Well, it's very convenient that Pyongchang was awarded the 2018 Olympics just now, as I just finished reading over 600 pages worth of books and articles on the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, so I have lots to say...
In Question and Answer Format, then:
1. People in Korea are, like, REALLY excited about this. Why?
Almost every Korean you talk to wants Korea to be recognized as a world-class nation. Whatever that means*. Every Korean you ever meet wants foreigners to think well of Korea, and in order for MORE foreigners to think well of Korea, Korea needs to attract their attention. Big events like the Olympics are a great opportunity to do this. Koreans like to see Korean-related things high on lists comparing countries, and get distressed when Korea's position on such comparative lists are low. Here's a list Korea now belongs to:
Countries that will (by 2018) have hosted a Summer Olympics, a Winter Olympics, and a FIFA World Cup:
France, Germany, Italy, USA, Russia, Japan... and South Korea. That's more exclusive than the G20!
Not only is Korea now on a very very exclusive list (absent: famously "highly advanced" nations like Sweden, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, and even the United friggin' Kingdom!), but Korea gets to show that anything Japan can do, they can do, too. Which is important to some people here.
*Usually, what "world-class nation" means is a nation that resembles nations universally recognized as "highly advanced" - usually in terms of technology, economic and military power, and cultural influence. These nations tend to be "Western" nations like the USA and European nations. And Japan.
2. That's a lot of talk about prestige and status, Roboseyo. But The Olympics are about peace and harmony through sport, aren't they?
Actually... whether the Olympics are successful at bringing peace and harmony and cultural understanding to the world is debatable -- during the 60s and 70s, the Olympics were extremely politicized, with major boycotts to the 1976, 1980 and 1984 games, a political hostage situation at the 1972 games (Munich), and a massacre of protestors just days before the opening of the 1968 games (Mexico City). There are also constant rumors of corruption in the International Olympic Committee, and the IOC is known for turning a blind eye on some horrific stuff: the Seoul Games were awarded to Korea only a year after the horrific Gwangju Massacres in 1980, and the IOC very nearly gave the 2000 Summer Games to Beijing, only four years after the Tiananmen Square massacre: a bid which China submitted after being actively encouraged to bid by IOC leaders.
Meanwhile, though Olympics bring lots of nations together, it's debatable whether one sees an increase in international understanding during the Olympics, or whether one simply sees nations gathering to root for their own tribe. Pride gets involved. Winning at all costs becomes more important than fair play and excellence.* The Olympics and similar events warm over old national rivalries, and when things don't go the way one or another nation wants, especially when one of those old rivalries is in play, it can lead to an international incident (see also: Ohno, Apolo).
(For the record, FIFA has generally, but not always, been less political, but especially recently, even more corrupt and unaccountable.)
The one thing the Olympics are SURE to bring is not peace and harmony, but a jump in international visibility, which acts as a blank canvas on which the host (and anyone else with some media savvy) can paint their messages. Beijing 2008 used the Olympics to make some bold declarations about China's rise. The 1988 Seoul Games, the 1968 Mexico City games, and the 1964 Tokyo games did likewise. After World War II, the Olympics were held in a series of former Axis nations, to show their return to normalized relations with the world (Rome 1960, Tokyo 1964, Munich 1972). The Olympics are also a great opportunity to do a little national swaggering, as in the 1936 Berlin "Nazi" Olympics, the cold war Olympics (Moscow 1980 and LA 1984 - which featured Sam the Eagle, the most nationalist mascot ever), and some might argue, the 1948 "Who just won a world war?" London Olympics.
(Sam the eagle: 1984 LA's mascot. A bit flag-wavey, no?)
*Lest I be accused of finger pointing, Canada is also guilty of focusing on winning. Canada's "Own the podium" project missed the point of the Olympics, if it really IS about understanding, harmony, excellence and fair play.
