Countdown Starts to 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics

The Winter Olympics flag has been handed over to Mayor Lee Seok-rae of Pyeonchang, the next host city of the Games. The clock has started ticking toward the 2018 Winter Olympics. A record 26,000 people including athletes from 100 countries, Olympic officials and journalists are expected to converge on the Korean town for the event.

The Winter Olympics has traditionally been hosted by advanced countries, usually in Europe or North America, or Japan. After rising from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War, Korea made its first mark on the international stage by hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics. Twenty-six years later, it has become one of the G20 and ranks 15th in the world in terms of GDP.

With the 2018 Games, Korea becomes the second country in Asia to host a winter Olympics and the eighth nation in the world to host both the Summer and Winter Games, making them another milestone in the nation's journey.

But is Korea ready? After winning the gold medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, figure skating champion Kim Yu-na asked then President Lee Myung-bak to build an ice rink exclusively for figure skating. The request has to be met.

Many sporting facilities, for events like bobsledding, are being built for the first time in this country, which still ranks near the bottom in most winter disciplines, notwithstanding huge successes in a handful of others.

In skiing, which encompasses the main Winter Olympics events, the country faces an uphill struggle. There is of course no rule that says the host of the Winter Olympics must excel in all events, but in no other country is public interest so disproportionately focused on a few events. Over the next four years, the job is to ensure that attention becomes more balanced.

Russia spent W54 trillion (US$1=W1,072) hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, but Korea will have to make do with a tighter budget.

Some Winter Olympics have had measurable long-term benefits for their hosts. An example is Lake Placid, a quiet village in the northeastern U.S. For the 1980 Winter Olympics, organizers built primarily modular structures that could be adapted to other uses later, and in the long run it managed to establish itself as a popular resort town.

The Norwegian town of Lillehammer and the U.S.' Salt Lake City, too, are still being used as training centers for international athletes and host global events.

Whether Pyeongchang can emulate them remains to be seen. Work on the 13 sporting facilities, athletes' quarters and media center is set to begin this spring and completion is scheduled for 2016.

If they are not to gather dust after the 2018 Winter Olympics, Korea needs to start thinking how Gangwon Province can become a winter sports hub in Northeast Asia.

The Sochi Olympics showed that gold medals are no longer everything as far as the fans are concerned. Korea no longer has to prove itself on the international stage all the time. The way it hosts the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will be a chance to show how much the country has matured.

englishnews@chosun.com / Feb. 24, 2014 12:35 KST