South Korea's Olympic effort to win an Olympic bid

South Korea is pulling out all the stops in its third bid to host a Winter Olympics. Can it beat out iconic, Alps-filled Germany and France for the 2018 Games?

Ahn Young-joon/Reuters/File
South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak pushes a bobsled of youths from countries without snow at an Olympic-quality facility in Pyeongchang.

Here in South Korea's "snow country" the white stuff stays on the ground from November through March. In a region where some of the Korean War's fier­cest battles were fought, the government is investing more than $2 billion in new facilities for winter sports.

It's part of an all-or-nothing bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics in this winter wonderland of rolling peaks, 60 miles east of Seoul.

Hopes are incredibly high. Charm Lee, a German who took a Korean name, became a Korean citizen, and now is president of the Korea Tourist Organization, is confident Pyeongchang has the edge over the leading competitor, Munich. "That's Old Europe style," says Mr. Lee. "Korea is 'New Horizons.' "

Having lost two previous Olympic bids to Vancouver, British Columbia (2010); and Sochi, Russia (2014); Koreans see the 2018 Olympic bid as more than critical to their national pride. They want the rest of the world to know that winter sports are not just for Europe and North America, and they can compete with the best when it comes to doing it right.

Billboards proclaiming "Pyeong­chang 2018/New Horizons" greet visitors as their buses twist and turn through the countryside leading to the sweeping slopes where most of the Olympic-quality sporting infrastructure is already in place, just waiting for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to proclaim Pyeongchang the winner this July.

"New Horizons expresses ... the growth of Olympic sports in Asia," says Lee Ji-hye, a woman from the Pyeong­chang winter Games bid com­mittee, showing a visitor around the first of three proposed sites.

It's a complex called Phoenix Park, owned by the Bogan Group, which is a subsidiary of Korea's largest conglomerate, the Samsung empire. Samsung's chieftain, Lee Kun-hee, happens to be a member of the 110th International Olympic Committee making the final decision.

The Pyeongchang committee seems to have considered every angle Korea will need to win the vote, but they're up against two of Europe's legendary winter sports settings: Munich, Germany, offers the snow and ice of nearby Garmisch; and the picturesque French town of Annecy is near Mont Blanc, the most famous peak in the French Alps.

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The 14-member IOC evaluation team, which visited Pyeongchang in February, had a reception of an intensity that most had not seen before – townspeople cheering, musical groups at the base of every slope, live coverage on Korean TV. Gunilla Lind­berg, chair of the committee, was impressed.

The Koreans have made "great progress in the bid from their two previous bids," she said after four days here, as well as "progress in Korean winter sports during the last four years."

That progress is quite visible. At Bogan Park, the prospective setting for a dozen gold-medal events, new slopes for snowboarding have replaced those the IOC deemed too remote during the 2014 bid. But the biggest changes are in Alpienza, an Olym­pic complex 20 miles to the east, where potato fields-turned-luxury ski resort await the final go-ahead to build state-of-the-art luge facilities.

How realistic, this time, is Korea's bid? In a display of pride that symbolizes the country's rise from the ashes of the Korean War to global prominence as a hub of manufacturing and commerce, Koreans await with mounting tension the vote of the IOC in Durban, South Africa.

Korea's Olympic bid com­mittee is touting a $500 million "drive the dream" program for Koreans. And to prove Korea's dedication to the Olympic movement, the committee is spreading the word about Korea's winter sports far and wide.

Ms. Lee eagerly cites what's dubbed the "dream program": to invite Southeast Asians to gawk at the facilities, watch events – and even try sports they're not likely to get a chance to attempt back in their tropical homelands. So far, "more than 900 children from warmer countries have come and learned," she says. "It proves we're really helping the Olympic movement.

"We'll get it this time," she adds, her face a picture of determination.

Not since Nagano hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics in the Japanese Alps north of Tokyo has an Asian city gotten the winter bid. Since hosting the summer Olympics in Seoul in 1988, the South Koreans say they're sure they can do it even better in the snow. They've also got the advantage of a full-scale rehearsal when they host the 2013 Special Olympic Games, in which 2,500 athletes will participate in events from skiing to snowboarding to skating.

So much national pride is at stake that Culture Minister Choung Byoung-gug says it would be "a national disgrace if we lost the bid three straight times." That's an overstatement, but the clear sense now is that the contest is between Pyeongchong and Munich, with Annecy in distinctly third place. Munich, which hosted the 1972 Summer Olympics, is campaigning to be the first city to have hosted both summer and winter Games, and German athletes (if you include those from the former East Germany) have won more gold medals than athletes from any other country.

Germans visiting here, however, note the drive of the Koreans. "In Germany you do not see such enthusiasm," says Martina Dieck, a German figure-skating coach in town for a competition at nearby Gangneung, the site Korea plans to hold ice events.

Brian Orser, the Canadian who coached the gold medal Korean figure skater Kim Yuna, is a believer. "They're close, that's for sure," says Mr. Orser, "It's the perfect place for the winter Olympics," he says. "Maybe third time's a charm."

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