Kentucky 2030? Could Korea export its rural Olympic gamble?

  • infra investment
- Associated Press, JEONGSEON (South Korea)

Feb 19, 2018-

A coal mine stands on the mountain exactly as it was the day it was abandoned, now a rusting relic of blue-collar glory lost to a globalised world.It towers over this Korean coal community that is much like its American counterparts: poor, aging, hollowing out since the mines shut down and the young and able fled for cities. But with one notable exception.

A statue of a cartoon white tiger was recently erected at the foot of the mountain: Soohorang, the smiling mascot of the 2018 Winter Olympics, its foot raised to march, its back to the molding mine on the mountain. Unlike American coal counties, this Korean coal county is hosting the Olympics.

The Pyeongchang Winter Games are spread across South Korea’s Gangwon Province, a rural region that few overseas had heard of until its hard-fought bid to be an Olympic host—a massively expensive proposition with dubious payoff, now typically dared only by world-class cities and established resort towns. Its organisers touted it as an opportunity to invest in much-needed infrastructure and transportation upgrades—and with it, restore a sense of pride and purpose.

But will it work? And would it work in its American equivalent, the coalfields of Appalachia?Kentucky native Maddy Boyd drove to the new Jeongseon Alpine Centre to join spectators from around the globe to watch superstar athletes race for gold. She took in the mountains and the winding roads and the traffic that backed up behind tractors.

“It feels like home,” she said, rooting for the notion that her home state, an American underdog, might one day chase Olympic glory.

If South Korea could do it, she reasons, why couldn’t Kentucky? “It may be far-fetched to imagine an event like the Olympics coming to these hills,” says Dee Davis, founder of the Centre for Rural Strategies based in Whitesburg, Kentucky, the heart of American coal country. “I can guarantee you that this time yesterday I wasn’t thinking about an Olympic Village in Whitesburg.”

But then he considered the similar statistics of Gangwon, where the Olympic Village that currently houses the most elite athletes in the world now stands. It is rugged, isolated, one of the country’s oldest and poorest regions, just like the Appalachian states of Kentucky and West Virginia, but with the added complication of “sitting right there in the world’s military powder keg,” about 50 miles from the fortified border with North Korea.

“We’ll see how it turns out,” Davis says. “But you’ve got to say that they have heart. They put down a marker, they said, ‘We are here.’ That’s as courageous and provocative as trying to have an Olympics in West Virginia.”

Not far away, in the Korean mountain town of Sabuk, there are few hints of the spectacle that has been unfolding down the road. “It’s very exciting to be close to the Olympics,” said Yeo Bong-kyu, a volunteer at a mining museum that documents the county’s faded industry. “But it’s just an event, just to enjoy, and it ends.”

And when it does, many here say they expect the same problems they had before the Games began.Lim Su-ja chopped frozen pollock at a market that once bustled when the mine was open but now sits mostly quiet most of the time, including on this seventh day of the Olympics.

“There’s too few people here,” says the 72-year-old miner’s widow. Many of her neighbors have moved away and tourists don’t come. “We now only have old people who don’t have anywhere to go.”

Her worry is repeated again and again by residents here, in a town that now shares a county with a marquee venue at the most prestigious sporting event in the world: Despite the exciting new Olympic ski resort down the road, their community will continue its march toward oblivion.

“Maybe this town won’t entirely disappear, but I don’t know who would be staying,” says Lee Sang-kyu, 52, who left Sabuk 30 years ago for a factory job near Seoul. He was visiting his mother in a stretch of crammed concrete houses that used to be packed with mining families.

Published: 19-02-2018 09:06

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