Pyeongchang: The Host County
A sparse corner of a packed country
Pyeongchang is a county in Gangwon Province. Despite South Korea being one of the world's most densely populated countries (ranked 23rd, with over 50 million people in 40 thousand square miles) Pyeongchang county is very lightly populated. Roughly 50,000 people live in Pyeongchang, most of those in the county seat of Pyeongchang-eup. The games are mostly being held around the township of Daegwallyeong-myeon, which has a population of less than 8,000. Daegwallyeong is the coldest place in South Korea.
Pyeongchang County put its name forward for the 2010 and 2014 Games, but various economic and political factors led the International Olympic Committee to elect other hosts. Gangwon Province is the least developed in South Korea and it shares a very long border with North Korea. Pyeongchang is one of the sparsest and poorest parts of Gangwon, and its urban centers aren't well-suited to the massive population spikes brought on by the Olympic Games. However, the residents of Pyeongchang (with almost universal approval) persisted in their bid until they received national support.
Transformation for the Games
In anticipation of the games, the South Korean government began investing in its oft-overlooked province. Pyeongchang is geographically quite close to the capital of Seoul—around a hundred miles, depending on where in the county you're going— but poor infrastructure meant that the journey could take many hours, and the winding mountain roads could be prohibitive. The biggest change to Pyeongchang since the beginning of its Olympics preparation has been the development of high-speed rail and transit networks from Seoul throughout the province. Beyond that a great deal of effort has been put into providing housing for the many expected visitors, and into preparing the sporting facilities for the competition. New Olympic villages have been built in Daegwallyeong for Mountain Cluster participants, and in the city of Gangneung for Coastal Cluster participants.
The most controversial change has been the bulldozing of Mount Gariwang in neighboring Jeongseon County. South Korea's highest ski slope was still unable to meet the Olympic height requirement for the Men's downhill event. In response, Olympic planners chose to bulldoze upwards of 30 hectares of forest to make a new slope. Mount Gariwang is home to one of Korea's oldest protected forests, shielded from development for hundreds of years by Korea's former Chosun dynasty. The formerly protected land is home to a number of rare indigenous animal and plant species. The government has declared it will replant the demolished forests after the conclusion of the games, but environmentalists remain concerned about the lasting impact on the soil.
Gangneung Coastal Cluster
The coastal events are all concentrated in the city of Gangneung. Gangneung is the urban center of Gangwon Province, with a population more than four times that of neighboring Pyeongchang. All of the hockey and skating events are being held in venues newly constructed for the 2018 Games. The only pre-existing structure in use is the Gangneung Curling Center, formerly the Gangeung Gymnasium, which as built for the Asian Winter Games in 1999.
Pyeongchang Mountain Cluster
The mountain events are fairly spread throughout Pyeongchang County and Jeongseon County:
- The combined, downhill, and super-G Alpine skiing events will be held at the Jeongseon Alpine Center in Bukpyeong, Jeongseon County.
- The remaining Alpine events will be held at the Yongpyong Alpine Centre in Daegwallyeong, Pyeongchang.
- The biathlon, big air snowboarding, bobsleigh, cross-country skiing, luge, nordic combined, skeleton, and ski jump events will be held at the Alpensia Resort, also in Daegwallyeong. The resort houses the Olympic Sliding Centre, Ski Jump Centre, Biathlon Centre, and Cross-Country Centre, where the respective events will be held.
- Freestyle skiing and the remaining snowboard events will be held at Phoenix Snow Park in Bongpyeong, Pyeongchang.
- The opening ceremonies are held at the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium in Daegwallyeong, a temporary stadium to be dismantled after the end of the games.
The Cost of Warmth
Despite the chill of Daegwallyong, the Olympic Stadium was built without a roof and without any heat for cost-cutting purposes. The bill has so far totaled in excess of $13 billion, prompting organizers to roll back certain amenities (Note: the 2014 Olympics in Sochi cost over $50 billion). This move has proven controversial, as at least seven workers suffered from hypothermia during the construction. To stave off the cold, Olympic organizers have arranged for all visitors to the Olympic stadium to be given a blanket, heating pad, and a coat. Time will tell if this will be enough, or if the heating issue will continue to prove an issue.