The country is hosting its first Winter Games amid a national reckoning about big business, politics and the tentacles of influence that link them.

Share story

HONG KONG — Wherever they are held, the Olympics are a chance for big-name local sponsors to show home-country pride, associate their brands with athletic values and splash their logos before millions of eyeballs.

This month in South Korea is set to be different.

The country is hosting its first Winter Games amid a national reckoning about big business, politics and the tentacles of influence that link them. Calls for a cleanup intensified this week after the heir apparent at Samsung, a top-tier Olympic sponsor, was freed from prison by a court ruling that reduced and suspended his sentence for bribery.

The Pyeongchang Games themselves stand as a symbol of the cozy ties between South Korea’s government and Samsung, its most powerful conglomerate.

Pyeongchang, South Korea Feb. 9 – 25

Schedule/results: Local athletes | All events »


The company’s chairman, Lee Kun-hee, is a longtime member of the International Olympic Committee and lobbied for years behind the scenes to bring the Winter Games to South Korea. The government saw Lee as so pivotal to its Olympic dreams that after he was convicted of tax evasion in 2008, the country’s president then pardoned him expressly so that he could resume lobbying for Pyeongchang.

Companies and commerce have long been part of the Olympics, of course. Critics of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta derided them as the “Coca-Cola Olympics” for the marketing blowout undertaken by that local benefactor.

But in South Korea, the recent atmosphere of scandal has made it an especially awkward time for the country’s leading corporate names to be plastering Olympic venues with logos and showering athletes with freebies. The corruption allegations that ensnared Lee’s son and heir — and that last year felled Park Geun-hye, then South Korea’s president — involved bribery via sports sponsorships.

“The zeitgeist is calling for chaebol reform,” said Sun Dae-in, director of research at SDInomics, a think tank in the capital of Seoul, using the Korean term for the family run business empires. “That puts the chaebol in a very sensitive position.”

One result: Korean companies, fearful that their contributions would be “misinterpreted,” were skittish for a long time about sponsoring the Pyeongchang Games, said Chang Sea-Jin, a professor at the National University of Singapore.

Last April, when members of the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee met with South Korea’s finance minister to discuss the committee’s financial troubles, its chairman said that the bribery scandal was one reason organizers were having difficulty attracting corporate sponsorships, according to the Yonhap news agency.

The committee finished raising the $875 million in sponsorship money it needed only after President Moon Jae-in called on government companies, including the state electric utility, to pitch in.

“The political issues have not directly affected the planning or preparations of the games, but they were certainly a distraction for local engagement,” a spokeswoman for the Pyeongchang committee said by email. She declined to comment on how far the committee had been behind on its funding before Moon’s appeal last July.

For many South Koreans, conflicted feelings toward the nation’s business champions have already dampened the Olympic spirit. Last week, Ju Mi-ryung, 41, traveled an hour with her son to an official Olympic exhibition center in Seoul to show him the curling demonstration and the virtual-reality bobsledding.

“It’s a problem that the chaebol score political points through sporting events like this,” Ju said.

Sponsoring the Olympics has been a dicey proposition this year for other reasons, too. Moon’s decision to field a joint hockey team with North Korea has proved controversial at home.

Still, the chaebol are not skipping Pyeongchang entirely.

Samsung created the 2018 Games’ official app. It is handing out 4,000 special-edition Galaxy Note 8 smartphones to athletes and Olympic staff. And it provided two Dutch speed skaters with suits dotted with sensors to help them train.

One subsidiary of the LG Group, meanwhile, built the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee’s head office; another produced promotional videos and ads for the games. Hyundai will be showing off its hydrogen-powered and self-driving cars at Pyeongchang. Korean Air has painted an airplane with the official Olympic mascots: a white tiger named Soohorang and a bear named Bandabi.

On the whole, though, South Korean sponsors are marketing themselves less aggressively at Pyeongchang than they have at previous major sporting events, said Choi Dong-ho, a sports commentator in Seoul. When South Korea co-hosted the World Cup in 2002, Samsung kicked off a global advertising blitz that included an enormous billboard in Times Square in New York.

Today, by contrast, Samsung is being “extremely cautious,” said Nam Lee, a professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. “They don’t want to wake up people’s concealed bad feelings against Samsung and Chairman Lee.”

Hyundai said its promotional activities for Pyeongchang were extensive and had “no precedent.” Other chaebol companies, however, shied away from the topic. Samsung declined to comment on how its marketing for Pyeongchang stacked up against previous games. An LG spokeswoman said the group’s subsidiaries were not permitted, under the terms of their sponsorship, to promote their own brands in connection with the games. A Korean Air spokesman declined to comment.