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Nation & World

Political scandal overshadows South Korea 2018 Olympic prep

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SEOUL, South Korea — When Pyeongchang was awarded the 2018 Olympics six years ago, many South Koreans felt that the first Winter Games on home snow would herald their entry into the top tier of rich nations.

One year before the Olympics, however, the country is in political disarray, and winter sports are the last thing on many people's minds. To say that South Koreans are distracted from what had been billed as a crowning sports achievement is an understatement.

After protests that saw millions take to the streets, South Korea's president, toppled from power, languishes in her mountainside palace as a court ponders whether to approve her impeachment and trigger early elections. A toothless prime minister, thrust into leadership by the country's biggest corruption scandal in recent memory, struggles with huge economic, social and diplomatic tensions.

And then there's rival North Korea, which relishes the chance to insert itself into the picture — often with missile tests and threats of annihilation — whenever global attention turns to its southern rival.

This is not the atmosphere jubilant organizers thought they'd face when Pyeongchang, an alpine ski resort town of 43,000 people about 180 kilometers (110 miles) east of Seoul, closed in on its moment of glory.

Despite the political turmoil, the Pyeongchang Olympics will likely be well-organized and ready to go, especially when compared with the recent games in Rio de Janeiro and Sochi, Russia, which saw swirling human rights, environmental and political crises.

Still, the upheaval in government will likely dominate headlines throughout the year and add to worries about Pyeongchang's preparations, enormous costs and a lack of public buzz.

A look at some of the major issues facing the country, and the state of its Olympic dreams, a year ahead of the Pyeongchang Games, which are set for Feb. 9-25, 2018:

“An advanced nation”

Even with the political mess, there are still high hopes for the second Olympics to be held in South Korea, whose capital, Seoul, hosted the 1988 Summer Games.

South Korea used the Seoul Olympics to highlight its economic rise from the rubble of the 1950-53 Korean War. The country has since staged two Asian Games, co-hosted the soccer World Cup in 2002 with Japan and held other high-profile international events, including the 2010 Group of 20 economic summit.

“The Winter Olympics will let us show that we have reached the level of an advanced nation,” said Choi Kwang-shik, a former minister of culture, sports and tourism who teaches at Korea University.

Pyeongchang supporters say the 2018 Games will boost South Korea's image because only advanced, rich countries usually host Winter Olympics.

Critics, however, question the need to host costly international events and waste taxpayers’ money when many South Koreans are struggling economically.

Scandal

The Pyeongchang Olympics, like much else in South Korea, have been drawn into the country's biggest political scandal in decades.

Prosecutors say President Park Geun-hye and her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil plotted to pressure businesses to donate tens of millions of dollars to two nonprofit foundations controlled by Choi, one of them sports-related.

As investigations widened over the scandal, officials arrested and indicted several top sports and culture ministry officials, including Cho Yoon-sun, who resigned as minister after her arrest. Media have speculated that a jailed senior sports official aided Choi — who is jailed and currently on trial — in alleged attempts to land Olympic construction deals.

Lee Hee-beom, head of the Pyeongchang organizing committee, told reporters recently that comprehensive reviews of all Olympic-related contracts found that none has been found “contaminated.”

Some of the companies implicated in the political scandal were reluctant to sponsor the Olympics, according to local media reports. Still, organizers say they collected about 90 percent of their domestic sponsorship target of 940 billion won ($826 million) by the end of last year.

Costs, venue construction

Spending for the Pyeongchang Games will likely be about 14.2 trillion won ($12.4 billion), with 11.4 trillion ($10 billion) of that for building competition venues, roads and a new high-speed rail line designed to link the country's main gateway of Incheon International Airport with Pyeongchang in about 90 minutes.

Organizers say the infrastructure will help promote Gangwon province, which governs Pyeongchang and shares a border with North Korea. The goal is to use the Olympics to turn the region into a new Asian hub for winter sports.

There have been worries about construction delays. Organizers say the main Olympic stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies will be held, is about 40 percent complete. They promise completion by September.

They also say the construction of the 12 competition venues is about 96 percent complete on average.

Buzz

The winter sports industry in South Korea is relatively young and searching for star athletes after the retirement of beloved Olympic figure skating champion Yuna Kim.

About 6,500 athletes, coaches and sports officials from about 95 countries are expected to attend the Pyeongchang Games. Foreigners will also be streaming in to watch, but organizers hope that 70 percent of ticket sales will be local. That means creating buzz at home is crucial.

But there's worry about low ticket sales, which are set to start in South Korea on Thursday.

To attract locals, popular South Korean athletes are needed. “But many people don't know any local athletes, so they won't go” to Pyeongchang, said Jung Moon-hyun, a sports science professor at Chungnam National University in South Korea.

A series of test events that began in November will continue until April. Among them are the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships and the Ski Jumping World Cup, both this month.

North Korea

North Korea's participation in the 2018 Games would certainly bring attention. Pyeongchang was partially sold to the world as a way to perhaps prod North Korea into reaching out more to the international community.

But nothing is ever easy between the rival Koreas.

The North boycotted the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympics, both held in Seoul. Then it attended South Korea-hosted events in recent years, including the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon. Athletes from the two Koreas also marched together in the opening ceremonies of several major international sports events, including the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.

Current ties between the Koreas are extremely bad after Pyongyang conducted two nuclear weapons tests last year. Analysts say the North's participation at Pyeongchang will likely hinge on what kind of overture Seoul might offer the North.

But with the presidency in limbo, that, like much else in South Korea, is up in the air.

A fresh start?

President Park, whose single five-year term was to last until Feb. 24, 2018, was originally supposed to oversee the Olympics’ opening ceremony. Her successor was to then attend the Feb. 25 closing ceremony.

If the country's Constitutional Court approves Park's parliamentary impeachment — a ruling that could come by March — she'd be permanently driven from office. A presidential by-election would then follow within two months. Even if Park stays in office, presidential elections will happen in December.

Come February 2018, regardless of who's in charge, many here will look to the Olympics for a fresh start.



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