Nick Butler ©ITG

It is fair to say that Rio de Janeiro and Pyeongchang are not places that have too much in common.

One is among the most iconic cities in the world. The other is, well, a South Korean backwater so unknown that it felt the need to alter its name and add a capital "C" to distinguish it from a capital city in a neighbouring country.

But the two Olympics held or being held there do contain some remarkable similarities.

Both are in a host nation ravaged shortly beforehand by a political scandal culminating in the impeachment of a female President.

Both were or are reliant on the completion of a train line hit by multiple delays to the extent that it is only opening shortly before the Opening Ceremony.

Both have experienced low tickets sales offset by the identical questionable excuse that their respective populations are renowned for buying last minute.

And both, crucially, have been threatened by an external threat generating huge panic internationally while causing less worry in the host nation itself: Zika virus with Rio and the looming threat of a North Korea-instigated disaster with Pyeongchang.

North Korea seems a good place to start an overview following the final International Olympic Committee (IOC) Coordination Commission inspection to Pyeongchang last week.

It is dominating all media coverage of the Games and is invariably the first thing people inside or outside the Olympic Movement mention when you say you are going to South Korea.

Recent developments, such as the threats and counter-threats over Guam and the missile launch over Japan are certainly worrying.

Tensions seem higher than at most other points in recent history and, as one IOC member drolly pointed out to me last week, are a greater problem now that there are two rather than one unpredictable leaders involved…

The North Korea situation is currently overshadowing preparations for Pyeongchang 2018 from an international perspective but South Koreans do not understand what all the fuss is about ©Getty Images
The North Korea situation is currently overshadowing preparations for Pyeongchang 2018 from an international perspective but South Koreans do not understand what all the fuss is about ©Getty Images

In this context, it is natural that people will be put off from visiting South Korea. 

The response there, though, is far less fearful.

"It was very long before, in 1950s when Korea divided into two states," Pyeongchang 2018 President Lee Hee-beom said last week. "As long as we live on the Korean Peninsula, we cannot entirely avoid political risks." 

He pointed out that 160 countries attended the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul only a year after a North Korean agent exploded a bomb on a Korean Air flight.

"There can be some political issues, but this will not lead to any compromise in the security of the Games," Lee said. "Korea has a very firm framework and system for the participants. I would like to ask you to spread the word that it is very safe here."

Lee has a vested interest to downplay tensions in light of the Olympics but I do think he and other South Koreans genuinely feel the same way. To them, this is something that has been going on since 1953. Current developments are just the sort of flashpoint they have been experiencing their entire lives.

I was less aware of what was going on 100 kilometres or so to the North while in South Korea than before I arrived and, in comparison with Rio, felt absolutely safe wherever I went.

I think part of the problem is the constant rhetoric coming out from Games organisers and South Korean authorities about a unified team and, at one stage, the mad idea to actually hold events over the border.

They say the focus should be on sport but then get diverted into heralding the "Peace Olympics". 

You cannot have your cake and eat it, so to speak…

The IOC insist Pyeongchang 2018 will be safe and claim that they are "closely monitoring" the situation. This is their code for doing nothing, at least in public, and hoping it goes away. 

It is possible they might have a plan-B to shift the Games in case the situation worsens. But, if they do, it can only be the most preliminary of discussions taking place between a few high-level individuals. It was certainly not brought up in any detail during the IOC Coordination Commission visit.

Pyeongchang 2018 President Lee Hee-beom has attempted to minimise the impact that the current threat posed by North Korea could have on the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Getty Images
Pyeongchang 2018 President Lee Hee-beom has attempted to minimise the impact that the current threat posed by North Korea could have on the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Getty Images

What are the other key issues?

"There are three vital elements of a successful Olympic Games," another IOC Coordination Commission member told me last week. "One, is have good venues and a world-class environment for athletes to compete in. Two, is concrete plans for re-using facilities afterwards. And three, promoting the Games and making it a good spectacle to attend."

Pyeongchang 2018 certainly do the first and are going some way towards the second, although legacy plans for two venues have still not been realised. The third? Not yet.

If you were comparing recent Olympic Games with Olympic athletes, London 2012 would be a consistent and popular champion; Sochi 2014 an efficient but unloved winner who subsequently proved a sceptical public right by failing a drugs test; and Rio 2016 a precocious performer who could be brilliant one day and abysmal the next.

Pyeongchang 2018 would be an unmemorable fifth or sixth place finisher but who has the potential to rise to the podium if everything goes their way.

The venues are impressive.

They are all basically ready, while there has been steady improvement with roads and hotels. Even some of the more candid IOC Coordination Commission members were glowing about the quality of the coastal Athletes' Village - although they and organisers, in a typically counter-productive move, did not allow media in that part of the tour...

At a time when the IOC are encouraging bidders to sacrifice compactness for affordability, the closeness of everything is also impressive. The ice venues are all near each other in Gangneung and, from there, it is only a 30-minute drive to the central hub at Alpensia. Sliding, ski jumping and Nordic skiing facilities are all within walking distance and it is only another 20 to 30 minutes or so up to the main freestyle skiing, snowboarding and Alpine venues.

A view into the mist-strewn valley where the Alpensia hub is housed and where he top of the ski jumping tower for Pyeongchang 2018 is just visible above the clouds ©Lorna Campbell
A view into the mist-strewn valley where the Alpensia hub is housed and where he top of the ski jumping tower for Pyeongchang 2018 is just visible above the clouds ©Lorna Campbell

Alpensia is also where the IOC hotel will be housed, as well as the Main Press Centre and International Broadcasting Centre. It is still very quiet and, bar for one Games-related bandstand, there is not much to tell you there is an Olympics coming. I still think it has the potential to be a fun central hub, packed as it is with little bars and restaurants, but it must be marketed better.

This is the main problem. I have now visited on four occasions for IOC Coordination Commission visits and poor promotion has been raised as an issue every time.

One explanation is that Pyeongchang 2018 is now completely dominated and underwritten by the South Korean Government. They are being very coy about how much public money is behind the Games, but I imagine it is very high. This means that the key personnel are politicians rather than experienced event organisers. 

I was told that, since the Games were awarded, there have been five different people responsible for ticketing and, I imagine, none of them have attended or worked at an Olympics before. Yes, there are international workers but not in positions of enough seniority to make a difference.

Ticket sales, for the record, have been a woeful 22.7 per cent so far - the lowest at this point in recent Winter Olympic history - and only a fraction of this has come from South Korea itself.

Organisers do not seem to have got the message that the Olympics is, more than anything else, a party. It must therefore be promoted as such. Forget messages about "Peace Olympics", "ICT" and "Environment" and focus on the fact that those buying tickets will have access to the Olympic Park for the whole day of their event…

At present, promotion is taking place in an overly top-down approach spearheaded by the South Korean President. There is certainly a time and a place for this. It is hoped that a huge percentage of international visitors will come from China and Japan, for instance, but this has not happened so far. President Moon Jae-in should, therefore, appeal directly to his Chinese and Japanese counterparts Xi Jinping and Shinzō Abe for support.

Other "bottom-up" engagement strategies should also be pursued.

Figure skating legend Kim Yuna is proving a good ambassador, but can they not get more local and foreign athletes involved? At risk of demeaning South Korean culture completely, could they not get DJ Psy to write a new song: "Pyeongchang Style", to promote the event?

Engaging Gangnam Style singer DJ Psy may be a good way of promoting Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images
Engaging Gangnam Style singer DJ Psy may be a good way of promoting Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images

They should also make more of exciting innovations like holding the new snowboard big air event at the foot of the ski jump and they should ensure more hotel rooms are cheaper to attract normal fans.

Transportation is another challenge given how the high-speed railway is still not open and many National Olympic Committees are reluctant to use it on arrival at Incheon Airport. This will be resolved, though, and many new roads have already opened between all the Games sites.

The virtually-guaranteed absence of National Hockey League (NHL) players will also be a blow, but not a pivotal one. The face of IOC Executive Director for the Olympic Games Christophe Dubi was almost as animated as his swept back hair as the smoothest operator in sport argued how, like golf, men’s ice hockey will still be a success simply because it is the "Olympics".

I found myself agreeing and believe the NHL will ultimately miss out more than Pyeongchang 2018.

Canadian and European colleagues may disagree but ice hockey is not that big a sport in many other parts of the world. For many people, the Olympics is the only time they watch it and they will do so out of a curious interest in the sport rather than to see certain players.

Russian participation following institutional doping revelations at Sochi 2014 will be another key factor already assessed in this column here. It is key that a solution is finalised as soon as possible and, at the latest, by December. 

On reflection, though, I think the wider problem could be the opposite of Rio 2016. In Brazil, the venues and atmosphere looked outstanding on television but it was far more difficult if you were actually there on the ground. At Pyeongchang 2018, I think the athlete and spectator experience will be pretty good and the difficulty could be translating this to the wider world.

I have received a few messages in recent days suggesting Pyeongchang 2018 will be the "worst Olympics ever". With a bit of luck and more promotion during the next five months, there is still a chance that South Korea’s first Winter Games could be a surprising success.