World·CBC IN Pyeongchang

For many South Koreans, 'Pyeongchang' has become a hashtag for Olympic apathy

With days to go before the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, all that appears to be missing in South Korea is enthusiasm.

The weather is cold and ticket sales... tepid

Volunteers stand in front of the Olympic rings at the Main Press Centre for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Domestic interest in the Games has been muted. (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

The sports venues are ready. The new bullet train lines are running. Meteorologists have forecast appropriately frigid weather. Even the naughty North Korean neighbours are promising to play nice, sending an Olympic team to march in unity with their South Korean rivals.

All that's missing ahead of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games is, well, enthusiasm. 

It's one of the world's biggest sporting events. Yet Olympics ardour isn't near where it was 30 years ago, when South Korea was the host country and the Seoul Summer Games were played up as a big debut for a scrappy democracy emerging from post-Korean War poverty and debt.

Ultra-high-tech South Korea has far less to prove in 2018. Still, Olympic marketing experts see apathy around the Games, with geopolitical tensions driven by the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea possibly putting a chill on ticket sales.

That the name of the host city has become an unflattering online meme is also worrisome. "Pyeongchang" is being used as a pejorative term, a virtual eye-roll used to slag anything as lacklustre or failing to live up to the hype.

One Twitter user snapped a picture of a new Korean McDonald's sandwich called the "Prosperity Burger" and wrapped in gold foil.

'Not feeling so prosperous about this "prosperity burger,"' tweeted one person in Korean. "#ThisIsPyeongChang."

"Not feeling so prosperous about this 'prosperity burger,'" the user posted, presenting a limp beef patty wedged between two puny buns. "#ThisIsPyeongchang."

"Overnight weather, low of minus 15?" grumbled another Twitter user. "F—k. #ThisIsPyeongchang."

'Who would want to go?'

Jieun Choi, who writes for the Korea Exposé news culture website, defined "Pyeongchang" as a sarcastic shorthand for describing "whatever has failed because of lack of attention," or something "lame."
Responding to the 'Pyeongchang' meme, Twitter user @myogimyo wrote in Korean: 'There're times when saying #ThisIsPyeongchang saddens me. I have relatives in Gangwon province who are a married teacher couple who volunteer and do supporter activities with love for their community and they always post on [the instant messaging app] KakaoTalk photos of their activities. It saddens me because I feel that they really wish for a successful Olympics.'

When American expat Hallie Bradley asked her Korean husband about the curious meme, he explained it as indifference or disappointment.

"Like when you buy a bag of potato chips and it's big, but you open it up and all the air goes out and you're left with a small amount of chips," she said.

A government poll of 1,000 people in April found that only 35.6 per cent of South Koreans were interested in the Pyeongchang Olympics. Nearly 85 per cent of people said they'd rather watch the Games on TV, a sentiment shared by several locals, including Bradley's husband and Choi.

"I mean, it's minus-15 in Seoul right now. And it's colder in Pyeongchang," said Choi, 25. "Who would want to go? Seriously. I would not even want to. Only my non-Korean friends are coming to see the Games, but other than that, I don't know anybody who is so stoked about this."

Chief organizer for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics Lee Hee-beom conceded this month that "emergency measures" are needed after revealing just 799,000 out of 1.07 million passes have been sold, just shy of 75 per cent of their target. The Games were also found lacking domestically, with 52,000 of the 750,000 seats reserved for South Koreans snapped up by September.

Some chalk it up to Korean "balli-balli," or hurry-up culture, which can manifest as cavalier disregard for a task at hand, eventually followed by a last-minute dash to make it on time. A late surge in interest is still possible. 

"In North America, it's hurry up and wait. It's the opposite here," said Kate Hickey, a Canadian expat and writer living in Seoul. "Here, it's wait, wait, wait, wait — hurry up!"
South Korea's Shim Suk-hee, left, competes with Canada's Kim Boutin during a race in November 2017. (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

Different vibe from 1988

Clearly, though, 1988 this ain't, said Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"In 1988, the whole country thought of the Olympics as a coming-out party for South Korea," she said. It was three years before it became a member of the United Nations.

"It needed to prove itself in a lot of ways as a developing or developed country," Collins said. "The Seoul Olympics showed a break from the past."

Not so these days for the world's 11th-largest economy, with the fastest internet on Earth.

If only tourists were more excited. Anbritt Stengele, owner of the Chicago-based tour operator Sports Traveler, is hoping sales for tour packages pick up soon. She's arranging travel for some Olympic athletes' families.

"I would put this as probably my worst Winter Olympics in terms of sales," Stengele lamented. She holds out hope for a last-minute spurt, noting that travel interest in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia also picked up near the end.
South Korean figure skater Kim Yuna, centre, poses for a group photo with her teammates before a news conference ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Kim, who has retired, won't compete in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Critics say a dearth of South Korean national athletes in the 2018 Games may be part of the reason why domestic enthusiasm is not greater. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

Stengele expects an uptick in sales as nerves rattled by nuclear-threatening North Korea's proximity calm down amid apparent co-operation from the regime. But a 15-hour flight for some U.S. and Canadian clients is a tough sell, along with pricey hotels in Pyeongchang and a perceived inconvenience factor of an Olympic hub 90 minutes from buzzy Seoul. 

Stengele is managing "maybe a couple dozen bookings" for Seoul, as opposed to more than 300 for Beijing's 2008 Summer Games.

"Obviously, that's the Summer Games, but this is still much less than what we did with Vancouver" during the 2010 Winter Olympics, Stengele said.

Few stars

Another drawback is the apparent dearth of winter champions for South Koreans to rally behind, said Yoonkyung Lee, a University of Toronto professor currently working on a research project in Seoul.
Korean-born short track star Viktor Ahn was barred from competing in his home country in the 2018 Games after joining the Russian team and becoming a citizen there in 2011. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

"There's no national star, maybe other than some on the short-track [skating] team…to ignite Korean nationalism."

Figure-skating gold medallist Yuna Kim was a PyeongChang torchbearer and remains a national treasure, but she retired in 2014. The Korean-born short track star Viktor Ahn was barred from competing in his home country in the 2018 Games after joining the Russian team and becoming a citizen there in 2011. Russia was banned due to a doping scandal, though no reason was given by the Russians for why Ahn was banned from competing as an individual.

Jee Hyun Park won't let herself become consumed by cynicism. The Korean Air flight attendant from Seoul remembers the magical atmosphere when the capital hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics. This year, she's excited to watch Korea's famous short-track team with her 12-year-old son, Sean.

"All the government, any other Korean people related to the Olympics are eager to support the Olympics," Park said. "Eager like me."
Seoul resident Jee Hyun Park. left, is excited to watch South Korea's famous short-track skating team with her 12-year-old son, Sean. (Submitted by Jee Hyun Park)

Meanwhile, the subway stations in Seoul are festooned with Olympic-themed subway banners. Around Seoul's Insa-Dong neighbourhood, non-Koreans and tourists were invited to make miniature 3D figurines of themselves at a "cheering members" recruitment booth. Olympic Ring ice sculptures are being set up around town. And TV stations are ramping up Pyeongchang 2018 ads.

It's enough to give Park Olympics fever, even if her co-workers have expressed little excitement. She's looking for ski jump tickets, the cheapest of which start at around 70,000 won ($82 Cdn). 

"My colleagues are not that interested in the Olympics because they are a little busy," she said. "The ski jump event is held outside, so I think it's cheap."

Park doesn't follow sports, but she loves the Olympics — and the opportunity to celebrate the world coming to South Korea.

"I want to make memories for my son," she said. "This time, it's an exciting moment for him, and for me."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong