Champion Korean Horse-Traders

Pyeongchang! Congratulations!

Er – Gesundheit! What’s that you say? Why that’s Pyeongchang, not a city at all strictly-speaking, but a county, located in the east part of South Korea, and the locale which was chosen yesterday to be the host of the 2018 Winter Olympics. Maybe/probably you don’t know it now; you’ll know the name enough by, say, March of 2018.

With their victory, the South Koreans left behind in their dust their other two main competitors for this designation, namely Munich/Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Germany, of course) and Annecy (in the French Alps, right by the Swiss border). But don’t labor under any mistaken impression that Pyeongchang ran away with the competition based on any super-spectacular presentation they made earlier this week before the International Olympic Committee’s conclave in Durban, South Africa. No no no – as a quite informative article by Friedhard Teuffel in Der Tagesspiegel points out (Fiddling your way to Olympic victory, reprinted in Die Zeit as Race of the string-pullers), every one of those 110 IOC members charged with voting on the matter had certainly made up his/her mind before the presentations even started.

Note well that this article was published in both papers before the decision for Pyeongchang was announced, so that it’s written within a context that still holds out the prospect for a German victory. In reality, though, Teuffel could already confidently predict that the Koreans would win, that Munich had but a slim chance left and the French none at all. Everybody who had any insight into the process at all could figure that out already, he writes, and of course they were proven right.

So what about this process? The clue to understanding it, reasonably enough, is grasping what happened last time when it came time to choose a Winter Games host, namely the selection of Sochi, Russia – located, you might recall, very close to Russia’s southern border in the Caucasus, thus not with what you could call the best winter climate, and which in fact had no winter sport facilities already available at the time of its selection. Kind of reminds you of the selection of Qatar – doesn’t it, with its ferocious summer heat? – for the 2022 World Cup. Except that IOC proceedings are supposed to be a bit less corrupt than those of FIFA (remember the Salt Lake City 2002 scandal!), and no doubt they are, but only on a relative scale.

How does it work, then? Herr Teuffel (the name means “devil” BTW – could it be but a pen name?) provides a fantastic annotated checklist of the factors that are important in Olympic site-selection, and those that are not. Among the latter (not important) are environmental considerations (just a pious fig-leaf), the actual desire on the part of the local population to host the Games (of little interest to the IOC, although Pyeongchang was ahead in this by far) and, interestingly enough, the report of the Evaluation Committee that is sent to extensively evaluate each short-listed candidate-city. After all, during the last round the Evaluation Committee had little good to say about Sochi.

Money – Money Changes Everything

What factors are important? Mostly those having to do with money. Are there government institutions and/or big companies present ready to pump in a lot of it? Does the country constitute an interesting new market for winter sports, so that sports-equipment companies can use the Olympics to start selling where previously they had not been? South Korea scored high in these areas; according to Teuffel, the Samsung CEO has been so involved in the Pyeongchang bid that he’s practically an honorary IOC member. Then there are the sheer tactical considerations among IOC members; remember, many of them are from hot countries with no native interest in winter sports (!), they therefore have no “genuine” motivations to vote for any particular city and so it boils down to what sort of return favors they can get in exchange for their vote.

There in the realm of movers-and-shakers, of string-pullers (Strippenzieher) was where the South Koreans were canny enough to triumph – finally, in their third consecutive attempt to bag those winter games. Ah, Citius, Altius, Fortius – “Faster, Higher, Stronger” – indeed!

UPDATE: Now here’s some German reaction from after the announcement of Pyeongchang’s win:

Olympiavergabe 2018 nach Pyeongchang: Gestatten, Verlierer!: Wir packen es einfach nicht: Seit 1945 hat sich…


Roughly translated: We won’t be that easy to get rid of! Sebastian Kemnitzer launches an appeal for Germany to pick itself up, brush itself off, come back and try again. It now makes five times that one German city or another has applied to host the Olympics (Summer or Winter) since the end of World War II, he points out, with only one success (the Summer Games of 1972 – themselves not the most triumphant of events, you might recall). This when the country has had such success in other sporting fields, such as the fantastically-popular (i.e. both inside and outside the country) World Cup of 2006, and indeed the Women’s World Cup that is being held there now. Come on, he urges: Time to get moving to win the 2022 Winter Games for Munich and so make it the first city ever to host both Summer and Winter Games – exactly 50 years apart!

Still, Mr. Kemnitzer of Stern needs to compare notes with Friedhard Teuffel of Der Tagesspiegel (i.e. of the article discussed above). Kemnitzer puts forth a somewhat naive explanation for Germany’s 2018 failure involving lack of local population involvement and arrogant statements from leading businessmen. As we saw Teuffel describe it, in the final analysis these things don’t much matter either way; IOC decisions are delivered according to bit more cynical considerations (€€€). Perhaps the “ra-ra!” Mr. Kemnitzer needs to internalize a bit of that realism as well.

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