Glitzy Spectacle and Grimy Reality at The Pyeongchang Olympics

Moon Jae-In and First Lady Kim Jung-sook and Mike and Karen Pence attend the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics, 9 February. via Wikimedia Commons.

First published February 8 in the Los Angeles TimesPower Games: A Political History of the Olympics is on sale for 50% off throughout the Winter Olympics. 

Hype and the Olympics are a well-known combination. NBC's promos are framing the Games — nationalistically — as "The Best of U.S." Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, likes to tout their "hope and peace" symbology. And on the official 2018 Winter Games website, Pyeongchang, South Korea, a backcountry town around 50 miles from the DMZ and North Korea, is reconceived as a place where "heaven meets earth."

The reality of Pyeongchang 2018, and the Games that open Thursday and Friday, isn't quite so uplifting.

It's true that North and South Korea will be marching into the opening ceremonies under one flag — and some find that a hopeful sign. At the last minute, the North deigned to participate, and South Korea swiftly rolled out the red carpet, knowing North Korean participation was the best missile insurance available. The divided peninsula will have a unified women's ice hockey team and Kim Jong Un is sending a handful of other competitors, plus officials and cheerleaders, to the Winter Olympics for the first time since 2010.

The presence of North Korean athletes may at least give U.S. audiences a view of the North based on something other than the ratcheted-up tensions on the Korean peninsula and across the Pacific. But those tensions are real.

After North Korea gained entry to the Games, it rescheduled its annual military celebration, the one with the goose-stepping soldiers, from April to Feb. 8, the day before the Games start. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has been laying the groundwork for a military conflict with North Korea, and a nuclear nightmare could be only a Trump tweet or a Kim launch away. The president of the Council on Foreign Relations put the odds of war with North Korea at "around 50-50." IOC member Richard Pound didn't exactly inspire confidence when he said, "You have got at least one unstable leader involved, and you don't know what he will do."

South Korean (and Olympic) leaders want the world to see Pyeongchang's accommodation of the North in a positive light, but many South Koreans aren't buying it. Tens of thousands of signatures against the "Olympic unification" have flooded President Moon Jae-in's office, and 73% of the country oppose the plan. On Tuesday, a protestor in Seoul told Reuters the North was making fools of the South "by advertising our Pyeongchang Olympics as their Pyongyang Olympics."

"The presence of North Korean athletes in Pyeongchang," explains Remco Breuker, professor of Korean studies at Leiden University, "is a disgrace…. By inviting the DPRK to participate in the Games, Seoul has stepped all over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

The dissatisfaction over Olympic unification is mirrored by public anger over the planning of the Olympics themselves. Overall costs have more than doubled for the Pyeongchang Games, from $6 billion at the time of the bid to $13 billion today. Ticket sales have been anemic, undercutting a prime path for bridging the gap. Two days before the first competition, the venues were ready but around 25% of the tickets had yet to be sold.

The bill for Pyeongchang 2018 won't be as high as the tab for the bigger Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, in 2016, but both events fit a pattern: Hosting the Olympics is less a financial boon than a calamity. Rio is an estimated $35 million to $45 million in debt, and while some of the infrastructure completed for 2016 is in use — transportation, mostly — the sports venues are idle, only 10% of the athlete's village apartments have been sold, and promises to clean up the notoriously polluted water in Guanabara Bay have gone unmet.

In South Korea, organizers promised that Pyeongchang would deliver a "Green Dreams" Olympics featuring "the most advanced, environmentally friendly strategies." Then they chopped down 58,000 trees in a sacred 500-year-old forest on Mt. Gariwang to make way for a ski run. The South Korean Forestry Service had declared Mt. Gariwang a "Protected Area for Forest Genetic Resource Conservation," but the designation was lifted for the area in question. Officials claim the forest can be restored after the Games; foresters say it will be impossible.

And what will happen to multimillion-dollar venues for relatively obscure sports like bobsled, luge, and skeleton in a nation not particularly known as a winter sports power? Maintaining venues in the wake of the Games is a quiet yet hefty burden that's typically not included in publicly stated Olympic costs. The Pyeongchang organizers are already planning to demolish the Olympic Stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies will be held. Built at a cost of $109 million, it will be used just four times.

The Olympics require draconian security measures. South Korean officials are taking full advantage of the opportunity to add to their domestic arsenal, installing extra CCTV cameras and facial recognition systems while ramping up their supply of tactical drones. As with previous Olympics, these technologies will remain after the Games. South Korea will also deploy 60,000 police at the Olympics, including 50,000 soldiers, making Pyeongchang's one of the most militarized security forces in the history of the Games.

All told, the chasm between the glitzy spectacle and the grittier reality of the Olympics has become a feature of the Games, not a bug. Despite the relentless message of global togetherness, an enthusiasm gap remains between the Olympic suites and the Korean streets. A more realistic takeway from Pyeongchang would echo Rio's legacy: political grandstanding, overspending, greenwashing, white-elephant stadiums, and the militarization of public space. The Olympics aren't a salve for political and economic woes, they are an aggravator.

Dave Zirin is sports editor of the Nation. His latest book, with Michael Bennett, is Things That Make White People Uncomfortable.

Jules Boykoff is a political science professor at Pacific University. His latest book is Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics.