(News Focus) PyeongChang 2018 set to move on from influence-peddling scandal
By Joo Kyung-don
SEOUL, Dec. 28 (Yonhap) -- With the first Winter Olympics in South Korea just 14 months away, local organizers are set to move on from a nation-rocking corruption scandal that marred preparation of the quadrennial competition.
The PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games (POCOG) had a bumpy ride in 2016.
In May, Cho Yang-ho, former head of the organizing committee, abruptly resigned from his post, saying that he needs to focus on corporate matters at Hanjin Group, the conglomerate owned by his family. But Cho testified at a parliamentary hearing earlier this month that he was pressured by high-ranking government officials known to be connected with Choi Soon-sil, a longtime confidante of President Park Geun-hye, and Kim Chong, former vice sports minister.
In this file photo taken on Sept. 27, 2016, the logo of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics is displayed at a building in Seoul. (Yonhap)
Choi has been indicted for allegedly using her friendship with Park to illegally interfere in state affairs and solicit donations from conglomerates for non-profit foundations she controlled.
Kim is known to have wielded strong influence over the sports industry until he offered to resign late October in the wake of the scandal. He has been indicted on charges of abuse of authority and handing government secrets to Choi, who had no official position in the government.
Kim, who became the vice sports minister in 2013, allegedly asked Choi to use her clout and help put his people into government positions in exchange for him doing her favors, according to local prosecutors.
The POCOG officials said their marketing and promotion activities were hit by the scandal. Since there were suspicions that Choi Soon-sil and Choi's niece Chang Si-ho pocketed profits through various deals related to the country's Olympic preparation, the organizers said they have been busy explaining that such claims are not true.
"PyeongChang was just their (Choi and her associates) target, not a hotbed of their corruption," said POCOG chief Lee Hee-beom. "There could be a possibility, but we reviewed all our contracts and there weren't any signs that they were involved."
The POCOG officials lamented that because of the scandal, they had an especially tough time signing business deals.
"There was even a case in which sponsors postponed contract signings," said Yeo Hyung-koo, secretary general of POCOG. "(The scandal) also left our staff in a state of unrest."
South Korean fans cheer at the International Skating Union (ISU) World Cup Short Track Speed Skating event at Gangneung Ice Arena in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Dec. 18, 2016. (Yonhap)
But now, the organizers said they're gearing up for the Olympics preparations again as suspicions fade away. These days, they are focusing on getting sponsorships which have been sluggish due to the scandal. The POCOG aims to collect 940 billion won (US$778 million) from sponsorships and donations.
"We had aimed to secure 90 percent of our sponsorship goal by the end of this year, but it is true that the scandal made it difficult," a POCOG official said in condition of anonymity. "We have so far secured 88 percent of our goal. But in recent days, there are many inquiries on donation."
The organizers said they are also concentrating on hosting test events successfully.
In the new winter sports season, FIS Snowboard Big Air World Cup came to PyeongChang, located 180 kilometers east of Seoul in Gangwon Province, last month. Then in December, the International Skating Union (ISU) World Cup Short Track Speed Skating was staged in Gangneung, a sub-host of the 2018 Games, as the first test event in ice sports. The event drew more than 20,000 people on its final two days, and the skaters raved about the ice quality and convenient facilities.
There will be 22 more test events in Winter Olympics and Winter Paralympics sports from January to April, including alpine skiing, speed skating, figure skating, cross-country skiing, wheelchair curling and hockey.
The POCOG admits that operation of recent test events was not perfect, but officials said they know what they need to improve.
"We will listen to what people have to say from test events to perfectly host the Olympics," POCOG chief Lee said after the short track speed skating event last week. "We will open the event evaluation committee to find things that need improvement and solve those problems."
South Korean Vice Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Yu Dong-hun (second from L) inspects the construction site of the Olympic Plaza, where the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2018 Winter Olympics will be staged, in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, on Dec. 2, 2016. (Yonhap)
The organizers also expect their preparation efforts getting a boost from the sports ministry's launch of special task force group for the Olympics. Earlier this month, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced it will form a supportive group for the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games that will be under direct control of the sports minister.
This group will closely cooperate with the POCOG and the National Assembly's special committee on PyeongChang Games.
Other preparations for the Winter Games are also speeding up.
The POCOG recently selected an executive producer of the opening and closing ceremonies for the PyeongChang Games. The job has been vacant for four months, but the organizers said Monday that theater director Yang Jung-ung has been selected to stage the ceremonies. He will be officially appointed next month, according to the organizers.
"As suspicions around Choi Soon-sil and PyeongChang Olympics are getting cleared up slowly, we're back on track," a POCOG official said. "We're now pushing the preparations for the Olympics following our masterplan."