Nick Butler
Nick ButlerIn a moment of foolishness shortly before leaving Gangneung at the end of last week's Coordination Commission inspection, I exited the hotel complex for a brief stroll on the beach and - having already checked out - realised I had no card with which to re-enter.

Translating my plight to three non-English speaking guards looming over the wall was surprisingly simple, but finding a solution proved less straightforward, as, for some reason, no one seemed to have the means to operate the gate. I eventually had to haul myself unceremoniously over the wall, assisted by the security personnel who - hopefully for the first time - were effectively helping someone break-in to the hotel they were meant to be guarding.

A bizarre situation but one which sums up the preparations for Pyeongchang 2018 rather well.

Answers may not always be logical, they will almost never be easy, but a solution will invariably be found. Eventually.

There is a school of thought that, for South Koreans, the fun of hosting sporting events comes in the bidding phase, the thrill of the chase, and once that race is won, they lose some of their interest and motivation. This maybe is a little harsh, but contains elements of truth, with last year's Asian Games in Incheon and the Formula One Grand Prix races in Yeongam two examples of events that ultimately struggled to light up the country.

Preparations for the nation's first Winter Olympics and Paralympics is arguably a third.

The South Korean Grand Prix was viewed as a largely underwhelming race and has not been held since 2013 ©AFP/Getty ImagesThe South Korean Grand Prix was viewed as a largely underwhelming race and has not been held since 2013 ©AFP/Getty Images

The press and public has occupied itself largely with the build-up to Rio 2016 over recent months, writing with growing fervour about construction delays at Deodoro and pollution on Guanabara Bay. But for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Pyeongchang has been almost as great a worry, with its status as a Winter rather than a Summer Games helping to account for its lower profile.

First and foremost has been the lack of sponsors. This has increased the financial burden on the local Gangwon Province Government, who have fiercely resisted calls for any events to be moved out of their jurisdiction while leaning, often unsuccessfully, on Seoul for more funding.

Progress has therefore been slow, with all decisions subject to political squabbles between the various levers of power, which has on occasions seemingly stalled the action of the Organising Committee.

In this context, we had the calls late last year for venues to be moved in order to reduce costs, either overseas or elsewhere in South Korea. Of course, holding events in Japan, or dare I say it, North Korea, was never likely and the proposal seemed to be intended as more of a motivational kick up the backside of the organisers more than anything else.

But, in a theoretical sense at least, taking advantage of pre-existing facilities in Seoul and elsewhere was a stronger idea, utilising the cost-cutting spirit of the IOC's Agenda 2020 reform process.

The trouble for Pyeongchang is that, unlike with Tokyo, Agenda 2020 came a year or so too late. Plans are already being implemented and money has been spent, and while some would say switching venues would still be beneficial, much finance would be squandered in the process.

In January the planned venues were finalised and, it would seem, the IOC has now resigned itself to working with what is on the table, rather than what they perhaps would have liked to be proposed. So, making sure they are ready for test events in 2016-2017 has become a key priority.

My impression last week was that organisers did a good job of convincing the Commission this would happen as scheduled, just about. While concerns remain about the tight timeline between the proposed completion of construction and first events, there has been a heavy Pyeongchang presence at various major competitions this winter to hone expertise, while plenty of experienced international officials are also being hired.

"Positive progress" was reported by IOC Coordination Commission chief Gunilla Lindberg and Pyeongchang 2018 head Cho Yang-ho following the inspection visit ©Pyeongchang 2018"Positive progress" was reported by IOC Coordination Commission chief Gunilla Lindberg and Pyeongchang 2018 head Cho Yang-ho following the inspection visit  
©Pyeongchang 2018

The arrival of Cho Yang-ho, the boss of both Korean Air and Hanjun Group who orchestrated Pyeongchang's successful bid in 2011, to replace Kim Jin-sun as Organising Committee President last July has also made a big difference. He has the experience, the relationship with key officials and has brought with him a plethora of new staff whose work has been widely praised.

A special Working Group, convened at the IOC Executive Board meeting in Rio de Janeiro earlier this month, has also made a difference following a first meeting last week, it is claimed, with IOC, winter sport and Organising Committee officials meeting with local and national Government representatives to speed up the formerly fragmented decision making process.

It for some reason reminded me of the Washington-Moscow hotline set up in 1963 to improve relations between Kennedy and Khrushchev at the height of the Cold War, although we must hope the situation here is not yet that precarious...