3. But fair play and excellence comes into it, right?
Somewhere in there... but with few exceptions, the medal counts have become more a reflection of who puts money into their Olympic program than anything else. And why do governments and corporations think it's worth it to support Olympic programs? Swagger, not sport. Look at the change in China's medal counts that have happened since the 1980s, leading up to China's 2008 gold frenzy - directly connected to national "glory" and prestige. If medals weren't a way of building national prestige, why would countries strategically focus funding on less popular, high medal-count events (swimming, diving, rowing, and skating events) in order to pad their totals?
4. But the 1988 Olympics were really good for Seoul, and Korea in general. Why wouldn't these Olympics be equally good for Korea?
A few reasons.
First, in 1981, all anybody knew about Korea was the War, and MASH, and Western news coverage on Korea at that time focused on North Korea, civil unrest in South Korea, and visits to Korea by heads of state. That's about it. There was nowhere for Korea's national image to go but up, and by putting on a helluva good show, Korea's national image DID go up.
Were the Seoul Games the "foundation for an Advanced Nation" advertised in the 1988 Olympic Museum (Olympic Park)?
Hard to say. A lot of other things were going on at the time. The games were a convergence point for forces that had been gathering speed in Korea for a long time, towards democratization and internationalization and a new stage of economic development, but those forces existed before the Olympics, and would have had their effect on the national trajectory without them, though in different ways and with different timing. The Olympics definitely gave Koreans a better story to tell themselves about Korea's rise in status, acting as a tidy turning point in the national narrative being constructed.
The 2002 World Cup also provided a nice turning point in the narrative of Korea's recovery from the 1997 financial crisis... but that was a constructed narrative, too. Not necessarily an objective truth. Often, that's what big sports events are best for - national storytelling.
5. So why wouldn't the same happen to Korea this time?
Now, Korea already is a prominent nation. You don't see Mongolian TV dramas sweeping their time-slots in Taiwan, you don't see Laotian pop bands hitting top ten charts all across Asia, and you don't see Burkina-Faso's top popstars getting headlining roles in crappy Hollywood movies, do you? Park Jisung even has his own chant from Manchester United fans, which, while as crass as any other soccer chant, is at least aware enough of Korean culture to choose the correct ugly stereotype.
Korea has much less to gain this time, and much more to lose if the games go poorly, or if something embarrassing happens, like the 2008 Beijing Torch Relay fustercluck, or closer to home, the Byun Jong il boxing brouhaha, during which a Korean security guard hit a boxing official. (More on that) ... do you know how close they came to canceling the rest of the Olympic boxing tournament in 1988?
6. So what do you think is going to happen during the 2018 Pyeongchang games?
I think they will be a successful games, but not enough to be considered among the best ever.
Predictions will wildly overestimate the number of tourists and dollars the Olympics will attract. But that's true of literally EVERY Olympics.
I think Koreans have overestimated the Winter Olympics - they're nowhere near the importance, length or scale of the Summer Games. They have much fewer events, and they only appeal to nations with winter sports.
It will raise Korea's profile, but not as much as expected, and not only in the ways hoped for: that visibility gives EVERYBODY a platform, not just the official party line, and protesters and dissenting voices WILL be a part of these Olympics.
If this article is on base, the region has its work cut out for it, to develop a venue area that will impress people from winter sport regions, rather than just Koreans who can't afford to travel to Whistler.
I think there will be a lot of talk, but the Olympics will not help improve North/South Korea relations. Nobody will win the Nobel Peace Prize because of these games.
I think North Korea will do some big stunt a few months before the games, to get attention and try to piss on the Olympic party, but be relatively quiet during the games. I don't know whether they'll send a team (they didn't in '88)... too many variables in play, particularly in terms of succession.
I think negotiations to send a unified Korean team to the Olympics won't work out, and both sides will blame the other. As usual. This one might hinge on whether the president at the time is lefty or righty (politically).
I think the facilities will be completed ahead of time, but over budget. Either that, or early and under budget, with problems in workmanship cropping up close to the opening day. This would be very embarrassing to the nation, especially if it was discovered that construction funds were funneled elsewhere. However, due to TV revenues, etc., the games will pretty much break even.
