Saturday, 10 February 2018

Pyeongchang Olympics Are Here! Brace For the Letdown!

The Pyeongchang Olympics are here! Some of my friends are really excited about this, so of course I take it as my Roboseyoly duty to throw some cold water on the proceedings. We have a lot of cold water around the house right now, because our laundry room's pipes have been frozen for literally three weeks! Before running out to the coin laundry to ensure I have underpants for the next week (rueing that cancelled trip to Hawaii more and more), I'd like to say a few things about the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Part One: Tempering Expectations

I had intended to write this about two or three years ago, but never really got around to it, which means I am now Johnny-come-lately instead of being stylishly ahead of the curve, but I've been telling whichever friends would listen that the Pyeongchang Olympics are going to be a letdown pretty much since they were awarded.

Whoa now, spoilsport!
I'm evil. I know.

See, Korea's previous experiences with global mega-events (through a carefully calibrated filter of selection bias) has been really really good! The 1988 Seoul Olympics were one of the most successful games in history, at a time in history when the Olympics really, really needed a games to come off smoothly without a massive boycott or a tragedy. The biggest scandals of the '88 Olympics were in the context of sports (Ben Johnson's steroids; and Roy Jones Jr.'s screw-job) unlike previous Olympics, where the flies in the ointment had been things like cold war politics (1984 and 1980) huge boycotts PLUS catastrophic financial overruns (Montreal 1976), or freaking massacres (Mexico City 1968, Munich 1972... which adds up to the previous twenty years of Olympics)... the Seoul Olympics set records for countries in attendance, ran more or less smoothly, and basically got the Olympics back on track.

The redevelopment and city infrastructure built for the Olympics was much-needed: highways, expressways, bridges and several subway lines were started and/or completed to help move sports fans around Seoul, and everyone's been using them ever since. Yeouido was set up as the media center, giving Korea's mass media a huge shot in the arm. Being located in the middle of Seoul's huge population center, most of the Olympic facilities have since been earning their keep as venues for sports teams, concerts and performances ever since.

Finally, the narratives around the '88 Olympics were pretty darn triumphal. It is looked back on as Korea's coming out party, its entry to the club of advanced nations. Korea announced itself as a contender, a regional and global player. It was no longer the backwater you saw in M*A*S*H* (which is what people thought of Korea before then).

The 2002 FIFA World Cup -- the other universally positive experience remembered in "Mega-Event Fever" has been credited with re-igniting national pride after the beating it took in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. The run to the semifinal, watching Korea play on huge screens in downtown Seoul, sits as one of the fondest memories of Koreans of a certain age. Less discussed is that it was a hugely expensive World Cup ever to that date, as Japan and Korea competed to build more, more impressive stadiums than each other. That kind of washed away in the excitement of Ahn Jung Hwan's golden goal.


Again, Korea's image had a lot of ground to gain at the time, given that most Korea news going global in 2002 was related either to the Asian Financial Crisis or Kim Jong-il's nuclear intentions and the Axis of Evil stuff, so a World Cup with some nice, exciting moments was a great shot in the arm. It was also right up in Seoulites' faces (and Seoul is where Korea's media and narratives center): foreigners were filling up the hotels and restaurants and walking the streets.

The Pyeongchang Olympics, though... well, if you expand the memory a little, you start noticing that Korea has hosted more mega-events than just the 1988 Olympics and the 2002 FIFA World cup, and I have a feeling the Pyeongchang Olympics will be remembered less like those two events, and more like the poorly-attended 2014 Incheon Asian Games (also debt-racked), the 2011 World Track and Field Championships in Daegu (went smoothly but... did you remember it happened before I mentioned it here?), or the 2012 Yeosu Expo (organizers were giving away free tickets to drum up attendance numbers; massive organizational problems; did Yeosu need a mega-convention center?).

Back when I was cooking up this blog idea, I was going to sound all clever predicting all kinds of stuff... but now it's coming to pass, so here, not looking nearly as cool, in short, is Why Pyeongchang Won't (Couldn't) Live Up To The Seoul Olympics.

1. The Winter Olympics Just Aren't As Big a Deal as the Summer Olympics

Unless you are Norway or Canada, the world media just doesn't care as much. Sorry.

2. The Narratives Around These Olympics Just Aren't as Exciting

The 1988 Olympics were Seoul and Korea's coming out party. Problem is: Korea's already had its coming out party now. Korea is already a player on the world stage. K-pop and K-dramas are out there, Youtube and the internet mean anybody who wants to find out about Korea can. South Korea's image in the world just doesn't have anything close to as much to gain in global standing from these Olympics as it did from the 1988 Olympics. 

The narratives about the state of the Olympic project are also not as heartening: Yeah, Sochi ended on a sour note as Putin defiantly invaded Ukraine just weeks after the Winter Games ended, and the Summer Games in Rio had some sour spots as well (though not as many as the FIFA World Cup two years before) so the possibility that these games will be a step up from those is certainly up for grabs. But comparing that to twenty entire years of cold war politics, massive boycotts and massacres, before corporate sponsorship ensured that the amount of money to be made on TV rights guaranteed there would always be more Olympics as long as a sucker city could be found to provide a venue... well in 1988 it would have been reasonable to suggest shuttering the entire Olympic project, as it had expressly failed in its stated goal of bridging gaps between nations, and a plausible argument could have been made that the '88 games saved the Olympics, or at least marked a turning of the tide. Now, the Olympics are in no danger, just as long as Coke and NBC and Visa are there tuning it into the money-printing machine they always dreamed of.

