Nick Butler

Stuck in a monumental traffic jam on the drive south-west to Incheon Airport, I was beginning to get worried we would not make it in time for the flight. Cue plenty of gesticulating, waving and smiling to the non-English speaking driver in an attempt to ask him how long it would take.

After initial bemusement, he began nodding furiously in apparent understanding of what I meant. Alas, rather than tell me what was happening, he then pressed a button on his iPod and my protestations were drowned out by the music of Avril Lavigne, as he nodded again as if to say "you’re welcome".

"Why do you have to go and make things so complicated?" were the rather apt lyrics.

Given how, after surviving Rio 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) now face fresh Tokyo 2020 and drug testing-related problems ahead of the impending release of more Russian doping revelations at the end of this month, they could be forgiven for sharing Lavigne’s frustrated sentiments.

Pyeongchang 2018, the reason for my South Korean jaunt, has hardly been a bed of roses either and, just when things seemed to be stabilising, Organising Committee boss Cho Yang-ho resigned in May amid mounting problems with his business empire. His replacement Lee Hee-beom was appointed quickly, on the same day Cho announced he was leaving, but he had only been in the post a few weeks when he announced a KRW ₩600 billion (£386 million/$518 million/€468 million) increase in their budget.

Given how, unlike Brazil, South Korea is an experienced sporting host facing far balmier economic conditions than the South American nation, a ballooning budget and preparatory problems here would be an even greater blow to the entire bedrock of the Olympic Games.

Problems in Pyeongchang would be disguised by none of the mitigating circumstances seen in Rio ©Getty Images
Problems in Pyeongchang would be disguised by none of the mitigating circumstances seen in Rio ©Getty Images

No pressure then for organisers as they faced their first Coordination Commission inspection since Lee’s arrival.

There were three main issues I was particularly looking out for. 1) Venue construction ahead of a frenetic winter of test events, 2) Financial problems amid a rumoured stalling in discussions with the Government and 3) Signs that the Games were raising in profile both in South Korea and internationally.

Despite the fog which blanketed the mountain cluster almost from the moment we arrived, progress on the first of these points was impressive. All competition venues are at least 90 per cent completed and, with the possible exception of the Alpensia Sliding Centre, all appear ready for 24 test events scheduled over the next six months. More work remains on other venues such as the Olympic Stadium, home to the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and the International Broadcasting Centre, but plenty of time remains.

Significant overlay work is also required, as you would expect, with icing and artificial snow services particular areas of concern. Safety problems relating to pumps and sprinklers were pointed out on the sliding course during August "stress tests", but these are being dealt with.

In light of the numerous venue changes which have affected Tokyo 2020, what impressed me here was the compact nature of the Games. The Mountain Cluster at Alpensia is only a 30 minute drive away from the ice venues at Gangneung. Only two venues - the Bokwang Snow Park freestyle skiing and snowboard hub and the Jeongseon Alpine Centre - lie further away and, even there, door-to-door travel should take no more than one hour. This pales in comparison with the far longer times seen in Vancouver and Sochi. All being well Alpensia, where the Main Press Centre and Olympic Family hotel will also be located, should be a real atmospheric hub come Games-time.

The Alpensia Resort in Daekwallyeong should be a successful central hub during Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images
The Alpensia Resort in Daekwallyeong should be a successful central hub during Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images

Generating such an atmosphere is another major challenge given the low-profile nature of the Games with 500 days to go. Indeed, promotion and engagement was highlighted as the biggest challenge by IOC Coordination Commission chair, Gunilla Lindberg. 

It says much about the profile of a place when they have to remarket the name as Pyeong Chang - something resolutely ignored in the insidethegames style guide, if you had not noticed - in order to avoid confusion with the capital of neighbouring North Korea. Few people elsewhere in the world could name the host of the next Winter Olympics. Domestically, the mounting debt which followed the Incheon 2014 Asian Games is thought to have put people off, while the four-hour journey time from Seoul until a high-speed railway link belatedly comes into operation at the end of next year makes it harder to reach.

