Just five months from now, South Korea will host the 2018 Winter Olympics. But tensions with North Korea have caused considerable problems for organizers of what is supposed to be a global celebration of sports.
The Games are set to begin in February, but with North Korea in recent months testing missiles and what Pyongyang said was a hydrogen bomb, ticket sales for the event have remained disastrously weak.
South Korea’s historical lack of interest in winter sports hasn’t helped, either, observers say.
Organizers have said they hoped to attract at least 1 million spectators for the Olympics – with more than two-thirds of the ticket buyers being local Koreans.
So far, however, only 52,000 tickets have been sold domestically through June, a total constituting less than 7 percent of the 750,000 seats the organizers aim to fill.
Fans beyond the Korean Peninsula have purchased about half of their 320,000 alotted seats, although most of those sales occurred before North Korea put the world on edge with its missile tests.
Geopolitics aside, experts have tried to provide other reasons for the lack of fan excitement as the Winter Games draw closer. After all, the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul were a resounding success — with millions of South Koreans attending events and tuning in on television.
Heejoon Chung, a sports science professor at Busan’s Dong-A University, has attributed the lack of enthusiasm to South Korea having no strong winter sports culture.
“I don’t think there are many people who are willing to stay outdoors in the cold for hours to watch races on snow,” he said.
In addition, players from North America’s National Hockey League (NHL) will not be participating in the Olympics after failing to reach a deal with the Olympic committee. The lack of a deal will affect every major ice hockey-playing nation because the game’s biggest stars play in the NHL, Reuters reported.
Still, the regional uncertainty regarding North Korea seems to loom large as fans decide whether or not to attend the Games.
South Korean officials have tried to allay any concerns, saying the Games will have “perfect security,” according to Lee Hee-Beom, president of the 2018 Winter Games organizing committee, Rappler reported.
Lee also said the best way to ensure safety during the event is to ensure the participation of North Korean athletes in the Games. But that remains doubtful as North Korean athletes are relatively weak at winter sports — even though organizers are looking into ways to include them.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said last month – just a week before Pyongyang fired a missile over Japan – that there was “no reason for any immediate concern” about the threat in the region.
Bach this week reiterated the community’s commitment to holding the Winter Olympics in South Korea, saying there was no “plan B” to change the location of the Games, Rappler reported.
“There is so far not even a hint that there is a threat for the security of the Games in the context of the tensions between North Korea and some other countries,” the IOC president told reporters, according to Reuters.
“We are in contact with governments concerned. In all these conversations with the leading figures in the different governments we can see there is no doubt being raised about the Winter Games of 2018.”
He added: “We are also keeping the door open for the athletes of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). The Games are open for all national Olympic committees. This contact continues.
“We are following the North Korean athletes taking part in qualification events. We offered to the National Olympic committee to support these athletes when needed.”
For now, it remains unclear whether the North will take the special offer and participate in the Winter Olympics.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.