The Winter Games do much less to set those bigger narratives anyway: it's more important that, after the mess of the 2016 Rio games, the next three Summer Games are in cities that have pretty good odds of running a smooth games: Tokyo, Paris, and Los Angeles, all three of which have hosted the games before, Paris and LA twice! Frankly, with the 2022 winter games set in Beijing, considering the way Beijing went all-out for the 2008 Summer Games, there's a more than fair chance South Korea will be upstaged anyway, unless anything short of Korean Reunification happens because of these Olympics.

3. The Money Stuff

Olympics have almost never turned a profit. At best, the national narratives generated were worth the cost (though this is difficult to prove because it's a counterfactual argument: there's no control for how a country's reputation would have done WITHOUT hosting an Olympics) -- if Brazil had spent the cost of the Rio Olympics or the World Cup on improving infrastructure and life for its poorest 20%, it might be a very different country... but we just can't know that, because they didn't.

That said... as sad photo essays about abandoned Olympic venues show us, many governments simply give up on maintaining the facilities they built for their showcase event. I read one critique of the Olympics that basically argued the games were little more than a method for reallocating national wealth from the public to building contractors... the last thing many countries need.

In South Korea, the Central and Provincial government have already been bickering about the cost. Unlike the olympics in Seoul, where Seoul needed that infrastructure, and Seoul's cultural life could sustain all those performance venues, Pyeongchang doesn't have enough people to fill a bunch of stadiums with crowds for sports or cultural events after the crowds leave. This article says the Pyeongchang organizers have designed the facilities with this in mind. But nobody seems to be sure who will foot the bill for maintenance after the games close.

(Hosting the Olympics is a Terrible Investment)
They only happen every four years... so how can there be a to SEVEN list of the worst Olympic financial disasters?

4. The Olympic Spirit Itself

The Olympics are in trouble.

Back in 1988, I think people were still willing to buy that rhetoric about the unity of humankind, the binding power of excellence in competition, and the potential for sport to lead humans closer to peace and unity, or at least wanting to... though the three previous Boycott Olympics in a row might put the lie to that. As the Olympics get bigger and more media-saturated, and as the Games get cynically instrumentalised by governments wishing to score a propaganda or national image boost  more and more often (Beijing, Sochi, Berlin), as the number of cities willing to host dwindles, as countries more and more nakedly obsess over medal counts and gold medal ratios as a proxy for national prestige (and will cheat on a massive, institutional scale to do it)... as the IOC is second only to FIFA in its corruption-inducing mix of prestige, money at stake and organizational opacity, and Coke ads seem to take higher priority than exciting performances... the world is just less ready to swallow what the Olympics are serving than before, and it's harder to drum up excitement when the Olympics stir up a medal-count-obsessed rivalry and petty nationalisms, all enabled by Coca Cola, Visa, McDonald's and Samsung, instead of joy and excitement and all that. I think the world has come onto the fact it's impossible for the Olympics to actually be non-political, as much as the IOC micro-manages helmet designs to maintain that fiction. The very act of choosing one country or city over another makes it inherently political (Uhh... Moscow 1980/LA 1984 during the Cold War? Can we just stop pretending?)...

The only reason the Olympics still exist is because Samsung and Coca Cola et al couldn't get everybody to watch if they organized a spectacle to the shit they're selling, so they had to slap some flags on it to drum up viewers. If the Olympics REALLY wanted to be non-political, athletes would march in without flags, but then everybody would notice how it is now nakedly and unashamedly about money.

It's not Pyeongchang's fault, but the world is different, and mega-events are way different.

Part Two: But North Korea!


1. North Korea won't try any crap during the Olympics. They have more to gain from showing they can play nicely. After the Olympics, it will probably be same old same old, until DJT needs to distract the US media from another revelation by the Mueller Investigation. At that point, the American guy is the wild card. North Korea's been very predictable.

2. Does anybody else find the fawning coverage of the pretty North Korean cheerleaders more than a little creepy? I sure do.

Source


3. North and South Korea's Olympic teams marching together is meaningless, sorry. It's your kid sister grabbing your cap and gown and putting it on while you're showering before the graduation ceremony. It's putting the cart before the horse. More than that. It's putting the cart before the horse, before the horse has even been born. It's putting the cart before a freezer of stud samples at a horse breeding facility. It's putting the cart before the plot of land where a horse breeding facility will one day be built.

For The Koreas to actually, meaningfully, substantively improve relations, so many things have to happen, that marching athletes under the unification flag means absolutely nothing in the larger scheme of things. That Kim Jong-eun's sister is attending the games... still means nothing except that North Korea saw an opportunity for some good propaganda shots.

If the Koreas marching together were another step on a long trail of increasingly confident steps of rapprochement between North and South Korea, the march would be meaningless because those negotiations would be considered much more important by anyone but the most sentimental of souls. Without that process, marching together is like lifting a sports trophy you didn't win. It's step T without steps A, B, C, D, etc.. Let's not get carried away, OK? Nobody is winning a Nobel Peace Prize here, folks.


The Pyeongchang Olympics will be a letdown for Korea. After the narratives around the Seoul Olympics and the excitement of the 2002 World Cup, anything would be... but they will. Sorry.

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