All About South Korea's Preparations for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games: 'We'll Be Ready'
February's Games will mark the first Winter Olympics in Asia in 20 years, and organizers are touting it as the "largest and most compact"
Preparations for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea have had their share of challenges — political as well as ticket- and weather-related — but officials say the doubts cast by headlines are not reflected on the ground.
“We’re pretty confident,” Nancy Park, an international media spokeswoman for the PyeongChang Organizing Committee, tells PEOPLE.
Park — who spoke to PEOPLE late last year, before approximately 1,200 security guards were sidelined with norovirus — notes that the International Olympic Committee and other organizations have reviewed the preparations and “overall, no one has ever questioned that we’ll be ready.”
“Every day, we know when we need to be ready,” she says, adding, “The world is watching.”
February’s Games will mark the first Winter Olympics in Asia in 20 years, and organizers are touting it as the “largest and most compact” Winter Games. Organizers tell PEOPLE the total budget for the 2018 Olympics, including infrastructure and operations, is estimated at approximately $12.6 billion dollars, a fraction of the 2014 Games’ reported cost.
With less than two months to go when first speaking to PEOPLE, Park says with a laugh, “It’s really busy in the office.”
Here’s what you need to know.
Where Exactly Are the Olympics Happening in South Korea?
The 2018 Winter Olympics will be held in Pyeongchang, a popular hiking and skiing location more than 100 miles east of Seoul, the capital, and about 50 miles from the North Korean border.
The competitions will be largely grouped into two “clusters,” one in the mountains and one on South Korea’s east coast.
After previous failed bids, Pyeongchang — which is distinguished by its little “c” from references to the Olympics, when the “c” is capitalized — beat out locations in France and Germany for the 2018 Games.
Construction and Other Prep Is Nearly Complete
Park told PEOPLE that of the 12 competition venues for the Games, six are new and six are pre-existing, with some modifications. Four of the new venues are completely done, she says, and two are nearly done.
All 12 venues are within a 30-minute drive of the Olympic Stadium, which was finished in September, according to Park and the PyeongChang official website. What’s more, says Park, 80 percent of athletes can get to their venues in 10 minutes. And for the first time at a Winter Olympics, there will be more than 100 medaling events (102 to be exact, with new events such as big air snowboarding).
“In terms of all the hardware, infrastructures, all of that, that is done,” Park says. “So for us as the organizing committee right now, we’re working on the final touches.”
With competitors and media arriving in January, Park says organizers are comfortable that all of the hardware is done and now it’s a matter of details such wallpaper and stocking toiletries as well as stress-testing.
Even so, she acknowledges there will be inevitable daily hiccups.
However, in terms of readiness, Park says they have multiple inspections going on all the time.
The IOC declined to provide an official for an interview with PEOPLE but pointed to a news release late last month touting South Korea’s Olympic readiness.
Tickets Are Very Much Still for Sale, But Are Picking Up
As of mid-December, ticket sales were at about 55 percent, according to Park. But she says enthusiasm has increased as the Games draw closer. At the 100-days mark, the Olympic torch relay began, and with it, “ticket sales have started to increase,” Park says.
“It’s done a lot to really bring a lot of excitement to the Games throughout Korea,” she says.
The changing weather also draws attention to the Games, she says (though not always in a positive way, as detailed below).
According to Reuters, 578,000 tickets had been sold as of Dec. 5, about 54 percent of the goal. That is in line with previous Olympics, an organizing official said.
South Korean officials are hoping for more than a million total spectators, about a third of them from other countries, the Associated Press reports.
No, the Olympic Stadium Does Not Have a Roof
An organizing committee document reviewed by Reuters showed a key concern with the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium: The 35,000 spectator seat arena venue doesn’t have a roof even as temperatures in early February are reportedly expected to feel about 7 degrees, factoring in wind-chill.
According to Reuters, the stadium was built roof-less due to cost and concerns about whether a roof was structurally supportable, even as PyeongChang officials had lobbied otherwise. (A presidential spokesperson declined to comment to Reuters.)
In November, six people at a concert in the stadium said they got hypothermia, Reuters reported, citing other outlets.
“These are stopgap measures,” Shim Ki-joon, a top politician who works to support the Games, told the news agency.
“This is a very serious issue,” he said. “This is creating a headache to not only the organizers but the presidential office, which sent officials to the venue to figure out ways to fight the cold.”
“It is not something we have not encountered in the past,” the IOC’s Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi reportedly said at a news conference last week.
“[Organizers] have installed windscreens and [provided] blankets and there will be plenty of information,” Dubi also said. “In the last K-pop concert people were not well informed of how cold it could get.”
The organizing committee document seen by Reuters reportedly shows plans to provide blankets and hot packs to spectators and as well as shortening security wait times and using audience participation activities to help warm them up.
Park confirmed such plans to PEOPLE, saying organizers plan to “distribute a ‘kit’ that consists of a blanket and hot packs to help against the cold to each spectator that attends. We will also set up wind nets to block the wind which have proven to be successful, as well as installing additional heaters around the stadium for people to go to if necessary.”
“We hosted a concert at the stadium a month ago, and what we learned was that the most important element is public information,” she says. “We will be informing attendees that they should be dressed warmly as it will be colder, since the ceremony will be held in the evening.”
As to the question of why a roof was not constructed, Park says the decision was made after a feasibility study and because the stadium is a temporary venue.
Politics Has Been Distracting – Just Not in the Way You Think
Much of the attention in America has focused on what North Korea may or may not do during the Winter Games. And while Park acknowledges these concerns, she notes that, for South Koreans, it’s “like business as usual.”
“We’ve been living with this political tension for 60 years,” she says. “In general if you come to Korea and talk to the average Korean it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m kind of aware of it, but I still have to pay my bills, go shopping.’
“It’s really a non-issue for an average Korean, but we know the international community has concerns … there is a lot being done.”
Among the efforts being made, Park cites work with more than a dozen domestic agencies, including South Korea’s defense ministry.
More distracting this year and last for locals, Park says, has been a scandal involving former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in December and removed from office in March over her longtime connections to Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a cult leader, who was suspected of using her influence over the president for personal gain.
Park says that once there was a new election and a new president — Moon Jae-in this past spring — people were able to move forward. Park adds that President Moon is “one of the biggest promoters of the Games.”
With the political distractions seemingly resolved, attention can now turn to the Olympics, Park says.