Less than 10 journalists made the trip for the closing press conference last week, with organisers blaming a film festival in Busan and a new law preventing them putting on a bus for media travelling from Seoul.

"I see their slogan is 'Passion.Connected,'" one Coordination Commission member told me. “Well, I would like to see a bit more passion and a bit more connection.”

The IOC advised following a "Sochi-model" in order to boost interest. This does not mean digging discreet mouse-holes into laboratory walls, but unveiling tickets to coincide with one-year-to-go celebrations in February. They also hope the presence of the world’s best athletes at the test events will help, while pointing out the impressive total of 90,000 volunteer sign-ups as evidence of strong support.

Pyeongchang 2018 tickets will be released in February as part of a wider promotional drive ©Getty Images
Pyeongchang 2018 tickets will be released in February as part of a wider promotional drive ©Getty Images

When an Organising Committee admits something is the "biggest challenge", you wonder if they are doing so tactically in order to draw attention away from another issue. If this was the case here, however, then they have hidden it very well. 

Aside from the still-ongoing discussion over the participation of National Hockey League (NHL) players, which the IOC claim have "progressed" while the International Ice Hockey Federation seem less convinced, the other major challenge I could see relates to budgeting and finance.

The Organising Committee are still negotiating their higher budget request with the Seoul Government, and expect this to be resolved over the next few weeks. But the IOC are concerned that the budget will continue to rise and, despite their apparent confidence in reaching "100 per cent" of their sponsorship target, much more work is required.

This is where Lee, another impressive English speaker who has good links with both the business and political worlds, should come to the fore. My first impression was of someone who seemed competent, but also resilient enough to deal with an organisational onslaught over the next 18 months.

One broader problem highlighted by multiple IOC members was a lack of communication. "I think it is a cultural thing, but they seem afraid to admit to mistakes," said one member. "They tell you they have dealt with something, but then you realise that they haven’t." Another highlighted "naive" spending where they have left it too late to negotiate the best and cheapest contracts. Working with the IFs and making the most of a vast number of international employees should help here.

Lee Hee-beom seems to have made an assured start as Organising Committee chair ©Getty Images
Lee Hee-beom seems to have made an assured start as Organising Committee chair ©Getty Images

As for the IOC, I felt that there were subtle but significant differences in their approach from what I saw in Rio de Janeiro earlier this year. On the second day, I was surprised to be ejected from the communal area of the Convention Centre by an apologetic Pyeongchang official, who had been ordered to do so by the IOC administration. 

When I spotted the responsible IOC official discreetly observing us at a distance, they strongly implied that they were unable to trust me not to eavesdrop during the coffee break and sneak discreetly into the meeting rooms. Slightly stroppy after two weeks on the road at an Asian Beach Games at which our presence had been fully appreciated, I sent an email pointing out how the IOC are "less transparent" than any organisation we work with, and was impressed when my "ban" was swiftly lifted with a full apology and three, very reasonable, conditions under which I had to operate.

I was also impressed with the opening speech by Coordination Commission chair Gunilla Lindberg, who appeared blunt and honest when highlighting 10 specific challenges for organisers, and she was similarly open in the press conference. I may be wrong here, but this contrasted so strongly with the bland nature of comments by her Rio 2016 counterpart Nawal El Moutawakel - who infamously vowed to jump into Guanabara Bay to prove it was clean in response to tricky water pollution questions, only to fail to do so. I wonder if a stronger chair may have helped reduce problems there.

Here, the IOC admitted they had learnt much from Rio and appear keen to nip teething issues in the bud well before the spotlight inevitably rises in the final few weeks.

And "teething problems" is what they are. Yes, there is a lot for Pyeongchang to do and a lot of profiles to raise. But, in a year in which the Lillehammer Youth Games brought back memories of the last truly great Winter Olympics in 1994, Pyeongchang, with its compact venue plan and warm and friendly hosts, does have real potential.

To return to Avril Lavigne - who, as a Canadian, must know a thing or two about the Winter Olympics - they just need a bit less Complicated and a bit more Sk8er Boi.