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Looking ahead 2018

Pyeongchang Winter Olympics face uphill battle for success

Outlook clouded by North Korean belligerence and Chinese ban on tour groups

There will be much pressure on South Korea's Olympic medal hopefuls such as short-track skaters Shim Suk-hee, left, and Choi Min-jeong, right.   © Reuters

The 1988 Seoul Olympic Games marked a successful coming-out party for newly democratic South Korea, even though they are largely remembered for the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson's victory in the men's 100m race before testing positive for drugs.

With just a few weeks to go before the Feb. 9 start of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the hosts face all the usual concerns, such as ticket sales, accommodation and national medal targets. But some of their worries are uniquely South Korean.

Pyeongchang, located around 130km east of Seoul, in mountainous Gangwon Province, has done all it can to prepare for the games. The venues were completed in October, and the athletes' living quarters in December -- giving the organizers the kind of breathing space that was sorely lacking at the 2014 winter games in Sochi, Russia, where officials were scrambling to get ready until the last minute.

On Dec. 22, a new high-speed rail link with Seoul opened to the public. Trains now complete the journey from the capital to Pyeongchang in just 67 minutes, compared with around three hours previously. The rail link should also provide a lasting legacy for one of the least developed areas of South Korea.

With residents of Seoul and the surrounding metropolitan area now able to visit and return on the same day, ticket sales, which started slowly, should pick up. Organizers are confident of reaching at least 90% of the sales target of 1.06 million.

A big question will be how many visitors from China will attend the games. Chinese arrivals in South Korea were down 50% in the first 10 months of 2017, in part because of a ban on group trips imposed by Beijing following Seoul's deployment of a U.S. anti-missile system earlier in the year.

South Korean press reports after conciliatory talks in November indicated that groups from the Chinese capital and a province close to North Korea would be allowed to travel, but further reports on Dec. 20 said that Beijing would keep a full ban in place for the time being. Seoul is allowing Chinese tourists to travel without visas through March.

As so often, the biggest problem is North Korea, which is casting a long shadow over the games. Relations on the Korean Peninsula are as chilly as a February evening in the cross-border Taebeak mountains following Pyongyang's 2017 missile and nuclear tests and exchanges of insults with the U.S., Seoul's most powerful ally.

International headlines about tensions on the peninsula may discourage foreign tourists, as may forecasts that the opening ceremony could be the coldest on record, sparking concerns about hypothermia: The organizers saved money by deciding not to put a roof on the main stadium.

Dreams of peace

The two Koreas marching together in the opening ceremony would have warmed hearts. This happened at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, but the prospect of a repetition on Korean soil would have given the games a chance to capture the world's imagination. Those dreams have long dissipated.

Pyeongchang organizers hoped that North Korea would at least agree to send some athletes, as it did during the 2003 Summer Universiade, held in Daegu, South Korea. That would have helped to ease worries about tensions on the peninsula, and would have given the games a powerful legacy -- especially as Gangwon is the only province that straddles the two Koreas, technically still at war after the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. However, that is not going to happen, either.

South Korean sports officials are accustomed to dealing with awkward questions about their neighbor (and not averse to using the prospect of bringing peace to the peninsula as a carrot when bidding for international events). But the recent heightening of tensions and rhetoric has already caused headaches.

In early December, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the participation of U.S. athletes in Pyeongchang was an "open question." A South Korean government official was quick to deny that the U.S. would pull out, but Haley's statement added to pre-tournament stresses, as did the International Olympic Committee's Dec. 5 ban on Russia for engaging in systematic doping at previous events.

Even without Russia, however, 93 nations have registered for the 2018 Olympics, compared with 85 at Sochi, making Pyeongchang the biggest-ever Winter Games. Russia's absence will also make it a little easier for South Korea to meet its target of 20 medals, including eight golds.

The host country also wants a top-four finish in the medals table for the first time. This is an optimistic target for a nation that finished 13th in 2014, with a total of eight medals. Much will depend on the short-track speed skating event, in which South Korea excels. There will be pressure on skaters such as Shim Suk-hee and Choi Min-jeong.

As for foreign competitors, the biggest name is Lindsey Vonn, who won gold for the U.S. at the 2010 games in the downhill skiing event. Mai Mihara, Japan's figure-skating star, will also have a real chance of gold in the arena in Gangwon's Gangneung city, where she won the 2017 Four Continents Figure Skating Championship in February.

A successful performance by Asian athletes would help the 2018 Winter Olympics achieve at least one of its goals -- to make Gangwon Province a new hub for winter sports in East Asia. There is still hope that South Koreans will become inspired by the event, and that foreign visitors, especially from China, will see the region as a place to which they want to return.

However, bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula is beyond the reach of these games. The best that can be hoped for is that the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are remembered for what happens on the piste and on the rinks, and not for the knock-on effects of regional political divisions.

John Duerden is a Seoul-based sportswriter who contributes to the Nikkei Asian Review and other international media.

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