The Opening Ceremony for the PyeongChang Olympics is just hours away. As you might have heard, this edition of the Winter Games is being held less than 50 miles from the North Korea border, a country ruled by a man with a nuclear button.
While I’m not going to say you should ignore that fact, I will say that it shouldn’t necessarily be at the top of your worry list. After all, unlike back in 1988 — when North Korea boycotted the summer Olympics in Seoul and bombed a South Korea passenger plane, killing 115 people, in an attempt to derail the games and — North Korea has shown no desire to disrupt these games with terrorism.
But, that doesn’t mean everything is fine and dandy in PyeongChang.
Far from it. The truth is, like pretty much every other Olympics in modern history, the PyeongChang games are poised to leave behind a legacy of debt, displacement, and environmental damage which will impact the South Korean province for decades to come.
When PyeongChang submitted its bid for the Olympics, it estimated a budget of approximately $7 billion. The final tally for this games is looking more like $13 billion, and they’re not done yet. That’s particularly worrisome considering the Gangwon province, where PyeongChang is located, is one of the poorest provinces in South Korea. (Gangneung, a seaside city near PyeongChang that will host the skating and hockey events, is also located in Gangwon.)
Rachael Joo, an Associate Professor of American Studies at Middlebury College and author of the upcoming book, Competing Visions: Media Sport and Transnational Koreas, told ThinkProgress that she’s not surprised the event has gone so far over budget.
“When I went [to visit South Korea in the summer of 2017], hardly anything was done. I knew there was going to be a lot of money thrown at a lot of places in the interest of getting it done,” Joo said.
Getting the Olympics ready for the athletes to arrive isn’t the only reason organizers have been scrambling; they’re also still trying to figure out what to do with all of these facilities after everyone leaves in a few weeks. After all, it’s going to be hard to find a good use for the brand new $109 million, 35,000-seat OIympic Arena in PyeongChang after the Olympics, considering there are only 40,000 residents in the province. While the PyeongChang 2018 Committee told ThinkProgress that all of the facilities for the Olympics will be “reconfigured” or “restructured” so as to remain in use, the Associated Press reported in December that the Olympic Stadium and other facilities will be torn down immediately after the Games. It seems like the only certainty right now is that the Olympic skating arena will not, in fact, be turned into a giant seafood freezer.
It’s incredibly common for Olympic host cities to be stranded with massive, empty venues they have no use for after the Olympic torch is extinguished. It’s also incredibly common for those cities to be left in debt, without experiencing the economic boon that Olympic organizers promised.
With ticket sales below projections, and many of the Olympic attractions taking place in Gangneung, Mic reports that many small business owners in PyeongChang are already skeptical that they will see any economic benefit from the Winter Games at all. Reports estimate that already-struggling Gangwon will incur an $8.5 million deficit each year to upkeep unused facilities — a number that some consider to be conservative, since it estimates that there will be a measurable tourism boost after the games, which is far from a guarantee. The Gangwon province is still trying to convince the national government to pay to maintain these facilities going forward, but officials in Seoul have not agreed to this so far.
According to Joo, this is ultimately a debt that will impact all South Koreans.
“There’s no way the province will be able to repay, so it will be a national issue in terms of who is going to pay after the Olympics are over,” she said.
The lasting damage in Pyeongchang will not just be economic. The International Olympic Committee mandated that PyeongChang should be a “Green Olympics” focused on sustainability. However, in order to build some of the ski slopes for the Alpine Skiing events, Olympic organizers destroyed a portion of Mt. Gariwang, the location of a 500-year old ancient forest that is considered sacred in South Korea and is the home to four threatened species. As reported by the Guardian, the mountain was designated a national protected forest in 2008, but that designation was lifted in 2013 for the Olympics construction. (It is common across the globe for environmental protections to be lifted when mega sporting events are entered into the picture.)
“It feels very violent in terms of the reshaping of landscapes, and it’s doubtful these facilities will be used again,” Joo said.
There were approximately 58,000 trees removed for the project, and Olympic organizers have only committed to replanting 1,000 of them.
Additionally, Joo says that many residents — primarily small farmers — were permanently displaced due to the Olympics preparations, while others were merely forced to sell parts of their land to the government at below-market rates. She says that many in charge consider that displacement an “acceptable sacrifice for development.”
If that’s not enough, the so-called “Peace Games” have begun with a Norovirus outbreak.
Let the games begin!