Winter Olympics: S. Korea builds it but will fans come?

Pyeongchang, South Korea - Across the road from the pentagonal arena which will host South Korea's Winter Olympics opening ceremony a year from Thursday, bundles of dead fish dangle from a wooden frame outside Lee Yong-Oon's shop.

Most venues for the 2018 Pyeongchang Games are virtually finished and the organisers are about to launch a domestic and international marketing blitz, touting Korean technology, culture and food as they seek to persuade sports fans from around the world to make the long journey to north-east Asia.

Lee, though, has his doubts. Dried pollack - dessicated during the biting chill of winter - is a speciality of the area, but he thinks Westerners would find his signature product "a bit hard to eat".

He is not planning to increase production for next winter, he told AFP, despite his prime retail location and a chance to attract thousands of potential customers.

With a year to go, many South Koreans express pride that they are hosting the games, and workers are already installing the upper levels of the Olympic structure opposite Lee's premises.

The only sporting facility still awaiting completion is a new ski slope for the downhill events - none of the existing resorts have high enough mountains to provide the vertical drop required according to regulations - but even that is 85 per cent finished.

A roomy show flat in the Olympic village, complete with bedspreads covered in sports symbols, has two sets of double glazing to protect against the cold.

Looking out from the top of the vertiginous K125 ski jump, tiny staff in dayglo green jackets far below prepare the landing area snow for a test event, the cross-country course runs through wooded hills nearby, and wind farm turbines line the horizon.

But marketing has so far been conspicuous by its absence. On the road from Seoul, the first mention of the Winter Olympics is a plain white sign on a hillside around 30 kilometres (19 miles) from Pyeongchang.

It is a notable contrast to the next host China, where multicoloured billboards already line highways more than an hour from the venues, despite the fact that its Games are not until 2022.

The question of promoting the Pyeongchang Olympics - taking place an intercontinental flight away from the traditional markets of North America and Europe - is increasingly important.

"It's a fundamental issue," IOC Olympic Games executive director Christophe Dubi told AFP.

"We must sell these Games, and the challenge today - and we have spoken openly about this with the Pyeongchang organisers - is to engage this effort both at the Korean level and internationally," he said.

Even South Korean media have expressed concerns. In a stinging editorial, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper lamented that there was "no excitement or buzz around the Games that are only about a year away" and warned of the risk of "international embarrassment".

The push will begin on Thursday, said Lee Hee-Beom, president and CEO of the Pyeongchang Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (POCOG), when tickets go on sale in South Korea. International availability depends on each country's national Olympics committee.

Top category seats for the opening ceremony and men's ice hockey final cost 1,500,000 Korean won (S$1,861.50) and 900,000 won (S$1,116.90) respectively, but several disciplines ranging from biathlon to skeleton have tickets as cheap as 20,000 won.

"From February 9th we will have promotions and we will expedite promotional activities around the nation and all around the world," Lee told AFP, with advertisements on Seoul buses and international television networks.

Pyeongchang will be the 23rd Winter Olympics, he pointed out, but the Games have only been held in 12 countries so far, all of them in Europe or North America aside from Japan, which has hosted them twice, at Sapporo in 1972 and Nagano in 1998.

So far winter sports have been "games for the Europeans, games for the Americans", he said. But with China to follow South Korea as host country, it meant "winter sports become games for Asians".

Beijing has declared its intention to have 300 million winter sports fans by the time it hosts the event.

But at the Yongpyong resort where the slalom events will be held, tour guide Uno Wang - who has been escorting groups from China for 15 years - warned against relying too much on South Korea's giant neighbour.

"We usually introduce the Olympics to the people that we bring here but they don't show that much interest," he said. "It's generally like that in East Asia. China is a country that's not that into sports, especially winter sports." And Chinese tourism to South Korea is under a cloud, with Beijing infuriated by the country's planned deployment of a US missile defence system, THAAD, in response to nuclear-armed North Korea's atomic tests and rocket launches.

Beijing has imposed measures seen as economic retaliation, and Wang says his visitor numbers have fallen by 30 to 50 per cent as a result.

"If the South Korean government goes ahead with the THAAD deployment maybe the numbers will decrease even more - 70 or 80 per cent," he said. "It's a very serious problem."

Read also: South Korea races to get ready in time for winter Olympics