press</p><p>North Korea's Jong Su Hyon, left, and South Korea's Park Jong-ah carry the torch during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday.</p>

David J. Phillip / Pool / The Associated Press

North Korea's Jong Su Hyon, left, and South Korea's Park Jong-ah carry the torch during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/2/2018 (189 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

PYEONGCHANG — The appalling thing isn’t that the brand new $100-million stadium that hosted the Opening Ceremonies here Friday night (Korea time) will be torn down immediately following these Winter Olympics.

The appalling thing isn’t even that the IOC forced Pyeongchang organizers to build that completely unnecessary 35,000-seat stadium in a community of 40,000, even though the locals had a viable plan that would have seen the opening ceremonies held instead at the spectacular Alpensia ski-jumping venue, which towers over this picturesque mountain village. The final torch bearer? There was talk of a ski jumper flying into the stadium, flame held high.

(I’d pay to watch that, and I got in for free here Friday night as South Korea welcomed the world — and neighbour North Korea — to a Games that has already put the winter back into the Winter Olympics with the coldest temperatures since Lillehammer in 1994.)

No, what’s most appalling is that in tearing down their shiny new Olympic stadium immediately following the Games, a non-existent stadium will become the most financially responsible thing organizers did in a Games that the regional Gangwon government — which is footing the bill for these Games, unlike Seoul in 1988, which was paid for by the South Korea feds — is going to be paying down for decades to come.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/2/2018 (189 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

PYEONGCHANG — The appalling thing isn’t that the brand new $100-million stadium that hosted the Opening Ceremonies here Friday night (Korea time) will be torn down immediately following these Winter Olympics.

The appalling thing isn’t even that the IOC forced Pyeongchang organizers to build that completely unnecessary 35,000-seat stadium in a community of 40,000, even though the locals had a viable plan that would have seen the opening ceremonies held instead at the spectacular Alpensia ski-jumping venue, which towers over this picturesque mountain village. The final torch bearer? There was talk of a ski jumper flying into the stadium, flame held high.

(I’d pay to watch that, and I got in for free here Friday night as South Korea welcomed the world — and neighbour North Korea — to a Games that has already put the winter back into the Winter Olympics with the coldest temperatures since Lillehammer in 1994.)

No, what’s most appalling is that in tearing down their shiny new Olympic stadium immediately following the Games, a non-existent stadium will become the most financially responsible thing organizers did in a Games that the regional Gangwon government — which is footing the bill for these Games, unlike Seoul in 1988, which was paid for by the South Korea feds — is going to be paying down for decades to come.

A non-existent new stadium and a total price tag of $12.9 billion — all of that for a legacy that sounds like it will soon be, like the stadium, non-existent.

The downhill ski run will be demolished after these Games and allowed to return to its natural state. Plans to turn the 8,000-seat speedskating oval built for these Games into a refrigerated seafood warehouse — yes, I’m serious — have fallen apart, probably because those plans were comically ridiculous in the first place. Also now fallen through was a plan to have a local hockey team take over as the main tenant of the new 10,000-seat Gangneung Hockey Centre.

Just maintaining the oval, hockey rink, ski jumping venue and bobsled track will cost local taxpayers about $10 million a year, according to one estimate. And again — that’s just to keep them empty, which they will in all likelihood be.

It’s all such a white elephant fiasco that even the IOC warned Pyeongchang organizers, following a final inspection last August, that they needed a better plan if they were going to create any kind of lasting legacy out of hosting these Olympics.

You know you’re in trouble when the notoriously bloated IOC tells you that you’re being wasteful.

They say you should be careful what you wish for. Sadly, no one told Pyeongchang and Gangneung, small sister cities just 50 km apart who are co-hosting these Games in a region that is otherwise Korea’s poorest.

So badly did the locals want their little unknown jewel to join the big time that they actually changed the spelling of Pyeongchang back in 2000, believing that what was holding them back to that point was that too many people were confusing them with Pyongyang, the notorious capital of North Korea.

So locals — you cannot make this stuff up — added the "e" and then capitalized the "c" to PyeongChang, although most news organizations still ignore the new capital letter.

Armed with a shiny new name, those locals went aggressively hard in pursuit of the Winter Olympics, losing bids for the 2010 Games to Vancouver and 2014 Games to Sochi before "winning" — I’m totally confident that’s not the correct word — the right to host these 2018 Games.

To be sure, the locals here had enablers along the way. Back in 2009, former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak pardoned Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee for embezzlement and tax evasion, expressly so the influential billionaire could get back to the work of lobbying the IOC to award the Games to Korea.

They say the normally stoic Kun-hee openly wept the day in 2011 that Pyeongchang was awarded the 2018 Games. The locals here have been weeping ever since.

The good news in all this is that while Friday night’s lighting of the cauldron officially opened the 2018 Winter Olympics, it also signalled a last rites of sorts for the kind of Olympic excess and waste that have been saddling host cities with huge debt for decades.

The days of the IOC bending over host cities like Pyeongchang are finished simply because the list of host cities willing to bend over for the privilege of going billions of dollars into debt basically consists these days of no one other than Almaty, Kazakhstan.

From Boston to Oslo, taxpayers have revolted in recent years over plans to host Winter or Summer Games, in the process forcing craven politicians to abandon their bids.

It’s gotten so bad, the IOC was basically forced to hand Beijing the 2022 Winter Games just 14 years after they hosted the 2008 Summer Games because no one else viable — Almaty, Kazakhstan is not viable — wanted anything to do with it.

The Beijing bid is instructive on how completely local organizers have now turned the tables on the IOC when it comes to hosting the Games.

Ahn Young-joon / The Associated Press Files</p><p>Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium in December 2017.The stadium will be demolished after the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.</p>

Ahn Young-joon / The Associated Press Files

Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium in December 2017.The stadium will be demolished after the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.

Whereas the IOC forced Pyeongchang to build a stadium that will be used the grand total of four times before its torn down — the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of both these Games and the Paralympics — the same IOC was grateful to accept even a bargain bid from Beijing for 2022 that will see Chinese organizers repurpose 2008 Summer Olympic venues in some creative — and questionable — ways.

The curling venue in Beijing, for instance, will be held at the Water Cube, which hosted the swimming events in 2008. So how do you turn a swimming pool into a curling venue? Creative scaffolding, an imported refrigeration system and a lot of crossed fingers, I’m told.

And then there’s Calgary, who presently have the IOC bent over as the latter searches for any place that isn’t Almaty, Kazakhstan to host the 2026 Winter Games.

So desperate is the IOC right now that during a visit to Calgary last month they informed the local bid committee that yes, actually, the existing Saddledome will do just fine as an Olympic venue. All of which is, of course, precisely the opposite of what the Calgary Flames and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman have been saying about that building.

Maybe when they take apart the stadium here, they could ship it to Calgary? Add a couple thousand sheets of OSB and shingles for a roof and you’d have a place almost as nice as the current Saddledome, which is to say, not very.

As for mountain events in 2026, the IOC told Calgary they can put them in Whistler, which still has some shiny venues left over from the 2010 Vancouver Games.

The small complication, of course, is that Whistler is 900 km from Calgary. Small potatoes, says today’s suddenly cooperative IOC.

You get the idea the IOC isn’t going to take no for an answer and sooner or later are going to offer Calgary a deal so sweet they will be unable to turn down the 2026 Games. God help us.

By the time this negotiation is over, Calgary is going to be able to host the opening in a broom closet if they want to and the IOC isn’t going to be able to do a damn thing about it.

And Pyeongchang? Their legacy will be an empty lot where their Olympic stadium stood Friday night. And, also, that extra "e."

email: paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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