Personally, I was tentatively impressed during my first visit and, funnily enough, good organisation was the most pleasing element. It may only be one small cog in the vast machinery of Olympic organisation, but the media relations team were among the best I have encountered in terms of entertaining, looking after and generally mothering the two-strong international press corps who made the trip. Colleagues who have attended previous Coordination Commission inspections were much less fortunate, so communications is one area where giant strides have taken place under President Cho.

Journalists were well looked after by the excellent Pyeongchang 2018 media relations team ©ITGJournalists were well looked after by the excellent Pyeongchang 2018 media relations team ©ITG

The Commission was based, for the first time, at the ice sport venue hub in Gangneung, and we were unlucky that our venue tour to the Alpensia mountain cluster took place on a day filled with the sort of fog, drizzle and all-round gloom that revived childhood memories of many an English winter (and some English summers).

No doubt partly because of this, some of the venues did seem a little underwhelming and the winter season appeared virtually over by mid-March - something that does not bode well for the Paralympic Games.

Unlike, say, Almaty and most European or North American resorts, it did not have the vibe of a winter sporting hub; more of a coastal backwater. But a quicker rail-line from Seoul will hopefully allow more people to visit and much work is underway to raise the profile of winter sport across the nation.

The compactness of the ice sport venue cluster was impressive and, although the early stages of construction deems it hard to draw conclusions, Gangneung certainly has the potential to be a vibrant hub during Games time. And with the "central" venue being in Alpensia, this should mean a greater focus on mountain events than in previous Games, another good sign.

As well as their usual strength of short track, speed and figure skating, South Korea has also enjoyed success this season in sliding sports, especially bobsleigh and skeleton, while two medals were also won at last week's World Junior Snowboarding Championships in Yabuli.

Providing a winter sporting legacy is, as ever, a key cog in the Pyeongchang 2018 vision.

Skeleton racer Yun Sung-Bin, pictured competing at Sochi 2014, has been one vastly improved South Korean winter sports star ©AFP/Getty ImagesSkeleton racer Yun Sung-Bin, pictured competing at Sochi 2014, has been one vastly improved South Korean winter sports star ©AFP/Getty Images

But, although it couldn't really be described as tension, I did feel there was a distinct difference in focus between the locals, who see legacy and post-Games development as key, and the Agenda 2020-infused IOC and Winter Federations, who are bothered more about affordability and the Games-time experience.

In the sliding sport venue, for example, there was IOC criticism of "unnecessary spending" on a lavish restaurant and an ice start facility next to the course, something Pyeongchang 2018 see as a key legacy priority.

As the impending scrapping of Tokyo 2020 development plans has indicated, the love of legacy in the post-London 2012 world is being replaced by an era of austerity. It will be interesting to see how this plays out with the 2022 bidders, with Almaty having already cut some legacy proposals in order to save cost. The withdrawal of every European contender in last year's race certainly had an impact on this change in emphasis.

Sponsorship is another area where divergence has appeared, with recent additions as Olympic TOP (The Olympic Programme) partners having presented challenges to organisers in finding local sponsors for the Games. This was seen last year when Bridgestone signed a 10-year TOP sponsorship deal, presumably ending any chance of leading South Korean tyre companies, like Hankook, being involved, and again this month when another Japanese company, Toyota, was confirmed as a car category TOP sponsor.

After much attention in the South Korean press, in the latter case it has now been suggested that Toyota will play a negligible during the 2018 Olympics, leaving the way open for the likes of host nation giants Hyundai or Kia to assume local sponsorship. Whatever the difficulties, it is imperative that, as promised, more deals are signed soon, and certainly before the inevitable "you are the next Games" focus that will come after the conclusion of Rio 2016.

By then, we will have a better idea as to where things really stand for Pyeongchang. As IOC Coordination Commission chair Gunilla Lindberg said, oh at least five times, at the press conference which concluded proceedings last week, there is now "momentum" and "positive progress", which must be maintained.

The feeling is that, with President Cho at the helm and several metaphorical kicks up the backsides having been delivered, they will get there in the end, rather like I did when I scrambled my ungainly way over the hotel wall.

But, as with Rio 2016 and Sochi 2014 and so many other Games, it will not be easy and the IOC is set for plenty more sleepless nights ahead.

Nick Butler is a senior reporter for insidethegames. To follow him on Twitter click here.