The 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea saw a significant drop in television ratings and national attention. That’s the primary difference between this year’s spectacle and those of years past. The similarities are far uglier. Beneath the mountains of powdery snow and fluffy television coverage, we still have the realities of militarization and debt that will plague South Korea long after the media have packed up their cameras.
For starters, as with previous Olympics, the Pyeongchang Games were run on the backs of a labor force of exploited workers. One German media outlet reported that of the 15,000 “volunteers,” more than 2,000 had quit because of squalid living conditions, tiny portions of sub-par food, and an absence of work breaks. It wasn’t unheard of for 10 volunteers to be crammed into a room built for four. Dozens of petitions were filed with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, complaining that working and living conditions “are unbelievably inadequate.” One volunteer said, “When I think about how much money is being spent here, I wonder why we do not get paid at all.”
Speaking of money, there’s the International Olympic Committee, whose members parachuted into Pyeongchang, enjoyed five-star treatment, and then jetted home. The IOC reportedly has around $1 billion in its coffers. Not paying people for their labor saves each Olympics millions. In Rio, where 70,000 “volunteers” were sought out, conservative estimates put savings at more than $100 million. It’s ugly as sin; the only thing changing is the languages that foremen use to berate these uncompensated laborers.
Beyond this, the grand promises of economic nirvana at the Games escalate the hopes of local entrepreneurs, only to have them dashed come Games-time. For ski-rental businesses in Pyeongchang, the Olympics have been a nightmare. They have been forced to shutter their stores since mid-January, when Olympic organizers took over the area. As a result, business is down more than 80 percent this year. The local ski-shop association hasn’t sat idly by. It posted a protest banner reading “2018 Pyeongchang Olympic kill us!” Some local businesses have petitioned the government for compensation to offset losses. Others have constructed makeshift restaurants to try to scrape some income from the Games. One US tourist dubbed the situation “a huge bummer.” He said, ”I was planning to come and ski while watching the Olympics, but then seeing nothing was open was really just sad.” It’s even sadder for the small-business owners who are told the Olympics will mean a financial bonanza, only to instead experience a bust.
Then there is the price of the Games. An estimated $6 billion price tag has ballooned to more than $13 billion. These increased costs are seen in two factors: the militarism in the streets and the money that will be spent to maintain venues once the five-ring circus pulls up stakes. As with previous Olympics, local security forces leveraged the Games to ratchet up surveillance technologies like biometric facial-recognition systems, cameras pegged to nearly every public post, and a replenished stash of tactical drones. Add to this 60,000 police patrolling the Games each day, including 50,000 South Korean soldiers, and you have a recipe for militarization that blends into “normal” policing practices after the Games.