It was hard to get excited about the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, but give the South Koreans credit for overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to pull the games off – and pull them off exceptionally well.
The odds were stacked against them. Few people know where Pyeongchang is, and the Korean mountains lack the ambiance of Europe’s Alps and North America’s Rockies. The northern coastal range is known for its frigid Siberian winds and subzero temperatures. Both arrived in the first week of competition and disrupted skiing and snowboarding.
A month ago, the world’s attention was on the growing North Korean nuclear threat and whether its unpredictable dictator, Kim Jong-un, would disrupt the games. The saber-rattling on all sides was unnerving. Who would want to go to the Olympics, which were a mere 50 miles south of the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea?
But the Seoul government was creative. It invited all Korean athletes to march in the opening ceremonies under a new unified flag – and even offered to put hockey players from the north on a combined team. It was a deal even Kim Jong-un could not refuse.
Pyeongchang – Auburn’s Sister City with a population of 43,700 – was the smallest community since the Lillehammer, Norway, (1994) to host the games. It stretched its resources, but from all reports the fans, athletes and dignitaries loved the warmth and friendliness of its people.
Interestingly, while many nations are rethinking whether to bid on the Olympics, the Koreans welcomed the opportunity. They cost billions. For example, the Russians spent over $50 billion to put on the 2014 Sochi games. Today, many of Sochi’s Olympic buildings are unoccupied and rotting. By preliminary estimates, Pyeongchang spent $12.9 billion.
The competition results were bittersweet for America. We were fourth in the medal count behind Norway, Germany and Canada.
Our snowboarders did predictably well, while our skaters struggled. Cross-country skiers Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins were the first Americans to win Nordic gold, and our men curlers, facing elimination, caught fire and beat Sweden in the finals – another first-time gold.
The frosting on the cake was the women’s U.S. hockey team knocking off Canada for gold. It brought back vivid memories of the 1980 men’s team beating the Russians and Czechs at Lake Placid in what became known as the “Miracle on Ice.”
NBC’s Tom Brokaw narrated a special report about the “Korean Miracle,” starting with the Korean War (1950-53) in which three million people died. The nation was leveled much as Poland was destroyed by German and Russian forces in World War II.
Brokaw talked about the Korean people’s hard work, its entrepreneurship, its educated and skilled workers, and the determination that has made it the world’s top manufacturer of semi-conductors and high-tech devices. That technology was showcased in the very creative opening and closing ceremonies.
South Korea, which is about the size of Indiana, has 51 million people, and is the world’s 11th largest economy ($1.383 trillion).
In 2015, more than 56 percent of Washington’s $2.4 billion exports to South Korea was aircraft, engines and parts. Washington shipped $44 million in fresh cherries to Korea – a 23 percent increase since the two nations adopted the trade agreement between them.
Pyeongchang counts Auburn as its only American Sister City. That relationship was established in 2011, the same year the South Korean community won its bid to host the Winter Games. That relationship, Sister City officials said, was a factor in the country’s successful bid.
Over the years, the cities have shared goodwill in economic, educational, cultural and social circles. The Sister City program, according to its organizers and participants, has brought new ideas and perspectives to business leaders, enlightened many students who participated in cultural and educational exchanges, and established and strengthened diplomatic ties among civic leaders.
In 2016, a Pyeongchang delegation, including the city’s then-new mayor, Jae-Kook Sim, visited Auburn leaders at City Hall.
“Auburn is a beautiful city … and the people have given us a very warm welcome,” Sim said of the visit.
A City delegation, led by Mayor Nancy Backus, returned to South Korea and visited Pyeongchang, took in festivities and the Winter Games opening ceremony on Feb. 9.
According to Brokaw, a key driver in the “Korean Miracle” is its strong education system, in which students must work hard to pass comprehensive examinations to advance and be accepted into college. “They get only one chance to pass the exams, and that’s it!”
While America struggles with student learning in its K-12 system, Korea’s highly educated and trained students are rapidly propelling their economy.
South Korea’s success goes far beyond the Olympics, and hopefully, the goodwill from the games fosters a new spirit of peace.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.