PyeongChang is a small county in the northeastern province of Gangwon in South Korea (hereafter, ‘Korea’), with an aging population of approximately 43,000 (in which 1 in 4 people are 65 years or older). This mountainous region, known for its quaint charm and small-scale agriculture-based economy, will host the 2018 Winter Olympic and Paralympic 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’ that “may revoke the designation of all, or a part of a conservation zone” was legislated to pave way for the development.
As part of my dissertation work, I went to South Korea for three months (March-May 2017) to interview activists, journalists and residents near Mount Gariwang to understand their respective experiences with, and how they make sense of, this controversy. These conversations reveal that the controversy surpasses concerns around the environment, and can shed light on issues with broader social and political dimensions. 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).
Many conservative news media outlets reported that over 94% of the local residents of Jeongseon (where Mount Gariwang is located) were in favour of building the alpine skiing venue. This aligns with celebratory portrayals by the same major media outlets of the bid won after two failed attempts. However, conversations with residents living in varying proximities of the mountain (from the base of the mountain to a town 20km away) revealed that such survey results require a double-take. Those who used to live at the base of the mountain in Sukam – and only those with land registered in their own names – were compensated to relocate to a new community built atop an adjacent hill.
I spoke to those who had relocated with compensation to the newly built community, all of whom conveyed discontent with the development and the negative consequences it has had on their lives. While these residents did receive (some) mainstream media attention, what was often overlooked was the hardship that ensued, such as: having to live in makeshift shelters until their new homes were ready; the compensation not being sufficient to build their new homes with (in fact, this Korean news article reveals that what many who relocated have in common is debt); and suffering from construction-related challenges like non-potable tap water and walls cracking from frequent rock blasts. In fact, some of the people I spoke with mistook me for 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 explained barriers in place that prevented them from diving deep into the issue, such as: lack of resources and time to actually visit the site and talk to people; difficulty in reporting stories that were critical of the Olympics or Olympic-related development due to advertising and funding relationships (this was the case mostly for local media outlets whose 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 socio-political issues that are not often ‘renewed’ with ‘exciting’ new material. (These barriers are reminiscent of the ‘Hierarchy of Influences’ model – a device developed by scholars Stephen Reese and Pamela Shoemaker that may be useful for understanding how journalists arrive at the decisions they make in featuring selected aspects of events.)
Making sense of local responses
To better understand the locals’ support or (quiet) disapproval, it is necessary to consider their lived experiences. For example, to delve into why many local residents saw the mountain as a means for economic gain without painting them as selfish or naïve, the historical trajectory of how South Korea developed must be considered. South Korea underwent rapid industrialization between 1960 and1980, but the development was largely centred on Seoul and other urban centres. Gangwon Province, the most mountainous region of South Korea, was left behind largely due to its mountainous terrain that rendered it difficult to build around. Hence, many pro-development locals expressed that getting such infrastructure development (“thanks to the Olympics”) was long overdue.
On the other hand, the local residents who opposed the development were not as vocal about their disapproval. What was most striking in interviews with the local residents was that those most negatively impacted felt disempowered to speak up about it. The lack of empowerment was something they acknowledged, but not something they complained about; rather, they seemed to consider it ‘natural.’ For example, when I asked whether they resisted or voiced their dissent and discontent, the reply was often ‘no, because to resist was “to break a rock with an egg”’ – ergo, that speaking up hurts oneself more when faced with 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 initiatives of the nation,” a sentiment common among this older generation who lived through two decades of authoritarian rule during the 1960s-1980s.
Post-politics: Paying lip service to ‘consultation’
Activists, most of whom were younger and geographically based in Seoul, criticized 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 activists requested open discussions. Many expressed that they felt as if they were fighting a losing battle when considering the broader political and institutional climate. In particular, they pointed to corruption over private financial interests and lack of transparency throughout decision-making processes as most distressing. Some lamented holes in regulations and special laws – such as the lifting of the Protected Area status – that paved the way for the development and filled the pockets of construction company owners.
These are but a few examples demonstrating that the controversy surrounding Mount Gariwang is not just an environmental issue. Rather, it serves as a lens through which 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 social inequalities 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, at the same time, such crises may reveal junctures and possibilities for preferred alternative futures and discussions for how they can be achieved.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. A short documentary based on Liv’s dissertation will be available online in December 2018 at css.ubc.ca (UBC Centre for Sport and Sustainability).