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After Rio, Olympics headed for Asian venues seen as safe

22 August 2016, 13:16

Beijing — For the Olympics, it's so-long Rio, hello Asia.

The next three Olympics are headed for relatively calmer ports of call in South Korea, Japan and China following the organizational drama surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia and the just completed Summer Games in Brazil, although challenges remain, especially when it comes to finances and generating enthusiasm among home audiences. A look ahead to the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and the 2022 Beijing Winter Games. All three countries have hosted the Olympics before and enjoy a shared reputation for prosperity and a deft hand at organizing major events.

PYEONGCHANG 2018: Sleepy ski resort faces questions over costs and a lack of buzz

Pyeongchang, a sleepy ski resort town on South Korea's mountainous east, is the smallest of the Asian hosts, and hopes to use the 2018 Winter Games to position itself as a major Asian winter sports destination.

However, preparations for Pyeongchang 2018 have been noticeably less smooth than when South Korea's capital Seoul hosted the Summer Games in 1988. Organizers struggling with construction delays, local conflicts over venue construction and difficulties attracting domestic sponsorships. Such problems were easily avoided 30 years ago when the country's then-military dictatorship steamrolled any opposition.

Even so, six new competition venues are about 80 percent complete, and a new high-speed rail line, designed to link the country's main gateway of Incheon airport with Pyeongchang in 90 minutes, will be up and running by January 2018.

Despite a slow start, organizers say 90 percent of the domestic sponsorship target of $760 million will be met at the end of the year, when another round of test events will begin at Olympic venues.

If the 1988 Summer Olympics marked the nation's arrival on the world stage as a modern industrialized economy and fully fledged democracy, the significance of the Pyeongchang games for South Korea is harder to pinpoint. The country is currently ranked the world's 11th largest economy by the International Monetary Fund and boasts a remarkable level of political stability despite the threat from communist North Korea. There is little obvious craving among the public for the recognition that large sports events bring.

Excitement for the games has been tempered by concerns over the enormous costs involved, both for preparing and staging the Games and for maintaining the new facilities that might find little use once the party leaves town.

Gangwon province, which governs Pyeongchang and drove the efforts to win the Games, has quarreled with the central government over who should pay the Olympic bills, which are now estimated at nearly $12 billion. The government has been eager to save money, but failed to convince Pyeongchang organizers and area residents to move some competitions and the opening and closing ceremonies to existing stadiums in other cities.

Generating buzz is also a challenge because South Korea doesn't have a large footing in winter sports. While the country is competitive in speed skating, it remains a virtual unknown in skiing, snowboarding and ice hockey. It had an iconic winter sports figure in Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yu-na, but she has retired and involved with Pyeongchang only as an honorary ambassador.

Yet optimists say the Olympics will bring much-needed infrastructure to one of South Korea's less-developed regions, which could become a winter sports destination for Asian tourists.

"Pyeongchang is not all green lights at this point. It will be and it's a very able country," IOC member Dick Pound of Canada said recently when asked if the IOC can relax now that Rio is out of the way and three Asian cities next.

Also read: Disappointed Blessing Okagbare grateful to fans

Tokyo 2020: A 'safe pair of hands,' even while costs spiral

Tokyo was clearly the most reassuring choice when it was selected over Istanbul and Madrid in 2013 for the 2020 Summer Games. Japan's capital city even billed itself as a "safe pair of hands" at a time of global unrest and economic turmoil.

Spain was still wrestling with the aftershocks of the previous decade's financial crisis, and Turkey, with political unrest and the effects of the conflict in neighboring Syria. Also weighing on the minds of International Olympic Committee members were mounting concerns about construction delays in Rio, and security and astronomical cost overruns for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

The IOC opted to play it safe and go with a rich country with strong corporate sponsor support.

That doesn't mean there haven't been major hiccups. Last summer, spiraling construction costs drove the government to scrap a futuristic plan by the late world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid for the main Olympic Stadium, raising concerns a new design might not be ready in time. Then the logo chosen for the Tokyo Games was ditched after plagiarism allegations.

But Tokyo has the advantage of being a city that is in most senses already complete. There's no mad rush to build subway lines, or, as for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, elevated highways to unsnarl traffic. It's also one of the safest major cities in the world.

Japan hopes the Olympics will boost tourism and the economy, as well as show off the country's technology, from driverless cars to super-sharp 8K television.

Ballooning costs remain an issue: Japanese media in December put the figure at about $18 billion, although organizers have not confirmed that. Newly elected Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has pledged to rein in costs, writing in a recent newspaper column that her team must become world-class cost accountants so that the Olympics don't hobble future generations with debt and mar Tokyo's skyline with white elephants.

Some events have already been moved to existing facilities in the suburbs to avoid the cost of building new ones. The competition sites are spread around Tokyo and the surrounding area, rather than being in Olympic parks.

"It's going to need a lot of careful planning to get people from venue to venue," said IOC Vice President John Coates. "It's a more complex situation than Rio. On the positive side they have a very good transport infrastructure that connects all parts of the city. I think they're up for it, no worry about that, but you can't say it's going be easy."

And then there's the heat. Tokyo in August is famously hot and humid, similar to Washington, D.C., and organizers are busy devising ways to keep athletes and fans cool. The 1964 Tokyo Games were held in October.

Beijing 2022: Expertise, facilities, though natural snow a rarity

Handing the 2022 Winter Olympics to China's capital Beijing was arguably one of the IOC's most pragmatic decisions.

When the time came to vote, the pool of candidates had been reduced to just two: Beijing and Almaty, the capital of the landlocked Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, which had never hosted an event on such a scale and whose dependence on hydrocarbon exports was a worry.

Beijing, meanwhile, could skate on its record of hosting the highly praised 2008 Summer Olympics that equipped it with almost all the facilities needed to stage the indoor events for the Winter Games, such as ice hockey and figure skating.

That allowed the bid organizers to cater to IOC Chairman Thomas Bach's drive for lower coasts and greater sustainability after the scandal over the $51 billion overall price tag associated with Sochi. Beijing estimates the total cost for operations and infrastructure at just $3 billion, while robust economic projections ensure strong support from the government and domestic sponsors.

In keeping with the theme of re-use, the Beijing Games organizing committee's new offices are located in former iron ore storage silos at the former Capital Iron and Steel Works' sprawling factory site in the capital's western suburbs.

The Beijing Games have not been without their controversies, chief among them the lack of steep mountains and natural snowfall in the area directly surrounding the typically bone-dry capital. That has required organizers to locate some of the skiing events in the adjacent province of Hebei, with travel eased by new high-speed rail links.

Beijing's heavy winter air pollution is also a concern, although city planners say the closure of factories and retirement of smoke-spewing vehicles will help. And while China's ruling Communist Party continues to silence its opponents and repress Tibetans and other minorities, human rights doesn't appear to be a major factor in the run-up to the games, just as they were mostly cast aside during the 2008 events.

Although China doesn't have much of a Winter Olympics tradition, games organizers have touted the games as a driving force for public participation in hockey, skiing and other winter sports.

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- AP


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