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8 Things To Know While Watching The Winter Olympics In South Korea

Part sport, part business, part spectacle, part bragging rights for the host nation: the Olympics are all that and more.

The games also have a real estate impact, sometimes leaving behind valuable infrastructure, such as the 1936 Olympic stadium in Berlin, and at other times white elephants, such as pretty much anything built for the 2004 Athens Games.

Now the games are coming to rural South Korea in a sparsely populated mountainous region that hopes to be a wintertime destination. Here are eight things to know about South Korea and the games ahead of the event.

They Are In The Cold, Cold Mountains Of Pyeongchang

PyeongChang
Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea

The XXIII Olympic Winter Games are being held starting Friday in Pyeongchang, a town in Pyeongchang County (population about 40,000) in the Taebaek Mountains. That is a range that forms a spine of mountains up and down the Korean peninsula, which itself is 70% mountainous.

Over 80% of Pyeongchang County's terrain is mountainous and — a definite plus for winter sports — snow falls nearly 60 days a year there.

On the other hand, its location means the Winter Olympics this year might be the coldest ever. The winter winds blowing across the Taebaek Mountains roar out of Siberia and across the Manchurian Plain, and then down through Korea. At a recent rehearsal for the opening ceremony, temps were 6 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill of 7 degrees below.

PyeongChang Or Pyongchang? But Not Pyongyang

The transliteration of the Korean town name (평창군) was long "Pyongchang," and pretty much everyone else was fine with that, considering how few people outside the country had ever heard of it. 

But the Winter Olympics put the world's spotlight on the Pyongchang, and it turned out that non-Koreans often confused the town with Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. So during the bidding for the games, local officials started transliterating the name with an extra "e" and put a capital letter in the middle, to make the name more distinctive: PyeongChang. But, its use is still not universal.

In any case, Pyeongchang is the first Asian city outside of Japan to host the Winter Games.

The 2018 Venues

Slovenia's Andrej Šporn at the 2010 Winter Olympics
Slovenia's Andrej Šporn at the 2010 Winter Olympics

Nearly 3,000 athletes from 92 countries will be in South Korea for the games, competing in 102 events across seven sports. (Alas, Jamaica is not sending a men's bobsled team this time, but the women will compete for the first time ever.)

The games will take place at 13 venues, with six of those built in the seven years since the International Olympic Committee tapped Pyeongchang for the event. Also completed recently: a high-speed rail line between Seoul and Pyeongchang.

The main venue for the games is the Alensia ski resort, completed in 2013, which includes the IOC hotel, Olympic Village, Olympic stadium, venues for the snow and sliding events and the media village. The resort also doubles as a major water-park destination in the summer.

The Curiously Roofless Pyeongchang Olympic Main Stadium

Considering the harsh winter conditions usually found in Pyeongchang in February, a roofless event stadium might seem a little odd for the opening and closing ceremonies. 

Nevertheless, the South Korean government opted for a roofless venue, with no central heating, citing budget concerns in building it. The stadium ultimately cost 116 billion Korean won (US$109M).

How to keep spectators warm? Among other things, a windbreaker, a heated cushion, a lap blanket, hand and feet warmers and knit caps will be given to every attendee at the three-hour opening and closing events. Spectators might also be encouraged to move around during the ceremony.

The stadium will be dismantled after being used exactly four times: once each for the opening and closing of the Olympics, and for the opening and closing of the Paralympics.

Development After The Olympics?

All together, South Korea is spending about US$13B to stage the Winter Olympics. The history of the Olympics is littered with examples of host nations left with debt and useless facilities, so being a host can be problematic.

The 1988 Summer Games in Seoul are regarded as a milestone for the country, with the attention of the world focused on Korea for something other than Cold War rivalry. Moreover, the planners of the 2018 Olympics have the ambition of turning Pyeongchang into a winter-sports-oriented tourist destination, something like the Russians are trying to do with Sochi.

There are no guarantees that the plan will work. Despite the nation's cold climate and mountainous terrain, South Koreans have not traditionally been interested much in winter sports. The South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism did a survey last year that found that only 35.6% of respondents were interested in the Winter Olympics.

Good Times For The South Korean Economy

Seoul skyline
Seoul

North Korea and the United States have rattled their sabers more loudly than usual lately, but that has not put much of a damper on the health of the South Korean economy. Though Q4 was something of a blip, on the whole the country's economy is doing quite well these days.

After exponential growth in the later decades of the 20th century, South Korea's economy is now the 11th largest in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the United Nations. With a 2017 gross domestic product of US$1.5 trillion or so, that puts South Korea just ahead of Russia and Australia and just behind Italy and Canada by that metric. Standards of living are high.

South Korea's economy expanded 1.5% in Q3, propelled by a 6.1% jump in exports, though it did contract 0.2% in the fourth quarter, the worst quarterly showing since 2008. Exports were down, but private consumption picked up most of the slack.

Investors Want To Buy Seoul Office Properties

Despite volatility in financial markets because of geopolitical risk on the Korean peninsula, investors are still eager to buy real estate assets in Seoul, especially office, Savills Korea reports. Last year saw a new record in terms of total office investment volume in the South Korean capital, besting 2016, with about 8.8 trillion won in deals (US$8.1B).

"It is not just abundant liquidity that has helped investment activity in the Seoul office market continue to thrive, but also demand for headquarters from domestic corporations, and increased asset availability from fund maturities," the report said. 

Another real estate sector doing well in Seoul: for-sale apartments. Maybe too well, with the the total market value of apartments in Seoul increasing nearly 100 trillion won (US$93.4B) last year to more than 860 trillion won. Prices for apartments in Gangnam, the most expensive part of the city, spiked 13% in 2017.

Will The Winter Games Return To The U.S.?

Lake Placid 1980
Lake Placid, 1980

The Winter Games have not been in the United States since 2002, when Mitt Romney oversaw the Salt Lake City games. In 2022, the event will be in Beijing. But 2026 is still open, with the location to be decided next year.

Three U.S. cities are reportedly interested in being considered for those games, or the ones in 2030: Denver, Reno-Tahoe and, once again, Salt Lake City.

Denver has an unusual history in bidding for the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee actually awarded the 1976 Games to Denver in 1970, but two years later the city, citing cost concerns, rejected hosting the event. It is still the only city ever to do so.

So far, Sion, Switzerland, is the only confirmed bid for the 2026 Olympics, though its future efforts may depend on a public vote. Sapporo and Calgary, both veteran hosts (1972 and 2010, respectively), have also expressed interest.