Michael Pavitt ©ITG

As the numbers on the Omega countdown clock began to tick down to the one-year to go mark until the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics, it was interesting to take note of the surroundings. Located on the Seoul Plaza, surrounded by bustling roads and streets in which hundreds of people had passed through during the day, it seemed like the ideal location to place the clock.

Pyeongchang have repeatedly been urged by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to step up their efforts in promoting the Games on a national and international scale. The clock unveiling in Seoul certainly appeared a response to that demand, as organisers seek to attract the South Korean capital’s residents eastwards next year. 

The presence of the Olympic and Paralympic mascots Soohorang and Bandabi, with the promise of plastic face masks of the duo if you take a photo with them, looked to be another clear step at trying to engage. While many walked on, a fair number were drawn in.

Prior to heading out to Pyeongchang for the first time to assess preparations, the impact of the country’s political crisis on the Games and the impeachment proceedings against President Park Geun-hye was a central focus.

Organisers have admitted the crisis has impacted on their promotion of the Games on a national basis and this backdrop was clear in Seoul. Literally so. If you peered around the unveiling of the countdown clock, you would have seen an array of tents filled with people protesting the impeachment proceedings and criticising the "demagogic mass-media that manipulates public opinion". The South Korean version of fake news, it would seem. Protests for the impeachment of Park have also been well documented.

While the political toing and froing is present in Seoul, this has not felt like the case three hours east in Gangwon, the province in which Pyeongchang is located. Politics seems very much on the back-burner as preparations continue at pace for the Games. While Pyeongchang might struggle with recognition worldwide, its distance from Seoul might shelter it more from any political turbulence.

The only mention of politics came from the politicians themselves, as South Korea’s Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn claimed the Government was fully committed to delivering a successful event. Despite this, Pyeongchang 2018’s budget for the year is still waiting approval.

First we were told it would come in October, then November, then January and now early March. It appears to be one of the few aspects in which politics is a spoke in the Pyeongchang 2018 wheel.

Pyeongchang 2018 are stepping up efforts to promote the Games nationally and internationally ©Getty Images
Pyeongchang 2018 are stepping up efforts to promote the Games nationally and internationally ©Getty Images

Lee Hee-beom has made all the right noises when discussing politics, stating that the Games could act as a way to unite the country and restore pride. Over the past couple of days, it has been hard not to be impressed by the Pyeongchang 2018 President, who appears a steady pair of hands to guide the final year of preparations.

He was impressive in the one-year to go press conference, answering questions on all manner of subjects when typically, media were encouraged to ask about the ticketing and the Torch Relay. His statement that North Korea had the right and a responsibility to compete at the Games struck the right tone, while his statements about the Olympics being a means to promote peace are sure to have gone down well at IOC HQ in Lausanne.

Even his reflection on Russian participation at the Games appeared a well-balanced analysis. He expressed the need to have clean athletes but did not express a clear preference in which to sway any decision. 

Secretly, though, the South Korean organisers must be hoping the Russian team avoid being banned from the Games or see a major reduction in their team size, should the IOC implement sanctions over the McLaren Report. With Eastern Russia being a manageable travelling distance from South Korea, organisers will hope they will snap up a large portion of tickets available for the Games, with 30 per cent of the 1.17 million tickets aimed at international markets.

It is perhaps why Lee stressed the need to work together with future Olympic hosts Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 over the coming year. While they are unlikely to admit it, the vast majority of international sales will probably come from these two nations, as well as the not too distant United States.

Pyeongchang 2018 President Lee Hee-beom appears well equipped to lead the organisers to a successful Games ©Getty Images
Pyeongchang 2018 President Lee Hee-beom appears well equipped to lead the organisers to a successful Games ©Getty Images

Cooperation with China and Japan - both of whom South Korea have historic grievances with - is seen as another way of promoting peace and aiding the awareness of Pyeongchang 2018 in those key markets. 

Although there was talk of Pyeongchang 2018 kick-starting Asia’s Olympic boom, they might benefit the most from closer ties as the lesser known of the three hosts. The partnership between the three appears informal at this stage, but it looks likely to be made into a more formal arrangement in the coming months.

All competition venues look well on track for the Games, with the vast majority hosting tests events throughout a busy schedule this month. The progress and events themselves were met with praise by IOC Coordination Commission head Gunilla Lindberg when I spoke to her earlier this week.

"I am very happy because I have been watching the test events, especially for cross-country skiing where they have no previous experience, they did a very good job," she told me. "The athletes were happy and also they have proven the logistics now they have opened new highways. We now look forward for the train to open."

She admitted though that concerns over accommodation and transport plans remained an issue, one which she hopes can be shortly resolved, after planned technical briefings with the organisers. Fears were raised earlier this month at the Pyeongchang 2018 Chef de Mission Seminar, with a lack of hotels in mountain clusters meaning that vital team officials and coaches may have to stay in the Gangneung coastal cluster.

Snow festivals and cultural events are sure to attract visitors during next year's Games ©ITG
Snow festivals and cultural events are sure to attract visitors during next year's Games ©ITG

While this is only a 30 minute drive away on a clear journey, the nature of the Games suggests the roads could be packed with people heading towards these clusters. Transport around venues has proved tricky during the test events this week, with a reliance on media and spectators utilising taxi services to move around. Although inexpensive, language barriers could prove problematic at the Games.

The compact nature of the venue clusters will make it easier to scoot between several competitions, particularly in Gangneung where most of the ice-based events are taking place, but it may make for heavy congestion on the roads. Traffic has been noticeable over the past couple of days, which would potentially prove a problem come Games-time, although a bus service looks set to be provided.

Regarding accommodation, it would seem frankly foolish to demand organisers magic up a greater number of hotels near the skiing venues for the Games. From what I have seen, there would not be a need for a greater number of hotels after the circus has left town, which looks likely to be the reason for more businesses to have opted against setting up more accommodation. Mobile housing could prove to be a solution which works during and beyond the Olympics.

It is clear, though, that visitors to the Games are set to enjoy strong and friendly hospitality throughout the duration of their stay. Efforts are clearly being made to back-up the claim made at the ticket launch, attended by Olympic figure skating gold medallist Yuna Kim, that a cultural experience would be provided along with a sporting one.

More than 55 cultural events are taking place this month alone to coincide with the test events taking place, as organisers continue their efforts to promote the Games. Everything from traditional South Korean music and dance to the more modern side of the country with its K-pop scene were on display during their one-year to go celebration, which was broadcast live on the Olympic Channel. 

It gave a strong flavour of what looks likely to be on offer to visitors next year, who are sure to flock towards the impressive local snow festivals. I would also suggest we are likely to hear much more of their eminently catchy "Welcome to Pyeongchang" song over the coming months as they seek to spread knowledge of the Games abroad.

Clearly, there are tweaks that need to be made in the final year of preparations, but it seems as though organisers remain on track to deliver a strong Games.