Mount Gariwang, formerly a protected conservation area, is being developed into a skiing venue for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Photo by Liv Yoon.

PyeongChang is a small county in the northeastern province of Gangwon, South Korea, with a population of approximately 43,000. This mountainous region, known for its quaint charm and small-scale agriculture-based economy, will host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, and as a result, joins a long list of host-cities that have witnessed turmoil due to sport mega-events. An issue surrounding the PyeongChang Games that has gained some attention – but certainly not enough – is the destruction of Mount Gariwang, a former Class 1 Protected Area for Forest Genetic Resource Conservation, now transformed into the official alpine skiing venue. Because this area had long been protected from any kind of development, public or private, a “Special Act” had to be legislated to pave way for the development.

As part of my dissertation work, I went to South Korea for three months to interview activists, journalists and residents near Mount Gariwang to understand their experiences with, and how they make sense of, this controversy. These conversations reveal that the controversy surpasses concerns around the environment and can serve as a gateway for understanding issues with broader social dimensions, such as the role of journalism and democratic citizenship in contested events. Note that the focus here is not centered on Korea, but rather, the various social, cultural, and political implications sport mega-events may bring or reveal in any setting (local context withstanding, of course).

Journalistic practice

New habitat for (only some of) the displaced residents. Photo by Liv Yoon.

Many mainstream news media outlets across the political spectrum of Jung-sun (where Mount Gariwang is located) were in favour of the alpine skiing venue being built at what they deemed as partial cost of the ancient forest. This fits in line with the unanimous celebration portrayed by the same major media outlets of the bid won after two failed attempts. However, conversations with residents living in varying proximities to the mountain revealed that such survey results require a double-take. Those who used to live at the base of the mountain – and only those with land under their own names – were compensated to leave their homes to make way for the development.

I spoke to those who had moved with compensation, all of whom conveyed discontent with the development and the negative consequences it has had on their lives. While residents being compensated to move did receive (some) mainstream media attention, media failed to report on the hardship that followed, such as: having to live in make-shift shelters until their new places were ready; the compensation not being sufficient to build their new homes; and suffering from construction-related challenges like dirty tap water and walls cracking from frequent rock blasts. In fact, some of the people I spoke with mistook me as a journalist and/or asked that I bring this matter to the press in order to garner attention.

At the same time, when I asked the journalists about whether and how they were able to engage with the residents who were displaced/relocated, they gave many reasons as to why they could not, such as: lack of resources and time to actually visit the site and talk to people; difficulty in reporting stories that were even slightly critical of the Olympics or Olympic-related development due to advertising and funding relationships (this was particularly difficult for local media outlets as their biggest funding source was often the province of Gangwon itself, which was pursuing this development); and persistent pressure to write articles centred around “facts”, rather than opinion, as well as to seek out “new” information, rather than write about enduring social and political issues that are not often “renewed” with “exciting” new material.

Democratic citizenship (or lack thereof)

Site at the bottom of the hill where two hotels are being built. Photo by Liv Yoon.

A theme that emerged in all interviews with activists, journalists and local residents is the role of democracy and civic empowerment at the root of such controversies. What struck the hardest in interviews with the local residents was that those most negatively impacted feel disempowered to speak up about it. What is noteworthy is that the lack of empowerment was not something they complained about; rather, they seemed to consider it most natural. Such sentiments arose only when I asked directly whether they resisted or voiced their dissent and discontent – to which the reply was often “No”, because to resist was “to break a rock with an egg” – ergo, that speaking up hurts oneself more in an already impossible task. These residents – often with lower levels of income and education – said that they felt they “didn’t have the right to resist an initiative of the ‘nation'”, a sentiment common among the older, more conservative demographic to whom the sentiment that “the nation is above citizens” has been engrained while living through authoritarian rule.

Activists, most of whom were younger and geographically based in Seoul, spoke of a different lack of democracy. They pointed to the closed attitude of decision-makers in power and the resulting lack of a public sphere wherein different ideas can be contested. They accused those in power of treating them as “invisible beings” when they requested open discussions.

These are a few examples which demonstrate that the controversy surrounding Mount Gariwang is not “just” an environmental issue. Rather, it serves as a gateway to trace the power struggles underpinning communication and politics surrounding sport mega-events, as well as reveal the sites of struggle in which unequal power relations and conflicts may be exacerbated or transcended. Such struggles are neither new nor unique to South Korea. Environmental, social and political issues trailing sport mega-events are all too abundant. However, they may represent, constitute, validate, and/or challenge political responsibility and commitment. At the same time, though, they may reveal junctures and possibilities for alternative futures and discussions for how they can be achieved.

Everyday life near Mt. Gariwang, Jungsun, PyeongChang County. Photo by Liv Yoon.

Liv Yoon is a PhD candidate in the School of Kinesiology and a Liu Scholar at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Her research interests include critical ecology, environmental sociology, politics, communication, and socio-political dimensions of sport mega-events. You can reach her at yoon.liv@gmail.com