Monday, July 02, 2007

I.O.C. Should Pick the Welcoming Backyard

Sports of The Times
July 3, 2007

Always listen to your neighborhood Nimby. That’s my policy, and it’s a good one. If enough people are chanting “Not in my backyard!” it probably means they really don’t want it, whether it’s a power line or a freeway or some cockamamie hybrid sports complex, no names mentioned.

That’s why the members of the International Olympic Committee should listen to the Nimby factor in Salzburg, Austria, and choose the South Korean town of Pyeongchang for the 2014 Winter Games, when the vote is taken tomorrow afternoon in Guatemala.

Pyeongchang is a better choice than Salzburg or Sochi, Russia, not only because it seems to have the best plan, but also because South Korea has proved itself twice in the last generation to be a highly skillful and enthusiastic host of major sports events.

Another major reason for choosing Pyeongchang is a poll released in early June by the evaluation committee of the I.O.C. Twenty-seven percent of residents in Salzburg were strongly opposed to holding the Games while another 18 percent were somewhat opposed, compared with the 7 percent strongly opposed and 7 percent somewhat opposed in Sochi and 3 and 2 in Pyeongchang.

That’s a lot of Nimby types in Salzburg. And they may very well be right. Salzburg has been staging winter sports since that Mozart boy was writing concertos, and the locals don’t need Olympic-mandated security patrols and television construction crews clogging up their town, getting in the way of real life.

The South Koreans not only have space and money to build a modern Olympic site, but they are also a people with something to prove.

“Sports unite people,” said Han Seung-soo, the former president of the United Nations general assembly and ambassador to the United States who is now the chairman of the Pyeongchang bid committee.

“I think the international community is aware of the Korean people and our rapid economic growth,” said Han, an economist by training, in a telephone interview yesterday.

Then there is the matter of a geopolitical leap of faith — voting for a site only an hour and a half from what President Clinton once called “the scariest place on earth,” the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.

Putting the Games near the border would, in effect, be making a statement that two halves of the same psyche won’t be hurling missiles at each other. At the moment, the hermit nation of North Korea is toning down its nuclear bluster, and has approved the Winter Games near its borders, even agreeing to a joint Olympic team, eventually. The North Koreans want a team based on a straight 50-50 split while the South Koreans want a team based on results, which indicates a decade-long debate over whether to use a square table or a round table.

More importantly, the I.O.C. constantly preaches reconciliation through sport, and has already seen South Korea come through during the 1988 Summer Games.

“North Korea boycotted the Seoul Olympics,” Han recalled yesterday, adding that “tension was very high,” a reference to the civil unrest in South Korea before the Games. Yet the Games were held in a flurry of color and good will and competence, as the world got to know a major Asian nation.

“Now tension has receded,” said Han, who was recently appointed a special envoy on climate change by his former assistant, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon.

Han, 70, grew up in Gangwon province, which includes Pyeongchang. He recalled years of poverty in the partitioned nation, but added, “the last 40, 50 years, we have had good economic growth.”

“Now we have the infrastructure to build a modern Olympic center,” he said.

The concept of reconciliation was criticized by Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer of Austria Sunday after his arrival in Guatemala.

“Is the vote for the sake of Olympic ideals or is it for geopolitics?” Gusenbauer was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. “We do not need to have the Olympic Games for a special purpose for us. We think we can offer something special — more emotion and more passion. This is what the Olympics so desperately needs.”

More emotion? More passion? This man clearly has never met a Korean. He could not have been in South Korea in 2002, when that nation shared the World Cup with Japan, and everybody wore red T-shirts to contribute to the national team’s improbable surge to the semifinals.

But spirit is not everything. Pyeongchang narrowly lost to Vancouver, British Columbia, for the 2010 Games in a vote four years ago, finishing slightly ahead of Salzburg. Both of their current plans have been termed “excellent” in the recent I.O.C. evaluation, although the criticisms of Salzburg seemed more pointed, while Sochi was chillingly described as merely “very good.”

Austria had a doping scandal during the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, with 6 athletes and 14 team officials ultimately suspended. South Korea has also had a scandal in recent years, with Kim Un-yong, a former power in the Olympic movement, sentenced to 30 months in jail for embezzlement.

The three nations are throwing in the big guns, so to speak. President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea arrived in Guatemala yesterday while President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was expected after stopping off to visit President Bush in Maine.

The Sochi committee installed its own skating rink in Guatemala City, with Slava Fetisov, the great hockey defenseman and an Olympic official, expected to skate, as was the former Olympic figure skating champion Evgeni Plushenko.

Chancellor Gusenbauer tried to prop up Austria by stressing Salzburg’s proximity to the traditional winter-sports audience of Europe and North America, but Han noted this is a new century, saying, “There are a billion people living in Asia near the Games.”

Being an Olympic host is an expensive honor. Sometimes the Summer Games are used to upgrade a city, the way Beijing is doing, and Athens, Atlanta and Barcelona did in the recent past, but Winter Games are trickier, based on cold-weather sports in a world of rising temperatures. A sensible swath of Salzburg residents may very well believe they don’t need this intrusion, but Koreans, rightly or wrongly, want to throw a costly party in 2014. By their diligence and their spirit, they have earned it.



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home


Web Site Hit Counters
High Speed Internet Services