Persistence and Promise Paved 19-Year Road To PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games

Bidweek, Reporting from PyeongChang, South Korea –  Most great ideas originate from a spark in a single mind.  But few of them generate the emotion, passion and permanent life-changing memories that the Olympic Games typically provide.

Following the successful Asian Winter Games held in the Gangwon Province of South Korea in 1999, then Governor Jin-Sun Kim immediately set his sights on staging the comparatively much grander Olympic Winter Games.  It was an idea that is typical for many winter sports cities – but this was different.  For YongPyong, the small isolated ski resort adjacent to PyeongChang and host of some of the ski events for the Asian Games, the Olympics could only be considered a dream.

The PyeongChang Ski Jump Tower under construction in February 2008, just months after the town lost the 2014 Olympic bid to Sochi (GamesBids Photo)

How could the unlikely mountain village in a nation not known for winter sport compete against the snowy powerhouses in Europe and North America?

Sleepy PyeongChang was so far off the map that when it mounted its first bid to host the 2010 Games, it officially capitalized the ‘C’ in the middle of its name to distinguish it from Pyongyang, the infamous Capital in the North.

In January 2002 I received an email from a representative of the 2010 PyeongChang bid, his first attempt, he said, at reaching out to English-speaking Western media.  At the time Gangwon province was locked in a domestic battle with the western North Jeolla province and though I didn’t think much of the fledgling bid among several larger cities that had already come forward with interest, I provided dutiful coverage.

The mountain-top village sits at 700 metres above sea-level, an elevation residents believe is optimal for human well-being and is the focus of its “Happy700” slogan.  When I first visited in 2003, I was brought to a vast potato field that sat adjacent to YongPyong, where I was told a great Olympic Park would rise.

I was initially unimpressed but knew there was something special about the South Koreans, seeing determination in their eyes.

On July 2, 2003 I was providing on-air commentary for Canada’s Global TV while the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was determining whether finalists Vancouver, Salzburg or PyeongChang would win the right to host the Games in 2010.  To most, the race was between Salzburg and Vancouver – Austria and Canada are known to be  winter sport nations.

The fact that PyeongChang was still in the race after outlasting five other international cities, was puzzling indeed.

After gently reminding the presenter during my remarks that PyeongChang could not be completely discounted from the race, the producer asked me off-camera to focus only on the “real” competition between Vancouver and Salzburg.  Then, IOC President Jacques Rogge announced that Austria’s nomination received the least number of votes in the first tally setting up a final ballot between eventual winner Vancouver, and the tiny, South Korean village.

Jin-Sun Kim led the 2010 and 2014 bids for PyeongChang, and was Special Ambassador for the 2018 campaign (PyeongChang 2018 Photo)

That same producer, with fear in his eyes, frantically asked me to discuss everything I knew about PyeongChang.  At that moment, it seemed, the South Korean community finally hit the international map.  Amazingly, it was later learned, PyeongChang had won the first ballot decidedly by nine votes, requiring the Canadian city to recover almost all of Salzburg’s votes to win the final ballot by a margin of only three.

So, much more work had to be done.

Four years later history, and PyeongChang’s fate, was repeated – this time replacing Vancouver with Sochi.  The Korean entry again won the first ballot, but Sochi took the lion’s share of Salzburg’s votes to eek a four-vote margin of victory.

But by this time a ski jump tower was under construction and on the rise, just as had been promised.  And the potato fields were barricaded and excavated, readying for a winter sports resort to be known as Alpensia.

Jin-Sun Kim and officials across Gangwon Province were keeping promises and relentlessly pursuing their dream.

By 2011 the ski jump, the Alpensia resort along with hotels, downhill ski slopes, biathlon and cross-country arenas and more had risen.  At the time I referred to PyeongChang as an Olympic city that had yet to win a Games.

But the construction of world-class infrastructure wasn’t the only legacy of the two failed bids that fueled a final victory.  Valuable human legacy played a major role too.  The 2018 team learned from past experience that they needed to improve communications, and provide a gender-neutral face for the bid.  They did both in spades.

South Korean Olympic Champion figure skater Yuna Kim (centre) with fans in Durban, South Africa before PyeongChang elected host city in July, 2011. Kim’s and the bid’s success are products of legacies from previous failed bids (GamesBids Photo)

Previous bid storytellers promised that they would cultivate South Korean Winter athletes, prompting organizers to design a “Drive the Dream” program as a legacy of the 2014 campaign.  South Korean figure skating Olympic Champion Yuna Kim won Gold in 2010 with the help of the program, a first for the nation.  She was forefront as PyeongChang pushed for the 2018 Games.

When in July 2011 PyeongChang secured a landslide first-ballot victory over formidable opponents Munich and Annecy in France, it became one of the most well-earned Olympic bid victories in history.

“We cheered and we shouted out loud, and we cried, and that’s how I feel inside,” Kim said after the victory was declared in Durban, South Africa.

“We have walked through a very rough road coming here.”

Kim had led the 2010 and 2014 bids, and was named special ambassador for the 2018 run.

The results of his persistence will take the world stage here on Friday, where the name PyeongChang will be etched forever in our memories.  Like Lake Placid and Albertville, it will become synonymous with the Olympic Winter Games – and the champion athletes and stories that will be told this month in South Korea.

As I rode a shuttle bus up the mountain from Gangnueng to PyeongChang on this cold, crisp morning, the sun was just breaching above the glistening, snow-covered mountains.  Indeed, it is a new dawn for PyeongChang.

The PyeongChang Games open February 9 and run until February 25.

GamesBids.com is reporting from PyeongChang this week.  Follow us @gamesbids on Twitter or on Facebook for updates.

Robert Livingstone

About Robert Livingstone

Robert Livingstone is a senior editor, award-winning journalist and author, covering Olympic bid business as founder of GamesBids.com as well as providing freelance support for print and Web publications around the world. He is a member of the Olympic Journalists Association and the International Society of Olympic Historians. Follow him @enotsgnivil