2018 Winter Games a tough sell in host country South Korea

South Korea is preparing for its 2018 Olympic Games, and that includes building a hockey team to take on Canada — and a strategy for dealing with military threats from the North.

1988 Summer Games drew South Koreans' enthusiasm, but few know much about the coming Winter Olympics

The Pyeongchang Winter Games mascot Soohorang poses in front of Seoul city hall with two supporters getting ready 2018. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

The smiling, fuzzy white tiger is waving furiously at her, but the woman passing the mascot in front of Seoul's City Hall is puzzled. She seems even more confused when I ask her about the upcoming Winter Olympic Games, to be hosted in South Korea a year from now.

"Olympics?" she says. "You mean here in Seoul back in the 1980s?"

I mean the ones coming up in Pyeongchang in February 2018. But her answer isn't much of a surprise.

South Koreans may have been enthusiastic supporters of the 1988 Summer Games, but winter sports are a tough sell here. Few know much about the coming Winter Olympics.

The secretary general of the Pyeongchang Games organizing committee sighs. Venue construction is almost complete, the stadium for the opening ceremonies is on schedule, and a new high-speed rail line is being built to connect Pyeongchang to Seoul, cutting the three-hour drive to a one-hour trip.

Women wearing Korean traditional costume Hanbok perform during an unveiling ceremony of the Olympic countdown clock to mark a year to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, on Feb. 8. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

But there's another problem.

"We have not been able to stimulate that much excitement since we first won the bid in 2011," Yeo Hyeong-gu admits.

He says for a successful games, local public support is critical. "And ultimately, it's true that national interest can only be high if we have athletes who excel."

There are some.

Korea is a powerhouse in short track skating. Its women's team is currently ranked first in the world, and the men's team is second only to Canada. Its athletes won 12 medals in the sport in the last two Winter Olympics.

Korean figure skater Yuna Kim is also a legend. She won gold in the Vancouver games and silver in Sochi, as well as numerous world championships. She has since retired.

But when it comes to other winter sports, including the marquee hockey events, the country is "very weak," says Choi Moon-soon, governor of Gangwon province, where the Games will be held.

"We really hope to learn a lot from Canada," he says.

Korean national team skier Kim So-hee is in training for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

"We need to get people excited about ice hockey, but it's a real worry. Our people aren't really familiar with it, and our team is so weak. The lack of excitement about ice hockey is a real concern."

Indeed, the Korean national men's and women's teams are both ranked 23rd in the world.

Governor Choi says it's possible the Korean team wouldn't even qualify for the Olympics, except for the fact that — as host — it has a guaranteed spot in the first round of play. One of the teams they play in that round will be the defending champion, Canada.

Our training season, the time that's left, is rather short.- Skier Kim So-hee

In order to avoid embarrassment, South Korea's gone shopping.

It has signed up seven players who didn't succeed in the NHL: six Canadians and one American. The Korean national team's goalie will be Matt Dalton from Clinton, Ont. All the foreigners are being issued Korean citizenship and passports.

Their head coach is Jim Paek, a former defenceman for the Pittsburgh Penguins who won two Stanley Cups. He was born in Seoul but moved to Canada at the age of one.

Athletes from abroad are being recruited to compete as Koreans in other sports as well. Aileen Frisch was signed up after she didn't make it onto the German luge team. Three Russian-born athletes will represent Korea in biathlon.

Of course, Korean athletes are also training hard to improve their standings.

At the Yongpyong Alpine Center, Kim So-hee is training on the same slopes she'll compete on next year. She agrees that the team has a long way to go.

Political turmoil

"Our training season, the time that's left, is rather short," she says.

"I'm not sure if all our hard work will necessarily pay off at the Pyeongchang Games, but we'll practise hard for the remaining year and hope for good results."

There are other issues organizers hope won't detract from the Games and derail their plans.

For months, South Korea has been going through political turmoil. Its president, Park Geun-hye, was impeached by parliament for corruption.

She's accused of colluding with a friend to pressure companies to donate to foundations backing her policy initiatives. A constitutional court will soon rule whether Park will be kicked out of office.

Denies corruption

The scandal has led to investigations at several government agencies, including the Winter Olympic committee, but no charges.

The secretary general denies any corruption.

"If the allegations were true, things would have come to a standstill, with the facilities not being built," Yeo says. "But as you can see, things are going smoothly."

Then there's the problem of North Korea. It's been testing nuclear weapons and missile systems powerful enough to hit the US. And more tests could happen during the Games.

But the real fear here is that the pariah state may use a conventional attack to disrupt the Winter Olympics.

'Worries are understandable'

Both Seoul and the Pyeongchang sites are in easy reach of President Kim Jong-un's arsenal.

A military confrontation did happen before, during the 2002 Soccer World Cup tournament hosted by South Korea.

As the South Korean team played Turkey for third place — a key game for the country — North Korea launched a naval attack that killed six South Korean sailors.

The governor of Gangwon province acknowledges the threat.

"These worries are understandable," says Choi. "But if they participate in the event, that threat disappears.

"We are working on the assumption that North Korea will participate in the Games."


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.