Woo: 'Yes, Pyeongchang!'

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea --  Precisely 2,018 people rose as one here amid the International Olympic Committee's visit to what would be the curling rink should this be the winning entry for the 2018 Winter Games and, on cue, started belting out a song called, "I Believe in Angels." The lyrics veered from, "I'll cross the stream/I have a dream," to, "I believe in angels/something good in everything I see/when I know the time is right for me/woo/I have a dream/a song to sing/to help me cope with anything."

Anywhere else in the world you might not say woo but -- what? This, though, is South Korea, and they really, really, really want the Winter Olympic Games here. So, woo.

Woo here isn't cheesy. Woo here is genuine and heartfelt. Woo is the sound of a bid roaring toward the election for 2018, and woo frames the question of the moment: can this third straight Pyeongchang bid for the Winter Games, after unsuccessful campaigns for 2010 and 2014, be the one that fulfills the earnest longing of the Korean people?

"We have seen great progress in the bid from the previous two bids. We have also seen very strong governmental support for this bid," the chairwoman of the evaluation commission, Sweden's Gunilla Lindberg, said at the first of two news conferences Saturday, adding a moment later, "We have seen also progress for Korean winter sport for these last years."

The evaluation commission, which spent last week in Annecy, France, takes a break now for a week. It goes to Munich, the third and final candidate in the 2018 derby, from March 1-4.

The commission will produce a report to be published May 10. The IOC will gather a week later in Lausanne, Switzerland, for a conference that will likely attract most of the roughly 115 members; only then will the 2018 race begin to take real shape.

The IOC will pick the 2018 city on July 6 in a vote in Durban, South Africa.

At this preliminary stage, most everyone -- even the Koreans' rivals -- ventures that the Koreans are the ones to beat, most everyone also mindful that, one, IOC elections are notoriously unpredictable and, two, the Germans and the French are in their separate ways likely to prove formidable competitors.

The perception of being the front-runner carries, of course, advantage and disadvantage.

Most bids furiously shy away from the label. Paris, for instance, was thought to be in front for the 2012 Summer Games -- for months and months, indeed all the way up to the final round of voting. London won.

Here, for instance, tensions with North Korea could erupt. Or some sort of internal bickering could derail the bid. Or some Mystery X Factor could surface.

In an Olympic bid campaign, literally anything is possible.

Then again, being the front-runner allows you to tell your story -- if you have a good one -- and to run the race the way you want to run it. The trick is to not be complacent, and to exhibit humility, and those are the mantras of the Pyeongchang campaign.

"We are ready to listen to what the IOC has to say about our weaknesses and work to resolve them," the bid chairman, Yang Ho Cho, said at the second of Saturday's news conferences.

Meanwhile, this bid has a ready-made story, arguably the most compelling narrative among the three cities in the race, one seemingly in line with the IOC's expansionist trend in recent votes (Sochi in 2014, Rio in 2016) -- a Korean Winter Games to grow winter sports in Asia.

It's a no-brainer, really. The demographics and the money are pointing toward this part of the world. It's inevitable the IOC is coming this way. The Winter Games have been held in Asia only twice, both times in Japan, in Nagano in 1998 and Sapporo in 1972.

The open question is whether the IOC is going to make the leap to Korea in 2018 or some other country in Asia (China? Kazakhstan?) in some other year (2022? 2026? 2030?).

As Won Ho Park, a professor at Seoul National University, explained in a briefing Friday, a 2009 bank study suggests that by 2030 development in Asia will underpin about 43 percent of annual worldwide consumption.

The consequence of that is simple and powerful:

Asian consumers are "likely to assume the traditional role of the U.S. and Europe's middle-class," he said, adding a moment later, "We're going to have a lot of potential consumers of winter sports with disposable incomes."

He also said, "No other region in the world even comes close."

That's why this Pyeongchang bid is tag-lined "New Horizons."

That's why there are now new Intercontinental and Holiday Inn hotels in Pyeongchang.

Four years ago, what is now called the Alpensia complex here, with the hotels and shops, was a series of potato fields.  When the IOC evaluation team was here four years ago, the Koreans had to say, this is where we're planning to build those hotels and shops and sports venues. Now they say, look, we got it done.

Not everything is built yet. For instance, the real game-changer would be the bullet-train yet to be built from Seoul. Getting down here from the Korean capital can still take as long as three hours-plus. The train, to be done by 2017, would reduce travel time to roughly an hour.

The 2010 and 2014 bids were seen to be provincial campaigns; for 2018, that train and everything about the Pyeongchang bid is a leading national priority, as the presence of South Korean President Myung Bak Lee on hand here this week made plain.

The downside of Alpensia is that it is, in essence, a self-contained village in southeast South Korea. That's why the plan here would be to create a "Best of Korea" experience during the 2018 Games and why completion of the bullet train -- to allow for the possibility of getting easily back and forth to the big city -- would be so vital.

The upside of Alpensia is that it is a self-contained village. Here the IOC could re-create that village experience that so many people say they loved so much in Lillehammer in 1994.

With a bonus that has clearly been downplayed but is patently obvious -- there's a 27-hole golf course here designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr.

The weather this week perhaps would not have allowed for golf -- they got record snow here, all of it cleared away in record time -- but if the Games went here in 2018 and you could play 18 (showing support for that new Summer Games sport) and then watch a little snowboarding or figure skating at night, that would make for an outstanding double dip, wouldn't it? Where else could you do that?

All it would take is the sort of under-course heating that's common already in certain golf courses as well as soccer and rugby pitches. It might be expensive but it assuredly could be done, leading golf officials said.

Again, they say that's not in the near-term planning. But you can't miss that golf course when you're standing on top of the ski jump, looking out at what has been built here over the past four years.

And you can't miss the enthusiasm of the Korean people, either.

"Yes, Pyeongchang!" they shouted time and again at a beachfront rally here Friday, many of them wearing masks they had made up reflecting the faces of the members of the IOC commission. Now that took initiative.

You'd think that everyone had just been put up to this by some local ward captain. Except that public opinion surveys tell you otherwise.

In journalism school, they teach you that nine of 10 people won't even tell a pollster they like their mommies. Here, 91 percent want the Olympics. 91 percent!

Another sign: the IOC commission was greeted like royalty by an outrageous number of Korean reporters here to chronicle the panel's every more -- 162 reporters and camera people, the Korea Times reported. 162!

The bid committee issued a release Saturday that said it had collected 1.4 million signatures of support,  roughly 2.8% of the South Korean populace. That's enormous. To put that into perspective -- if a similar campaign produced similar results in the United States, it would be like collecting a signature from every single person in New Jersey.

It's like this all the time, everywhere, in South Korea. A couple of months ago, during a casual chat at the national training center near Seoul with long-track speed skater Mo Tae Beom, winner of gold in the 500 and silver in the 1000 last year in Vancouver, the subject of Pyeongchang's campaign came up.

His eyes brightened. "It would be such a rare experience to be able to skate in an Olympics hosted in your own nation," he said. "If It happens in Pyeongchang, it would be a life experience I would never forget. It would be a dream come true."



A clarification: The name of the song is "I Have a Dream," and it's by ABBA.