SEOUL (AFP) – Holding the Winter Olympics 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 organisers 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 United States.
The Games have also been shorn of stars from the National Hockey League (NHL), which is snubbing the event after the International Olympic Committee refused to pay costs such as travel and insurance.
“Dark clouds are hanging over the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics,” the South’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, organisers remain defiant. Lee Hee-Beom, president of the organising 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 Yonhap news agency.
Russia’s team was barred by the IOC over a “systematic” doping conspiracy culminating at the Sochi Games, where officials are accused of secretly switching urine samples through a “mousehole” in the laboratory wall.
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, the North’s weapons tests and bellicose, sometimes personal, insults between Pyongyang and Washington have sent tensions soaring on the peninsula and the wider region.
North Korea – just 80 kilometres (50 miles) 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 characterise 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,” he added.
At least the bad news stories have meant increased attention for Pyeongchang, which was previously so obscure that it was unfamiliar even to many 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’s capital, where he was interrogated for five hours before being released.
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.”
Organisers are also upbeat about ticket sales, which have improved since the Olympic torch relay began traversing South Korea in November.
As of Sunday, 586,300 tickets out of a total 1.18 million had been sold in South Korea and abroad, organisers said, or 49.7 percent.
About half of all Olympic tickets are normally sold in the last two months and during the Games, said POCOG spokeswoman Lee Jie-Hye, so “we don’t expect any problems with meeting the target”.
Luer advised POCOG 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,” Luer added. “Their job is to host the Games, their job is not to worry about politics.”