Environment

Winter Olympics site becomes battleground for IOC ideals

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What can the International Olympic Committee do when a host city refuses to heed its advice? HAYDEN OPIE, STACEY STEELE and SARAH YANG team up with Korean lawyer JI HOON PARK to analyse the controversy over a site for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

With the XXIII Olympic Winter Games scheduled to be held in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang in February 2018, the Pyeongchang Organising Committee for the Olympic Games’ (POCOG) is urgently working on venues in Gangwon Province, including the controversial downhill ski course at Mount Gariwang.

This old oak tree on Mt Gariwang is thought to be South Korea’s oldest (Photo: Julian Cheyne, Games Monitor).

Mount Gariwang is cherished as home to ancient forests, including unique species of plants found only on the Korean Peninsula. The mountain is also believed to host South Korea’s oldest oak tree (pictured). It was listed by the Korean Forestry Service as a ‘Protected Area for Forest Genetic Resource Conversation’ and as a site ‘for the protection of flora genes and forest eco-systems’.

Mount Gariwang also has historical significance. During the late 14th century Chosun Dynasty, the mountain was considered ‘royal’ and ‘forbidden’. Despite its environmental, historical and cultural significance, Mount Gariwang was designated as the venue for the downhill ski competition in 2012, requiring a new course to be constructed on its 1,560 metre-high slopes. The Korean government removed its protected status to enable construction.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) promotes the environment as the third dimension of Olympism and one of the fundamental objectives of the Olympic Movement, alongside sport and culture. The IOC sees the concept of the ‘green games’ as ‘an increasing reality’.

From the initial Applicant Cities phase, environmental conditions, plans and impact are considered in deciding which cities progress. After a host city is determined, the Organising Committee is required to integrate environmental issues into its logistical planning in accordance with the commitments made in its application to fulfill its host city contractual obligations.

In line with its green focus, the IOC suggested that the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games be co-hosted with Japan to lessen the burden of preparation on one city. However, this alternative seems unlikely. In a nationwide poll, 50.5 per cent of Koreans opposed the notion of co-hosting the Olympic Winter Games with Japan (30 per cent supported this idea) while 57.8 per cent backed hosting of the games in other venues outside of the host city, Pyeongchang, but within Korea.

The IOC further recommended hosting some competitions at alternative venues, outside of the host city. An alternative venue exists in South Korea: Muju, Jeollabuk Province. In 1997, the Winter Universiade took place in Muju and a ski slope of international standard still stands. With some repair, this would make an ideal venue. POCOG has so far rejected the idea of moving the downhill ski competition. It cites the International Ski Federation rule that a run must be located 800 metres to 1,100 metres above sea level for Olympic downhill events for its decision to build on Mount Gariwang.

The show must go on

Both POCOG and its government partners refuse to accept the suggestions of the IOC and other stakeholders. Gangwon Province officials announced that 80 per cent of the trees on Mount Gariwang that need to be cut have already, and 10 per cent of the overall work had already been completed. The drivers are essentially economic: the province wants to keep the financial benefit from the games.

It appears that although the green games is a concern, ensuring that the Olympic venues are finished in time takes precedence for the IOC. It is unclear what they have done and indeed what they can do further to ensure such environmental concerns are met when the Organising Committee refuses to accommodate their concerns.

In response to the controversy about environmental harm to Mount Gariwang, the government plans to restore the upper section of the mountain to its original, natural state and to sell the bottom of the site as a ski resort at the conclusion of the Olympics. It is unlikely, however, that Mount Gariwang can be restored, according to the Global Forest Coalition. Further, successful environment restoration at the conclusion of a major sporting event in Korea has never occurred.

The desire of provincial officials to keep the reputational and financial dividends from the Olympic Winter Games for Gangwon Province highlights their inherent conflict of interest. Hosting the games is not the task of one city: it involves a $12 billion investment by the Korean government.

The situation in Gangwon Province appears to be a repeated issue of the Olympic Winter Games. The IOC recently selected Beijing to host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. The announcement produced an online outcry by Chinese environmental activists, which the government quickly censored.

The Beijing 2022 Committee plans to construct some alpine skiing courses within the Songshan National Nature Reserve, potentially damaging an important ecological barrier that helps to protect Beijing, a city of chronic air pollution, from sandstorms.

The circumstances surrounding PyeongChang 2018 and Beijing 2022 suggest that despite the IOC’s stated concern for environmental and sustainability issues connected to the Olympic Games, the key mantra is that the show must go on!

Hayden Opie is the Director of Studies of the Melbourne Sports Law Program, University of Melbourne.
Stacey Steele is Associate Director (Japan) at the Asian Law Centre, University of Melbourne.
Sarah Yang is a Research Assistant at the Asian Law Centre, University of Melbourne.
Ji Hoon Park is an attorney-at-law and member of the Korean Bar Association.

Main photo:  :
The destruction of Mount Gariwang (Julian Cheyne, Games Monitor).

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