Olympics: Tycoon Cho takes S Korea Games from delays to praise

Olympics: Tycoon Cho takes S Korea Games from delays to praise

KUALA LUMPUR - One year ago Olympic leaders looked forward with trepidation to the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, but one of South Korea's much-maligned business tycoons, Cho Yang-Ho, has come to the rescue.

Twelve months after taking charge of an organising committee notorious for hold-ups and infighting, the 66-year-old head of Hanjin Group has earned plaudits from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Y.H. Cho, as he calls himself, said someone had to become "the boss" at the POCOG - the Pyeongchang Olympics Organising Committee.

POCOG has to get US$11 billion (S$15 billion) of skating and ice hockey stadiums, world class ski slopes and other arenas built for the February 9, 2018, start of the biggest Winter Olympics ever with a record 102 events and record numbers of competitors. It has been a struggle.

Gunilla Lindberg, the IOC watchdog for the Pyeongchang Games, recalled at an Olympic meeting in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday how a year ago she had told of "delays and not so efficient progress." "That was an understatement," said one head of a winter sports federation.

Venues were behind schedule, Pyeongchang was not signing up sponsors and the provincial and central governments were arguing about financing. Organisers reportedly had to take out huge loans to pay bills and there were suggestions some events could be moved to rival Japan.

POCOG's last president resigned in July 2014 for "personal reasons". Cho had led Pyeongchang's bid committee but was reluctant to return because he leads an empire which includes Korean Air and the huge Hanjin Shipping line.

'Nutgate' diversion

But since taking on the job he has shaken up builders and bureaucrats - while also battling bad publicity from his own family.

Cho had to make a public apology in December when his daughter Cho Hyun-Ah made a Korean Air jet return to the terminal in New York to eject a flight attendant who served nuts in a packet instead of on a plate.

The daughter had to serve a prison term - the South Korean public loves to criticise its family-run 'chaebol' conglomerates. But the 'nutgate' scandal did not divert the senior Cho from his mission.

"The last year has really been a very good year," said Lindberg, "with solid progress" on building venues.

"Things are moving on very quickly. Also the quality of the work has been praised by our experts and international federations."

All construction has now started and should be finished for test events scheduled for February. Hyundai this month became the latest key sponsor and Cho said he was confident that three quarters of the target US$850 million of sponsorship would be committed by the end of the year.

To get international sports fans talking about Pyeongchang, Cho has signed up US skiing superstar Lindsey Vonn as an 'ambassador'.

Critics won over

POCOG is also looking to work with Beijing, which was awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics in a vote on Friday, to expand Asia's burgeoning winter sports market. Contacts have already been held.

"Over the past year my team and I have been working around the clock," Cho told the IOC.

Afterwards he told how kick-starting construction had been his main challenge.

"People didn't make firm decisions very fast. But I am from business and especially in the airline business you cannot wait for one month or one week. We have to make precision decisions." So is it easier to run a business empire or organise an Olympics? "It depends who you work with," he replied.

"In business I am the boss. I make all the decisions. At POCOG, you have to work with the province, central government, international federations and the IOC.

"I am still the boss. But there are more people to discuss (with)." Cho has won over a lot of Pyeongchang's critics, including International Ski Federation president Gian-Franco Kasper, who has regularly expressed fears about delays.

"We are extremely confident and optimistic that Pyeongchang will be able to do it on time although there is not one minute to lose," Kasper said at the IOC meeting.

Pyeongchang still has problems: how to house thousands of volunteers who will come from around the world, making sure monsoon season mudslides do not ruin ski slopes, where to house the demanding US superstar ice hockey team.

"We are not perfect yet but we are trying very hard to make a perfect Olympic Games in 2018," said the tycoon.

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