WASHINGTON— The cities of Sochi, Russia and PyeongChang, South Korea are no strangers to each other.
Both fought closely to host the 2014 Winter Olympics nearly seven years ago. The Russian resort town took the victory but supporters of the Korean city remained persistent. Eventually, PyeongChang beat out Munich in a bid to hold the 2018 winter games.
Georgetown Professor Victor Cha said PyeongChang’s strategic emphasis on how the Olympic bid could help Korean relations may have been a reason why it originally lost to Sochi.
“The International Olympic Committee doesn’t like to be put in a position where they are somehow being told whether they do or don’t assign the Olympics to a particular city is going to determine the level of political reconciliation with North Korea,” Cha said.
Despite their competitive past, officials from each city joined together during the closing ceremony to pass the Olympic flag in a symbolic transition to the next winter games.
Analysts think many of the concerns discussed leading up to Sochi will also be on the minds of people as the games in PyeongChang draw closer. However, Vice President of the Korea Society Stephen Noerper said certain issues that have been raised in Sochi may be less prevalent during the 2018 Olympics.
“Certainly, political liberalization and civil liberties [in Russia], the release of political prisoners, and concerns about infrastructure development, corruption and the cost of the games, which is generally estimated at $50 billion,” Noerper said.
Experts note the PyeongChang games are currently budgeted at $2 billion but believe this figure will most likely rise as more money will be set aside to pay for infrastructure projects like the KTX high speed rail system.
Cha said the Olympic Games will give South Korea the ability to showcase its latest technological advancements and will be used to establish an image of a modern Korea.
“For any nation and city that hosts it, it really is a benchmark of national aspiration and national identity,” Cha said. “These games become a very important way to frame a country’s development or a particular stage in its development.”
Analysts note the primary issue that will be brought up as the East Asian country prepares for the 2018 Olympics will most likely not be related to its infrastructure. Unlike Sochi, PyeongChang already has many facilities in place that can be used during the games.
Cha said the focus of critics may not even be primarily directed at South Korea but is more likely to call attention to its northern neighbor.
“The magnifying glass will move north and it will bring international attention to the human rights violations in North Korea,” said Cha. “Particularly, if some sort of arrangement is reached in which they’ll either field a joint-team or there might be some hosting of games on the northern side. If that were to happen, I think it would put tremendous pressure on the North Koreans.”
He also warns that if the political focus is only on one or two primary issues, as he says was the case in Sochi in relation to the threat of terrorism, then other important issues that should be analyzed may be looked at less closely.
Despite discussing the possibility of fielding a team together in past games, Korea watchers said PyeongChang organizers have not formally discussed this possibility and are not likely to form a joint squad. Aside from political disagreements between the two countries, both are unable to come to a compromise on how they would form a team.
Analysts said North Korea has proposed a quota system for building a unified team, where an equal number of participants would be from the North and the South. On the other hand, South Korea desires to use a skill-based method where athletes would try out for the team and the best would make it regardless of which country they are from.
While 71 South Koreans competed in the 2014 Winter Olympics according to the official website, not a single athlete from North Korea competed. South Korea brought home eight medals from Sochi, including three gold medals.
Noerper explained that national identity is important for most athletes when competing in the Olympics, but the situation becomes complex when Koreans try to navigate the politics of the games, even when the decision isn’t between the North and the South - which was the case for speed skater Victor Ahn.
“Victor Ahn left the Korean team and had to choose, or was trying to decide, between the United States and the Russian team,” said Noerper. “He actually pursued Russian citizenship and is now skating for Russia. So, it will be interesting to see how he performs. But the issue of identity has come up in that context.” Ahn won three gold medals in Sochi.
While the Olympics tend to create a spike in national pride, they are also an event where countries from all across the world set aside their differences and come together. Cha noted the International Olympic Committee hopes to plan competitions in areas it has given little attention to in the past.
“You can bet your bottom dollar at some point it will be in China because the IOC wants to expand the reach of the Olympics outside traditional areas,” said Cha. “So, you’ll expect to see more Olympics in parts of Asia. Again, the IOC appeared to choose the new over the old by going with places like Sochi and PyeongChang.”
According to the official PyeongChang 2018 website, the motto for the games in South Korea, which is New Horizons, embodies this idea of global expansion.
The IOC said it hopes the PyeongChang games will expose younger generations of athletes in Asia to the power of winter sports and wishes to leave a legacy of new growth and potential that has never been seen before.