IOC panel praises progress in Pyeongchang bid

Pyeongchang showed passion and progress in unveiling its third

bid to host the Winter Olympics, an International Olympic Committee

panel said Saturday.

Gunilla Lindberg, chair of the 14-member IOC evaluation

commission visiting South Korea this week, noted strides made in

building winter sports facilities in the country’s northeastern

mountains and praised the ”passionate support” displayed

throughout the week by cheering residents and the government.

She dismissed concerns raised about the safety of holding the

2018 Winter Olympics on the Korean peninsula, saying sports can

also prove a ”force for the good.”

South Korea and North Korea have technically been in a state of

war since 1953, when their three-year conflict ended in a truce,

not a peace treaty. The heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone runs

straight through Gangwon, the province where Pyeongchang is

located.

The IOC visit comes less than three months after a North Korean

artillery attack on an island in disputed western waters killed

four South Koreans, and nearly a year after the deadly sinking of a

warship that Seoul blames on the North.

South Korea’s minister for culture, sports and tourism, Choung

Byoung-gug, said on Saturday the panel asked how inter-Korean

dialogue was progressing, but not about security concerns.

”We’ve had this situation for the past 60 years with North

Korea,” Lindberg said at a news conference. ”During that time,

(South) Korea has hosted the Olympic Summer Games, the World

University Games, the Asian Games and other events and

championships.”

It’s the third time the once-sleepy town of Pyeongchang – not to

be confused with Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea – is

campaigning to host the Winter Olympics.

In 2003, Pyeongchang lost its first bid to Vancouver. In 2007,

the Winter Olympics went to Sochi, Russia. This time, it’s a matter

of national pride, Choung said.

The committee regrouped with support and input from the

government and powerful business backers, including Cho Yang-ho,

the Korean Air CEO who serves as chairman of the Pyeongchang 2018

organizing committee, and Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee.

Four years ago, the IOC panel stood on an empty field as the

Pyeongchang committee described its dream venues. On Saturday, they

spoke at a news conference held inside a gleaming convention center

at the $1.5 billion Alpensia ski resort.

Winter sports have boomed in South Korea in the past four years,

the product of a growing leisure class in the increasingly

prosperous Asian nation. In 1999, there were only 11 ski resorts in

South Korea; now there are at least 17, according to the Korea Ski

Resort Business Association.

In 2002, South Korea came away from the Salt Lake Winter Games

with just four Olympic medals, Lindberg noted. In 2010, the haul of

14 medals, crowned by Kim Yu-na’s figure skating gold, was the best

among Asian nations.

Pyeongchang organizers, who envision transforming Pyeongchang

into a winter sports hub for all of Asia, showed off six venues and

said blueprints have been drawn to build seven others if the city

wins the IOC vote in Durban, South Africa, in July.

Local residents showed their support by turning out in droves to

welcome the IOC panel. Undeterred by record snowfall, hundreds

lined the streets with flags and banners on Monday. Scores kept up

the giddy welcome throughout four days of site inspections at

Alpensia and in the coastal city of Gangneung.

”During our site visits, it has been wonderful to see so many

people showing their support to bring the Winter Olympic Games here

to Korea,” Lindberg said.

She also praised the strong government support for the bid.

President Lee Myung-bak and several cabinet ministers traveled to

Pyeongchang, 110 miles northeast of Seoul, to meet the panel.

However, the campaign has not been without controversy. Last

month, the governor of Gangwon Province, Lee Kwang-jae, was

stripped of his position after being convicted of corruption. In

late 2009, Samsung’s Lee was granted a special presidential pardon

from a suspended sentence for illegal financial dealings so he

could rejoin the Pyeongchang bid.

The South Korea visit is the second in the evaluation

commission’s tour of 2018 bidders. They were in Annecy, France,

last week, and head to Munich next. The panel’s technical

evaluations of the three bids will be made public in May.

Haeran Hyun contributed to this report from Seoul, South

Korea.