‘Darkness before dawn’

Source:AFP Published: 2017/12/14 23:52:11

Nukes, Russia ban leave Winter Olympic Games reeling

Former South Korean table tennis star Ryu Seung-min carries the Olympic torch as he hangs from a wire during the Olympic torch relay in Incheon, South Korea on November 1. Photo: IC

Holding the Winter Olympic Games in a little-known corner of South Korea was never an easy proposition, but a ban on Russia and the latent threat of nuclear war have left the hosts hoping that things can only get better.

With less than two months to go, a flurry of problems beyond their control have created a perfect storm for Pyeongchang Olympics organizers as they gear up for the Games at their mountainside HQ.

Not only has Russia, the top medal-winner at the 2014 Sochi Games, been barred over a major drugs scandal, but North Korea has staged a series of nuclear and missile tests while trading threats of war with the US.

The Games has also been shorn of stars from the National Hockey League, which is snubbing the event after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to pay costs such as travel and insurance.

"Dark clouds are hanging over the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics," South Korea's own JoongAng Daily said in an editorial this week.

Public enthusiasm appears limited in the host country, where Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon warned that another North Korean military provocation could deliver a "fatal blow" to the Games.

But as the problems mount, organizers remain defiant. Lee Hee-beom, president of the organizing committee, told AFP, "Minister Cho has gone beyond his brief. I find it regrettable. Sport must be separated from politics."

South Korean President Moon Jae-in lamented that cross-border ­tensions were "higher than ever" before the Games - but hoped it was like "the darkness before dawn."

"It will be resolved in the end and this is only a matter of time," he added according to the Yonhap News Agency.

Personal insults

Russia was barred by the IOC over a "systematic" doping conspiracy culminating at the Sochi Winter Games in 2014, where officials are accused of secretly switching urine samples through a "mousehole" in the laboratory wall.

Russian President Vladimir Putin protested the ban as "political" but said he had no intention of calling a boycott, leaving clean Russian athletes free to compete under the Olympic flag.

Meanwhile, North Korea's weapons tests and bellicose, sometimes personal, insults between Pyongyang and Washington have sent tensions soaring on the peninsula and in the wider region.

North Korea - just 80 kilometers away from the venues across a heavily armed border - boycotted the 1988 Seoul Summer Games and is yet to confirm its participation in Pyeongchang.

It has not helped efforts to characterize the Games as a "Peace Olympics."

"The double whammy - North Korea and the IOC ban on Russia - dealt telling blows to our efforts to make the Games a success. But these are beyond our control," said Yoo Jong-sang, a professor of sports studies at Nambu University in Gwangju.

"As to these outside factors, we have nothing to do but cross our fingers."

At least the bad news stories have meant increased attention for Pyeongchang, which was previously so obscure that it was unfamiliar even to many South Koreans.

Its name can also be confused with Pyongyang, so much so that a Kenyan delegate to a 2014 UN conference in Pyeongchang mistakenly flew to the North Korean capital, where he was interrogated for five hours before being released.

Keep calm and focus

According to Marcus Luer, CEO of Malaysia-based sports marketing agency Total Sports Asia, "No publicity is the only bad publicity" for Pyeongchang.

Any major sporting event usually has "some controversial thing going on prior to it," he added.

"It comes with the territory. These events are so large, a lot of money is at stake, the world is watching... Once the Games are happening, assuming nothing crazy happens, the focus will be on the Games."

Organizers are also upbeat about ticket sales, which have improved  since the Olympic torch relay began traversing South Korea in November.

As of December 10, 586,300 tickets out of a total 1.18 million had been sold in South Korea and abroad, organizers said, or 49.7 percent.

About half of all Olympic tickets are normally sold in the last two months and during the Games, said Pyeongchang organizing committee spokeswoman Lee Jie-hye, so "we don't expect any problems with meeting the target."

Luer advised the organizing committee to focus on the job at hand, and not be distracted by events swirling around the Games.

"At the moment, they just have to stay calm, focus on what they need to be doing and that is running the perfect Games. That is all they can do," he said. "What happens prior to that around the world is really out of their control."


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