South Korea busing in seat-fillers to avoid Olympic embarrassment
Student says once-in-a-lifetime opportunity may push kids to 'help the country'
Two by two, the students from Injae Bupyeong Elementary School walk toward Gangneung Olympic Park, a trail of 60 smiles, 60 hands clutching Wonka-esque golden tickets.
They're on their way to see a curling match, many of them practically bouncing toward the rink, although most hadn't even heard the word keolling until their teacher briefed them on the hour-and-a-half bus ride.
"Since this is my first Olympics, I'm really happy to be here," says 10-year-old Doyoung Yoon.
"I like. Beautiful. Amazing," yelled another young student in English.
The kids from Injae Bupeyong are among the thousands of students bused in from cities and towns that surround the venues for the Pyeongchang Olympics. They get a ride to and from the Games, plus lunch, all paid by the South Korean Ministry of Education, says teacher Jongchul You.
"Without the government's financial help, these students wouldn't have made it to the Olympics because the people who live in our area have a very low income on average," he says.
For these students from Injae, a rural mountain town of roughly 5,000 inhabitants, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For the government, it's an opportunity to save face.
Many events — both outdoors and indoors — have been plagued by low attendance. Organizers have blamed some of the empty seats on athletes and sponsors who haven't used the tickets they've been allocated.
In order to both boost the atmosphere and avoid embarrassment of empty seats, organizers say they've been filling the stands with students, volunteers, even security guards and soldiers.
"We have to be clear that some of the sessions do not have 100 per cent tickets sold," IOC sports director Christophe Dubi said at a news conference earlier this week.
"When you can do the right thing by giving [tickets] away and [inviting] people that have contributed, then it's good for everyone because you have a venue that is full and you are able to thank people," he said.
It's far from an Olympic first. Organizers at the Games in London, Sochi and Rio all resorted to using seat-fillers of one kind or another.
Pyeongchang faces a confluence of challenges: the events take place in relatively small and far-flung cities and unfamiliar nordic sports are a hard sell to many South Koreans.
And then, says Michelle Holder, there's the fear of the bellicose neighbour to the north.
Holder, who teaches English at Injae Bupyeong Elementary, says many American would-be tourists — including her parents — were too worried to make the trip.
"Because of the North and South tensions, the tickets weren't eaten up as fast as other Olympics," Holder says.
And there's another reason, says Saeyul Kwon, an 11-year-old Injae student. He says some South Koreans like his parents are boycotting the Olympics not because of the cost of the tickets, but because of the cost of the Games themselves.
"They told me that the government's going to have to spend a lot of tax money on the Olympics and they don't like that," he says.
Kwon doesn't mind being a seat-filler. He says adults obsessed with ticket sales figures are missing the point.
"Children are the roots of the nation, and when us kids come here to fill the seats, it might push us to become someone important, someone who will help the country," Kwon says.
It's inspiring, he says, being here, watching people doing something really, really well. Even if it is just sliding a stone with a handle toward an objective that is still not entirely clear.