By Jane Chung
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) – Olympic officials have showered praise on South Korea’s Winter Games organizers for staging a successful event against the odds, but they have also left it with a warning: don’t leave any white elephants behind.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) delivered the message at its final meeting before the Olympic cauldron was extinguished on Sunday, in a reminder of one of the biggest criticisms of the Olympic movement: monumental waste.
“We cannot emphasize enough that you confirm your plans urgently,” IOC official Gunilla Lindberg told organizers.
“Otherwise you risk losing the momentum and it would taint the image of the Games.”
South Korea invested 14.1 trillion won ($13.1 billion) in the Pyeongchang Games, about 80 percent of which was used to build Olympic venues and other infrastructure in the sleepy province of Gangwon, organizing-committee data shows.
The nation has plans to dismantle the main Olympic stadium to avoid it joining other decaying, empty Olympic venues dotted around the world, which serve as a warning and a deterrent to other cities considering hosting a Games.
But there are question marks over four major, permanent venues whose financial viability remains in doubt: the Jeongsun Alpine Centre, where downhill and slalom races were held, the sliding center and the speed skating and ice hockey arenas.
The Gangwon provincial government says the four venues are not commercially viable and wants the national government to take over or heavily subsidize them.
The four venues’ annual operating costs are forecast to exceed revenues by 5.8 billion won ($5.4 million), according to a document prepared by Games organizers and seen by Reuters.
Gangwon authorities have asked the South Korean government to provide 4.6 billion won annually to cover for about 80 percent of the estimated losses, arguing the venues will be mainly used by national athletes.
The country’s sports ministry has agreed for the state to manage three of the venues, but the crucial details have still to be hammered out despite months of talks, said an official at the Gangwon provincial office, who declined to be named.
The official said the finance ministry was arguing that its budget was tight and there was no precedent for the national government to step in and take over provincial sporting venues.
“We understand that point, but we had a national event not a local event and still we haven’t been able to come to a conclusion for months,” he added.
The finance ministry declined to comment.
OVERCOMING THE ODDS
Overall, the Pyeongchang Games have been declared an economic success despite severe challenges in the months running up to the event, including a Chinese ban on group tours to South Korea as a result of a diplomatic dispute, and North Korea carrying out a nuclear test and missile tests last year.
After weak ticket sales, a late rush of interest enabled the organizers to sell 1.3 million tickets, a sell-out according to the organizing committee’s chief, Lee Hee-beom. Empty seats at venues suggested some ticket-holders did not turn up, however.
South Korea estimated the Games had boosted first-quarter economic growth by 0.2 percentage points.
Even if Gangwon persuades Seoul to underwrite the viability of some venues after the Games, its longer-term challenge is to entice more holidaymakers to the area and hope the Olympics will encourage more South Koreans to take up winter sports.
It wants to avoid a repeat of the province’s Alps Ski Resort, a more remote development that is now abandoned. It was developed more than four decades ago but it failed for a lack of visitors.
Some businesses in Pyeongchang are anxious.
“Our challenge is how to carry on the Olympic legacy after things go back to normal,” said Park In-jun, executive vice president of YongPyong Resort, which revamped one of its ski slopes for the Games.
“So far, many people have visited here because of the Olympics but things will be different once it’s over.”
One of the biggest question marks hangs over the Games’ sliding centre, used by bobsleigh, luge and skeleton racers — a breed of athlete unheard of in South Korea before it was built.
“Iron Man” Yun Sung-bin won the home nation’s first gold medal in men’s skeleton at the Games and Asia’s first medal in a sliding sport, but it is unclear if his success will inspire his compatriots to follow in his tracks and start using the centre.
South Korea’s bobsleigh and skeleton team head coach Lee Yong told a news conference last week that he hoped the government realized that Yun’s victory showed the importance of maintaining a good training facility.
“This is a way to develop better future of our country’s sports,” he said.
(Additional reporting by James Pearson and Dahee Kim; Editing by Mark Bendeich)