The stage is set for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. The XXIII Olympic Winter Games will be the largest ever with nearly 3,000 athletes from 92 different countries taking part in the event, which will run from Feb. 9-25. The Paralympics will follow and take place from March 9-18.
While these Winter Olympics aren’t expected to rival the spectacle (both good and bad) that was the Sochi Games in 2014, there are still several things that are worth keeping an eye on as the proceedings unfold.
1. Weather will be a factor
PyeongChang is located in the northeast corner of South Korea in the Gagwon Province of the Taebaek Mountains. It is approximately 110 miles east southeast of Seoul, the capital of South Korea, which hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics.
The average elevation of PyeongChang is 2,300 feet above sea level. February is one of the coldest months of the year with the PyeongChang Organizing Committee reporting that the average February temperature over the past decade was 23 degrees (-4.5 Celsius). Venues for the games are sprawled across the region, ranging from the mountains to nearby coastal towns, so the weather conditions will vary differing on the location and other factors, such as the wind.
Forecasts are already calling for extremely cold conditions for the Feb. 9 Opening Ceremonies, which will be held in PyeongChang Olympic Stadium. Although organizers requested a roof for the facility, it was not included to save time and money, according to a Reuters report.
Dealing with weather conditions are nothing new to the Olympics, whether it be wind or smog in the case of the Beijing Summer Games in 2008. How will the combination of the cold, elevation and other factors impact the athletes in PyeongChang?
2. Unified Korea
South Korea is the host but its neighbor to the north is making just as much news leading up to these Winter Olympics. North Korea supreme leader Kim Jong-un has granted his country’s athletes permission to cross the demilitarized zone, which is located just 50 miles north of PyeongChang, to participate in these Winter Games.
Additionally, the two countries are set to march under the Korean Unification Flag during the Opening Ceremonies and will field a Unified Korea women’s hockey team. North Korea’s reputation on the national stage is well documented, so it will be interesting to see how Jong-un’s new appeal for unification of the peninsula will play out during these Winter Games. And will his presence overshadow South Korea’s time in the spotlight as the host country?
3. Russia’s presence
Speaking of presence, Russia has already made one as it relates to these Winter Olympics. In December, International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned the Russian Olympic Committee from participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics (and Paralympics) due to its systemic doping program.
Russian athletes instead will compete as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” under the generic Olympic flag and will have the Olympic anthem played during any medal ceremony. Even with the ban in place, Russia will have one of the largest contingents in PyeongChang with an estimated 169 athletes.
So even though the Russian flag (presumably) will not be seen nor will its anthem be heard in PyeongChang, the country’s presence still looms large. How will this be received should Russian athletes win a significant number of medals? It’s going to be awfully difficult to separate the individual athlete from their country, even if they aren’t competing under that flag.
4. New sports
The 2018 Winter Olympics will feature a record 102 events in 15 sports, making it the first Winter Games to surpass 100 medal events. The 15 disciplines are (in alphabetical order): alpine skiing, biathlon, bobsleigh, cross-country skiing, curling, figure skating, freestyle skiing, ice hockey, luge, Nordic combined, short track speed skating, skeleton, ski jumping, snowboarding, and speed skating.
These Winter Games will include four brand-new events — big air snowboarding, mixed doubles curling, mass start speed skating, and mixed team alpine skiing.
While the PyeongChang Games are set to be the largest ever in terms of participation, organizers it remains to be seen who else will show up. As of January, the PyeongChang organizing committee reported that only 61 percent of all tickets had been sold, according to CNBC.com. Any number of factors could be pointed to here, starting with the aforementioned weather conditions, the political landscape in the region, or the absence of Russia as an official delegation. Questions about the quality of the athletes participating also could be a factor, as the NHL opted not to release its players for these Winter Olympics.
The good news for the PyeongChang Organizing Committee? These Winter Olympics are not expected to surpass the Sochi Games in one category — cost. Even though the total cost for the 2018 Winter Olympics is estimated at $10 billion that’s five times cheaper than Sochi’s reported price tag just four years ago.
(Top photo courtesy of NBCSports.com)