Jin Sun Kim

Korea for Winter 2018: emphatically on track


PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Think Olympics, and with the Rio 2016 Summer Games coming up in just six months, the headlines are dominated by story after story of bad water, ill government, sick finances and, now, the Zika virus. Just 18 months after the show closes in Rio, the Olympic spotlight will turn with all its intensity to the 2018 Winter Games, here in South Korea. So now for some glad Olympic tidings, the evidence manifest this weekend in the first 2018 test event, a men’s World Cup alpine downhill: Korea is emphatically on track.

Before most every World Cup race, the U.S. Ski Team sends to reporters a sort-of inside-baseball guide to what’s what -- notes, facts, figures, impressions. Here is a snippet from Saturday, before the downhill: “They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” adding, “Based on athlete praise this week, it looks like Pyeongchang crushed it with flying colors.”

Norway's Kjetil Jansrud on his way to winning Saturday's downhill // Getty Images

American Steven Nyman took third // photo Getty Images

The Jeongseon downhill podium. From left, Paris, Jansrud, Nyman // Getty Images

Big picture, the 2018 Games are on target to become one of perhaps the most memorable ever, situated in a hamlet where, because of simple geography, there’s going to be a Lillehammer-like village setting — assuming the Koreans can, as they have promised, bring the village to life. Too, because Pyeongchang itself is a ski venue and the skating and other ice venues are down by the coast in Gangneung, maybe a half-hour away, the 2018 vibe is going to be heavy on ski and snowboard — the very disciplines the International Olympic Committee has sought to use to reach out to a younger audience.

To that end, the IOC has approved for 2018 a snowboard event called "big air" that features, naturally enough, huge jumps.

The Jeongseon alpine racing course on Gariwang Mountain, designed by famed designer Bernhard Russi, the 1972 Sapporo Games downhill champion, and set by Hannes Trinkl, the 1998 Nagano Games downhill bronze medalist, runs to about 1.7 miles, with blind jumps and four pucker-inducing, great-for-TV jumps.

For comparison: the downhill track takes about 25 seconds less to get down than the 2:06.23 it took for Austria’s Mattias Meyer to win in Sochi in 2014. Because it's shorter, it places a huge premium on precision and control.

Norway's Kjetil Jansrud, who had been crushing it all season and all week in training, went 1:41.38 to win Saturday's race, his third victory of the season. Italy's Dominik Paris surged to second, two-tenths of a second back, in 1:41.58. American Steven Nyman, also strong in training, placed third, in 1:41.79, 41-hundredths behind. For Paris and Nyman, the race marked their first podium turns of the season.

An aerial view of the Jeongseon runs. "Blue Dragon," the competition course, is to the left, the training run "White Tiger" to the right // photo POCOG

Another aerial shot of the Jeongseon set-up // photo POCOG

Looking out from the start gate over the "Blue Dragon"

Sunday will see a World Cup super-G. The women's World Cup tour comes to Jeongseon in March 2017. In all, Pyeongchang will stage 28 test events over the next two years.

For a long time, it was hugely doubtful that the Koreans could have done what they did this weekend. Pyeongchang won the 2018 Games in 2011; the first three years went by with not enough getting done.

Then, though, Yang Ho Cho, the Korean Air chief who led the winning bid, was brought back — at the urgings of the highest levels of South Korean government — to run the Pyeongchang organizing committee, which goes by the acronym POCOG.


All major construction projects are on time, including a high-speed Seoul-Pyeongchang rail line and the athlete and media villages. Sponsorship: picking up. Right on schedule, the organizing committee is moving away from planning and toward operations.

Pyeongchang 2018 leader Yang Ho Cho on a midweek Jeongseon snowmobile tour

Gunilla Lindberg of Sweden, the International Olympic Committee 2018 Games coordination commission chair, said Saturday at a post-race briefing, "Today, for example, would not have been possible without the commitment of Korea to keep its promise to the athletes and to the Olympic movement."

There’s a long way to go, of course, before 2018, and any number of things can and probably will happen. After all, running an Olympic Games is nothing if not an exercise in crisis management.

Because this was a test event — the entire purpose of which is to find out what works, and what doesn’t, and get right what’s wrong — there inevitably were some rough edges over the weekend. Transport, parking, venue access — they all need to be reviewed.

