Fishy tale as Olympic venues face uncertain future
AFP – Thousands of fans will pack the futuristic Gangneung Oval for the Olympic speed skating competition next month. But afterwards, one suggestion is for the cavernous steel-grey structure to store frozen fish.
No definitive future use has been identified for the $120 million building on South Korea’s east coast, one of several venues whose legacy — or lack of one — threatens to tarnish the image of the Games.
Plans for an ice hockey team to take over the neighbouring 10,000-seat arena fell apart in the wake of the bribery scandal that brought down president Park Guen-Hye.
Even the International Olympic Committee has expressed concern, with Gunilla Lindberg, the head of its co-ordinating commission, saying that the issue of the Games’ legacy should be addressed "as a priority".
Gangwon province, which includes Pyeongchang, where the ski events will be held, as well as Gangneung, is one of South Korea’s poorest and least populated regions, but was the driving force behind the bid.
It made two unsuccessful attempts to secure the Winter Olympics before finally being awarded next month’s event.
Now the Games threaten to leave it with a multi-million-dollar headache.
Gangwon and the Games organisers built six venues from scratch for the Pyeongchang Olympics and renovated six existing facilities, at a total cost of $800 million.
Separately, the country spent more than $10 billion on infrastructure such as railways and roads.
"They blindly pushed ahead and pulled it off," said sports science professor Yu Tae-Ho of Korea University.
"But they have no concrete plans about what to do with facilities after the games are over."
– White elephant –
A convention centre, an indoor amusement park or football field have all been proposed for the speed skating oval, as was a speed skating training centre, which came to naught because of the long distance from the existing facility in Seoul.
With no purpose in sight and the dreaded white elephant status looming, a local warehousing company proposed packing it with containers of frozen fish caught in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).
"It was a media stunt and we did not take the suggestion seriously," Park Chul-Sin, a Gangwon Province official in charge of legacy use, told AFP.
The downhill course at Jeongseon was specially built for the event in an undeveloped forest, to the alarm of environmentalists, as no existing resorts had a big enough vertical drop to sufficiently test the world’s fastest skiers.
It will be bulldozed and returned to its natural state — but whether the national government will agree to pay the $40 million rehabilitation cost remains unclear.
One thing the organisers are sure of is the fate of the newly-built 35,000-seat Olympic Stadium in Pyeongchang.
The $100 million pentagonal structure is largely temporary and will be used only four times — the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and the ensuing Paralympics — before the main grandstand is converted to a museum to the Games and the rest dismantled to make way for a public park.
– ‘Not so popular’ –
Post-Olympics financial woes are commonplace, from Montreal in 1976 — which took 30 years to pay off the debts it incurred for a two-week event — to Rio in 2016.
The last Winter Olympics, in Sochi in Russia, came with an eye-watering $50 billion price tag.
The costs have made many potential candidate cities drop out of hosting future Olympics: there were only two candidates left, Beijing and Almaty, when the time came to choose the location for the 2022 Winter Games.
Closer to home, Incheon in South Korea spent $1.6 billion to build 17 venues for the 2014 Asian Games. When the event was over, the city had accumulated a debt of $1 billion.
But Korea Institute for Sports Science senior researcher You Ji-Gon said Gangwon faced particular issues with finding future uses for the venues "due to its remoteness from populated areas and the country’s small winter sports fan base".
The province faces combined annual losses to keep open the speed skating oval, the ice hockey rink and the ice skating arena — which will become a public leisure facility — estimated at a minimum of $10 million.
It also remains unclear whether the biathlon, cross country, bobsleigh and ski jump venues will continue to exist, given a lack of local demand.
"No matter who manages these facilities, it will be difficult to make them profitable," acknowledged Park, the Gangwon official, urging the national government to cover the costs.
"Winter sports are not so popular in this country."