Here We Go Again

The South Korea Olympics will kick off one year today. Will they face the same popular resistance as Rio?

Korean athletes competing in the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. The Korean Olympic Committee

One year today, the 2018 Winter Olympics will kick off in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Because of the spy-novel-worthy Russian doping scandal and the full-throttle debacle known as the Rio Olympics, South Korea’s preparations for the games have stayed quietly under the radar.

Despite the media silence, these Olympics — like all Olympics — ripple with difficulties.

Some of these stem from the games’ bankrupt business model. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules a post-fact universe, free from accountability. Host cities, forced to import this fantasyland, inevitably discover that they have over-promised and under-delivered.

After the Rio Olympics, IOC president Thomas Bach heralded the event as an economic success. He claimed that 2016 proved that “the financial model of the Olympic Games” could withstand an economic “stress test” and come out fine in the end.

Never mind that Rio’s citizens were left with stadiums they don’t want, a golf course few use, and filthy waterways the Olympics had promised to clean up. Even the hallowed Maracanã soccer stadium has fallen into disrepair — the pitch looks like a dog’s mange, looters have pilfered the copper wiring from the ceilings and walls, and, after months of unpaid bills, the electricity was shut off.

Despite the IOC’s pro-Olympic propaganda, the world is beginning to wise up. The games simply do not bring the economic boom that the five-ring honchos have long promised. In fact, since 1960, every single Olympics with reliable data has gone over budget by an average of 156 percent.

Pyeongchang won’t break this streak. Bidders originally pegged the event’s operational costs at $1.5 billion with an additional — and a suspiciously vague — $2 to $6 billion budget for infrastructure. Now, estimates have essentially doubled, bringing the projected price tag to around $13 billion.

Compared to the Sochi Olympics, where costs catapulted from $12 billion to more than $50 billion, this may seem trivial. But it’s still a lot of money — far more than initially planned — that could be used differently.

Alongside escalating costs, greenwashing has become a modern Olympic tradition. IOC officials have long trotted out grand promises about the games’ environmental legacy, but Rio 2016 should have convinced them to stop. Even Kahena Kunze, Brazil’s gold-medal winner in sailing, couldn’t help but lament the environmental failures: “Rio de Janeiro is wonderful and we are all enjoying it,” she said, “but imagine if the water were clean.”

If the 2016 games made a mockery of Olympic-style sustainability, the next ones won’t restore its credibility. To make way for a ski run, organizers clear-cut 58,000 trees from an ancient forest on Mount Gariwang, a conservation area home to rare species like the yew tree and the wangsasre tree, the latter of which only exists on the Korean peninsula.

Further, the Guardian reported that “protected species such as the flying squirrel and the lynx, as well as endangered species of plants and birds” inhabit the area. Many South Koreans consider the five-century-old tree stand sacred thanks to its cultural and historic ties to the Chosun dynasty, which dubbed it a “royal, forbidden mountain.”

Olympic organizers have vowed to replant the trees, as if mono-cropped saplings are equivalent to an old-growth landscape thrumming with biodiversity. A coalition of international environmental organizations has teamed up with local groups to protest the deforestation. Simone Lovera, executive director of the Global Forest Coalition, stated:

The forests on Mount Gariwang are not restorable to their original state because they are composed of an intrinsically balanced mixture of tens of different temperate broad leaf and coniferous tree species.

Activists are also worried about what will happen to multi-million-dollar venues for relatively obscure sports like bobsled, luge, and skeleton. Maintaining these venues represents a significant investment that’s typically not included in public estimates. All too often, once the spectacle has zipped off to the next location, taxpayers in host cities shoulder these costs.

Prospects for Protest

While budget overruns and environmental destruction accompany every Olympic games, the political climate in South Korea is adding a new layer to the preparations. If the protesters who took to the streets in record numbers in December join with the environmental activists to oppose the Olympic games, the IOC could face real resistance.

From the beginning, the local Olympic leadership has been a revolving door. During the bid phase, when South Korea was duking it out with Germany and France, four members of the South Korean bid team were convicted on charges of political corruption and financial misconduct. Last year, the situation had deteriorated so much that the government instituted a “corruption vaccination” program to scrutinize Olympic spending.

The country has been rocked by a broader political scandal as well. Last December, the Korean National Assembly voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye on accusations that she conspired with her confidante, Choi Soon-sil, to blackmail a staggering array of political players. Choi — a mysterious billionaire whose father, Choi Tae-min, once ran a prominent cult — has allegedly orchestrated a number of quid-pro-quo escapades on behalf of the president.

They are accused of extorting more than $69 million from fifty-plus companies, funneling the money into two foundations Choi managed. The complex bribery network allegedly paid out in valuable licenses for duty-free businesses and even presidential pardons. The ruling on Choi-gate could come as late as June.

The political fallout has even reached Olympic athletes. South Korean figure-skating icon Kim Yu-na — who won one gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and may eventually be awarded another for her Sochi 2014 performance after the doping investigation concludes — caused a stir when she refused to hold President Park’s hand at a Liberation Day event. In retribution, Choi allegedly worked behind the scenes to strip Yu-na of the “Best New Athlete” award.

Meanwhile, Olympic swimmer Park Tae-hwan has claimed that a Kim Chong, a senior administrator in the sports ministry, tried to blackmail him into not competing at Rio 2016. Kim’s ties to Choi and President Park have further enveloped him in the scandal.

Then there’s Samsung, whose problems go beyond its exploding smartphone. Last month Chairman Lee Jae-yong was served an arrest warrant for bribery, embezzlement, and perjury. Prosecutors accuse him of giving more than $35 million to two of Choi’s foundations, including $6 million to fund equestrian training for athletes that include Choi’s daughter. The donations allegedly bought a merger involving Samsung and Cheil Industries Inc.

Samsung is also fully integrated in the Olympic machine. The company is a longtime sponsor, a “Worldwide Olympic Partner” that signed on back in 1988 when South Korea hosted the Summer Games in Seoul. This saga highlights the inordinate power and privilege enjoyed by the country’s chaebols — commanding, family-owned conglomerates that drive South Korea’s economy.

This influence-peddling scandal sparked massive popular resistance. In late 2016, protesters hit the streets week after week in record numbers, with millions demanding that the conservative president Park Geun-hye step down. This activist undertow could bode well for those keen to challenge the Pyeongchang Olympics. Thus far we’ve seen only fleeting Olympics dissent, but if organizers tap into the public’s anger, they could expand their numbers exponentially.

If they do, it will represent a major change in public opinion. In 2011, when the IOC picked Pyeongchang over Munich and Annency, Korea exploded in excitement. Hundreds congregated at a ski jump in Pyeongchang to celebrate, feeling that, after unsuccessful bids for the 2010 and 2014 games, they were due. IOC president Jacques Rogge acknowledged this, saying that “patience and perseverance were rewarded. I am sure we will have great success” at Pyeongchang.

With only one more year to prepare, such success is in serious doubt.