When Pyeongchang was awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics, it was a victory for those who never stopped believing in the obscure little place, one of the most unlikely hosts of the Games in Olympic history.

Share story

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Lee Ji-seol was in elementary school when her hometown, Pyeongchang, first applied to host the Winter Olympics. During a visit by Olympic officials, she recalled, her entire class lined up on a street to cheer and wave flags.

Their enthusiasm notwithstanding, the bid didn’t seem promising. Located 50 miles from North Korea and the world’s most heavily fortified border, Pyeong­chang was known as a mountain backwater that produced potatoes and cattle. The town center was a nondescript crossroads, going to seed with “love motels” and karaoke bars. The area had two ski resorts, but they struggled to muster enough snow to attract visitors.

That first bid for the 2010 Games failed, as did a second bid to host in 2014, but the International Olympic Committee finally gave Pyeongchang, population 43,000, the nod for the 2018 Winter Games, which open this week. It was a victory for those who never stopped believing in the obscure little place, one of the most unlikely hosts of the Games in Olympic history.

“The entire town was out dancing,” Lee, 22, said of the day the news was announced. “Before we started our Olympic campaign, few South Koreans, much less any foreigners, even knew we existed.”

Most Read Nation & World Stories

Unlimited Digital Access: $1 for 4 weeks

Pyeongchang’s obstacles were economic and physical. The town is one of the poorest places in Gangwon, South Korea’s most isolated and least developed province, which shares a long border with the North. And though it is just 80 miles from Seoul, getting to Pyeongchang from the capital used to take hours on mountain roads that twist like “a sheep’s intestines,” as the locals say.

A chance for change

The provincial governor, Choi Moon-soon, called it “the last place the government thought of when it thought of investment,” adding, “We hoped an Olympics would change that.”

Even the town’s name was a problem. Originally spelled “Pyongchang” in English, it was often confused with Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. So in 2000, the town added a letter, capitalized another and changed it to “PyeongChang,” though most foreign news agencies declined to use the capital C.

Despite the rebranding, a Kenyan man registered to attend a U.N. meeting in Pyeongchang in 2014 made headlines after he flew to Pyongyang by mistake.

In time, though, South Korea embraced Pyeongchang’s bid for the Games as its own. The nation’s leaders were eager to build global prestige and saw the Winter Games as a chance to become one of only a handful of countries that have hosted a “trifecta” of international sports events: The World Cup took place in South Korea and Japan in 2002, and Seoul hosted the Summer Games in 1988.

In a country where winter sports never quite caught on, only one other town with ski slopes, Maju, also was interested in hosting the Olympics. Pyeongchang edged it out for national support, perhaps because it sits in a province that has been a major electoral battleground.

The government has poured $13 billion into the region, building a new bullet train and highway — and 97 tunnels and 78 bridges — to improve access to Pyeong­chang from Seoul, and sporting facilities such as ice rinks and ski slopes.

While some residents worried about the impact on local forests, support for the Olympic bid has been almost universal in Pyeongchang: A poll taken at the time of the first bid showed nearly 94 percent support, and it has not wavered.

Many believe the area’s future lies in bolstering tourism and they are hopeful the Winter Games will help. The service sector accounts for 70 percent of the local economy, in part because vacationers are drawn to the province’s scenic coast. But inland Pyeongchang has not really benefited; it’s betting the Olympics will change that.

Peace as promotion

In lobbying for its bid, South Korea used a potential handicap — Pyeongchang’s proximity to the North Korean border, in a region bristling with troops and weaponry — as a selling point. Holding the Games in Pyeong­chang, officials argued, would promote peace between two nations still technically at war.

The North did agree to send 22 athletes to the Games, and the two countries agreed to field a joint women’s ice-hockey team.

A third of South Korea’s 600,000 military personnel are based in Gangwon province. Many who were posted here as conscripts — all men in South Korea are required to serve about two years in the military — say they never want to see it again, so rugged are its hills and cold its winters.

Suspicion of North Korea is deeply etched here, as nowhere else in South Korea. The mountainous border is scarred with barbed wire, tank traps, land mines and guard posts. Hilltop loudspeakers blare K-pop songs daily toward the North, which counters by sending propaganda leaflets floating on balloons into the South.

Dreams of easing tensions and reunifying with the North one day are also more acutely felt here than anywhere else in South Korea. Many older people in the area came from the North as war refugees, settling near the border in hopes of returning quickly once the Koreas were reunified.

“Our dream is to one day take the train to go to North Korea and all the way across Siberia and to Berlin,” said Noh Yeon-su, curator of the DMZ Museum, referring to roads and rail lines that stop at the border, essentially making South Korea an island.

The province also has the Peace Dam, a towering structure built on the Han River out of fear that another dam upstream in North Korea might release a killer flood, by accident or on purpose.

Choi, the governor, shrugs off such concerns.

“Those of us who live here are not afraid of North Korea because the North, despite all its missile tests and bombast, doesn’t have an ability to fight a war,” he said. The economic output of his province, the South’s poorest, he noted, exceeds that generated by all of North Korea.

He added, “The happiest thing about the Olympics is that when foreigners see the Games taking place here, we can shake off our stigma as a dangerous place.”