Then, I think Pyeongchang will not know what to do with the extra facilities, and mad surplus of hotel accommodations no longer needed after the games, and maybe tear down things like the bobsled track, once all the Olympic jobs evaporate and public funds have to go into maintaining mostly unused facilities. Best case scenario? Pyeongchang becomes an Olympic training complex for future Olympians. Pyeongchang's nearby ski resorts will become WAY overpriced and overcrowded.
I think it will be run better than that F1 Racing event (racing events remain a mess), because the President will see to it that extremely capable people will be involved in the olympic project.
7. What are some pitfalls that you think should get some media play during games preparations, so that Korea doesn't end up in a media standoff like they did with NBC during the 1988 Olympics?
Here's the thing:
I'm sure the planning and execution of the games will go well. And I'm sure the "official version" of Korean culture will be well represented during the opening ceremonies and such.
There will be some bad calls during the games. Some of those bad calls will go against Korean athletes.
Some journalist will do a piece on the nearest dog meat market to Pyeongchang.
Another will report on the gender empowerment gap, and the prostitution industry here. And maybe even the intellectual crime (pirated DVDs and such) or the continuing corruption of the high-and-mighty elites. Or the mistreatment of migrant workers. If people try to suppress these stories, there will be instead a series of stories about how Korea is not ready to take criticism the way a truly developed nation should (as happened to China when they lashed out at BBC). Western media likes to position non-western nations as "Other" and somewhat "inferior."
People will talk about North Korea more than South Koreans would like.
A few Koreans will act like hypernationalist asses, and it will get a little play in the international news, like the "USA" chanters at the Atlanta summer games.
If North Korea sends a team, they'll send a squad of beautiful cheerleaders who attract a lot of media attention.
Some athletes or guests will act like asses, and get into some kind of scuffle with locals or local police.
Some protestors will jump in front of cameras and talk about the Korean issue of the day: the 2018 equivalent of the 4 rivers project, or the US Agent Orange dumping.
Some Koreans will dislike the style of foreign nations' reporting on Korea, and try to stir up a nationalist outrage like the one that led NBC to advise its reporters to hide the peacock logo during the 1988 games.
Somebody's going to write a cheeky article about Korean culture that seems mocking to a reader without enough English skill to pick out nuances of tone, or write some stuff that's overwhelmingly positive, but has a few critical lines in it. (see also: Hohleiter, Vera)
How the Korean internet, and media, respond to these things, will demonstrate Korea's true level of advancement as a nation either confident in its status as a major player, or still insecure about whether EVERY person likes EVERYTHING about Korea - an impossible goal for a high profile country. Will the media and public response be different than it was in 1988 (exactly 30 years earlier)? That'll be a test of whether Korea's truly comfortable in its own skin as a player on the world stage.
8. So how can Korea prepare for those kinds of unexpected things?
With a preemptive series of media discussions about why it's unsporting, and makes Korea look bad, to crash the websites of countries, athletes, or sport governing bodies, that are party to decisions that go against Korean athletes or say bad things about Korea, or to threaten the lives of, well, anyone, over something as inconsequential as sports, and a series of media discussions about the fact people coming to Korea will be behaving by different norms than Koreans behave, which doesn't mean they're bad, inferior, immoral, or trying to insult their hosts: it just means they're not from around here.
9. Do you think that'll happen?
I don't know. But it'd be refreshing if it did. We saw during the 2008 Beijing Games, as well as the 1988 Seoul Games, that host nations do not have complete control over the messages conveyed about their countries during such global events. Responding by taking it on the chin, with a "Yeah, maybe that's true. Everybody hosting the Olympics this year raise your hands!" instead of with prickly defensiveness, would demonstrate a kind of confidence Korea hasn't always demnostrated, and didn't in 1988. The point of big event hosting is swagger... so swagger! Korea would do well to bear this in mind while preparing for the games, and to aim for a populace ready for this inevitability, come games time.