A Korean Winter

South Korea’s PyeongChang has found itself in another tough battle to host the Winter Olympics. Having been beaten by Putin’s Russia four years ago, the Koreans could well be beaten by Merkel’s Germany tomorrow in Durban after a brutal assault from their Japanese neighbours. The International Olympic Committee will announce the host city tomorrow in Durban, but it will also indicate where the 2020 Summer Games might be heading.

Vladimir Putin's speech in English at the 2007 IOC Session took Sochi over the line to become the host of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Photo: The Wall Street Journal

Four years ago I sat down to watch a race unfold that would end in pictures of grown adults crying being beamed around the world, as the Russian city of Sochi basked in the glory of breaking South Korean hearts. Inheriting the title from Vancouver the Russian team, headed by President Putin, had come from behind to pull off a victory that many suspected wouldn’t happen.

It was this race for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games which crushed the hopes of the city of PyeongChang for the second time – having lost out to Canada four years previously. But taking the message of ‘third time lucky’ quite literally, South Korea is back this year for another go. Not humiliated enough after missing out on the 2010 games by 3 votes nor the 2014 games by 4 votes, the South Koreans at least have shown some conviction to the International Olympic Committee in bidding for the Winter Olympics, that perhaps can only be rivalled by their fellow Turkish and Swedish Olympians.

But for two attempts, the PyeongChang bidding teams have focused on rhetoric that wouldn’t go a miss in a fantasy story. Give us the games, they said, and they would guarantee stability and peace in the Korean peninsula . A long shot at the very best, and although the International Olympic Committee might see itself as an important organisation, it’s never been too bothered about helping out the United Nations as a peace keeper. It’s fair to say that the Korean team clearly had ambitions, they’d already constructed many of the venues, and they are no strangers to Olympic organisation – having hosted the Summer Games in their capital. They did however get 2010 and 2014 wrong – too much emphasis on empty rhetoric and not enough of the power and dominance that Putin’s Russia managed to pull off in 2007. Sochi might be rushing to build their venues in time for the grand opening ceremony in just over two years time, but it was a secure pitch and a clear message – ‘We are well overdue, Mr President.’ Well, that’s safely a message that the Korean team can deliver in Durban tomorrow ahead of the IOC vote for the 2018 games. They’ve been trampled over twice now, surely it’s Korea’s time?

Thinking they might have earned the support of their fellow Olympic nations by now, the Koreans must have been devastated to see themselves lined up against another fearless bidder. Sure, they could have taken out a re-emerging Salzburg or Sion bid in the first round, they could probably have eaten France’s Annecy for breakfast, but the German’s weren’t going to let PyeongChang become the anointed host. Putting a Berlin or Hamburg Summer bid on the backburner the German’s announced that their host of the 1972 Summer Games, Munich, would return in an attempt to capture the Winter Games in 2018. Not only contempt with perhaps crushing the hearts of the entire Korean nation, the German’s would also pick up history in the making, with Munich becoming the first city to host both the Winter and Summer games, if it was announced as the winning city tomorrow. Munich has come out fighting despite domestic upsets, and there is no certainty that PyeongChang will come out on top tomorrow. France may have settle for third behind their European neighbours if it is finally Korea’s moment. Annecy, relying on venues from Chamonix looks consigned to failure.

Any bid can be hard to predict, but history could point to disaster for the Koreans tomorrow in Durban. Sweden took a similar three tries at hosting the Winter Games in 1994, 1998 and then the ill-fated 2002 bidding war – and the news wasn’t too good for Östersund. Losing out to Lillehammer, Nagano and Salt Lake City, the Swedish team didn’t return for 2006. Istanbul has bid for the Summer Games four times and has missed out on each occasion – 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012. Munich has already signalled an interest in 2022 if it’s unsuccessful, or is a similar fate awaiting the Korean team tomorrow? Perhaps the knock-out blow could come from a closer neighbour. For weeks, the Japanese have hinted at a possible Tokyo try for the 2020 games following their loss to Rio in the 2016 race. Perhaps in an attempt to steal PyeongChang’s thunder, Tokyo has all but practically joined Rome and Madrid in the 2020 race, citing ‘inspiration’ and ‘dreams’ to overcome the recent tsunami and earthquake disaster. With 2016 a fly-away games in Brazil, the 2020 race could be open for both Europe or Asia. With Delhi wavering after an exercise in damage limitation with the 2010 Commonwealth Games and a middle-eastern bid consigned to failure after the IOC refused to put Doha on the shortlist for 2016 despite scoring higher than eventual winner Rio on the evaluation, Tokyo could be lining itself up as the main rival to Europe for 2020. If the idea of Tokyo 2020 catches the eye of the IOC, they could be tempted to pour cold water on PyeongChang tomorrow – in an effort to keep the door open for the Japanese in four years time.

Back to back European Winter Games can surely be less of a concern for the International Olympic Committee than back to back Summer/Winter games in Asia. More European nations have shown an interest, and there are sensible messages to hosting a games in either France or Germany – where considerable experience can build a strong commercial case – with seats full. With PyeongChang putting their case forward as ‘New Horizons’ – bringing the games to new markets, following in Rio’s footsteps, could leave an open door for Munich to portray the Korean bid as a risk in a time of austerity for the rest of the world. A strong political message also lays in Germany’s hands, along with the successful hosting of the World Cup in 2006, Berlin’s impressive athletic championships and now the Women’s World Cup. Tried, tested, impressed and delivered. ‘New Horizons’ has little charm for Asia, since Japan has hosted the Winter Games previously, and South Korea has also hosted the Summer Games. The Koreans could be on the back foot from the open of play tomorrow in the South African city of Durban, it is no easy ride.

Tomorrow, the IOC will not only award the rights to host the 2018 Games, it will too give a strong indication of where it wants to see the 2020 Olympics. Their Pacific neighbours may have rained on PyeongChang’s parade – but there is no reason why a Korean revenge could not play out in 4 years time. Busan has a strong record in the region, and would match up well against Tokyo. The Koreans have gone the distance and done the hard work already. Another four year wait and they could be rewarded with a bigger prize, but it would take nerve, and another crushing defeat of the dreams that they have put central to their PyeongChang bid for both 2010 and 2014. But two things are certain tomorrow, 2018 is PyeongChang’s to lose and Angela Merkel is no Vladimir Putin.