GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The glittering new venues not far from the South Korean coast were clearly the place to be on Monday.
Thousands of bundled-up people scurried through the Olympic Park despite frigid temperatures, heading off in various directions to cheer on the figure skaters, curlers and speedskaters. On their way to the events, they could grab a burger at a McDonald's designed like a geodesic dome, or pop into an exhibit on Tokyo's preparations for the 2020 Summer Games, or relieve themselves of thousands of won at a superstore.
In the heat of the moment, it all seems to make sense, this enormous cornucopia of sports.
"The venues are really stunning," said Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee. "This can really be the place where you will feel the heartbeat of the Olympic Games."
Then, in a couple of weeks, the heartbeat will stop.
The bill will come due.
And yet another city and country will be left to deal with the financial carnage, which is pretty much guaranteed when you agree to take on the Olympics.
So much for all those lofty promises from the IOC to make their every-other-year party a bit lighter on the wallet. They keep adding events — mixed team curling, anyone? — while not doing much of anything to rein in the enormous costs.
In Pyeongchang, organizers spent more than $100 million for a temporary, 35,000-seat stadium that will be used a grand total of four times — for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Winter Games, followed by the opening and closing of Winter Paralympics.
Never mind the nearby ski jumping stadium, which would've worked just fine for the ceremonies. Or that right down the road in Gangneung, where the ice events are being held, there's a 22,000-seat soccer stadium in the midst of the Olympic Park. For some reason, it's not even being used during these games.
But the host country did construct four — that's right, four! — indoor arenas in Gangneung, a city of just over 200,000 in one of the poorest regions of South Korea.
At least the 10,000-seat hockey arena will be dismantled and moved to another city after the games. But this beachside community will still be saddled with the 12,000-seat venue that's being used for figure skating and short track. Not to mention a speedskating oval, which figures to be a drain on the region in its post-Olympic era. And don't forget a smaller arena for women's hockey, which will he handed over to a local university after the games.
As with Sochi four years ago, this is really nothing more than an economic development project masquerading as a sporting event, a massive, farfetched attempt to transform a backwater into some sort of snow-and-ice paradise. As usual with these sort of things — and this will certainly sound familiar to those in stadium-crazed America — Pyeongchang has been promoted with all sorts of ludicrous, Sochi-sounding promises, from an influx of tourists to a bunch of new investment to a boost in international stature.
We saw how it worked out for the Russians, where the $51 billion price tag hardly resulted in a Switzerland on the Black Sea. A Kontinental Hockey League team claimed one of the new arenas but averaged less than 6,000 fans per game last season. The stadium used for the opening and closing ceremonies will host six games in this summer's World Cup, but only after expensive renovations that included removing the roof.
Rio de Janeiro was another financial calamity that came with order of Olympic rings . The host of the 2016 Summer Games threw up a bunch of unnecessary venues, from a sparkling new velodrome — which replaced a cycling facility constructed only nine years earlier for the Pan American Games — to a golf course in a country where virtually no one hits the links.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, those venues fell into disuse and disrepair almost as soon as the flame was extinguished.
None of this seems the least bit in line with Agenda 2020, the much-heralded push by Bach to make the games more affordable and attract a larger pool of potential host cities.
Tokyo, which will hold the first games that fall under this new initiative, has agreed to cost-cutting measures that largely involve moving some events to existing facilities outside the city. But the IOC also cleared the addition of six new sports (baseball, softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing), which is totally at odds with the concept of a more affordable games.
When only two cities put in a bid for 2024, the IOC went ahead and awarded them both a Summer Games — Paris in '24, Los Angeles in '28 . When a bunch of European cities dropped out of the running for 2022 Winter Games, Beijing wound up as the choice essentially by default, which means it will host both the Summer and Winter Games just 14 years apart. No one is showing much interest in the 2026 Winter Games, which are supposed to be awarded next year.
If this keeps up, the IOC could very well find itself with an Olympics that no one wants.
At this rate, that's just what it deserves.