No easy task for anyone, much less an elderly woman, getting up the hill before Saturday's downhill

Because it’s the Olympics, questions of legacy — what to do with this run after 2018, say — are bound over the coming months to gain in urgency. It doesn’t take much to figure out that, after the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, the international ski federation, FIS, can put together an Asian circuit, with races in China, Japan and Korea. Typically, though, ski runs are part of mammoth resorts. This is — a ski run. There are no glowing fireplace embers in the lodge because there isn’t a lodge. Or much else.

The view from the sky of the ski jump near Alpensia, the center of the 2018 Games // photo POCOG

That said, the very fact that the races went off, as scheduled long ago, is the most important take-away from the weekend. It makes for a huge momentum blast for 2018.

Before this weekend, the Olympic world was asked to believe, without evidence, that the Koreans could put on not just a world-class winter event but, with the downhill, one of the marquee events of the Games. Now that evidence is indisputable.

"It was a hard work," said Sarah Lewis, the British secretary general of FIS, the international ski federation. "And it was a great work."

If it was an organizational and logistics race to the finish, that is all the more evidence, too, of first-rate leadership and with it the building and sustaining of a winning culture — one where everyone buys in because the boss is right there with them, demanding excellence of himself and everyone around him.

“It’s not about me,” Cho said in an interview. “It’s about the team.”

For sure, and yet it is in some significant measure about him, because over his career he has proven an extraordinary change agent, the business leader who can bring teams to hew to his vision, who can command respect in political and financial circles, who moves easily in eastern culture and, as well, in the west.

The weekend in Korea saw the first-ever meeting of the Beijing 2022, Tokyo 2020 and Pyeongchang 2018 organizing committees. From left: Da Xu, deputy secretary general, Beijing 2022; Gunilla Lindberg, IOC 2018 coordination commission chair; Cho; Yukihiko Nunomura, chief operating officer, Tokyo 2020 // photo POCOG

From the first day he came back to the Olympic scene, in the summer of 2014, Cho understood the symbolic import of bringing this first test event in on time.

It was pretty elemental: Korea had been trusted with the Games. Now, could Korea deliver?

Cho has for many years been one of the world’s leading experts in enterprise culture, that thing that is exceedingly difficult to define and to make real but is so very real, indeed infectiously obvious, when it comes to life.

— As is detailed in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 best-seller “Outliers,” Cho effected a huge cultural change at Korean Air after the 1997 crash in Guam of Korean Air 801, which killed 228 passengers and crew. Afterward, junior pilots were encourage to speak up to senior officers; before, even in the face of potential disaster, that same junior pilot might well have simply shown deference. Too, all pilots had to become proficient in English, the language of international aviation.

Korean Air’s safety record since has been impeccable.

— Pyeongchang bid for the 2010 and 2014 Games, losing both. Those bids were headed by the provincial Gangwon governor, Jin Sun Kim. Cho led the 2018 bid. It not only won but by one of the biggest landslides in Olympic voting history, Pyeongchang getting 63 votes, Munich 25 and Annecy, France, just seven. Those 63 votes marked the highest-ever total for a first-round bid; Salt Lake City had gotten 54 for the 2002 Winter Games.

— Kim, a former provincial Gangwon governor, took over as organizing committee chairman. In July 2014, he unexpectedly resigned, saying new leadership was needed. The South Korean government turned to Cho, who initially turned down the job but then relented, saying it was a matter of duty, conscience and public service. His Olympic work -- which now takes up most of his days -- is without salary.

It took a little time for Cho to figure out who in POCOG was a worker and who, well, not. One of Cho’s first directives, considering that more than half the organization came from government: if you are working for a ministry and you don’t want to stay until 2018, the moment to leave is now. This way he had people who were in, and for the long haul.

It took time for Cho to convince the IOC that he — not the background noise drip-dripping from government — was really in charge.

In March, 2015, South Korean President Geun Hye Park’s chief of education and culture got with Lindberg, the IOC 2018 commission chair. The two-pronged message: the central government was fully supportive of the Games and Cho was indisputably in control.

Time, too, to get the various interests in POCOG — there are over 60 constituencies, including the private sector plus federal and Gangwon provincial government ministries — to learn to talk across the separate silos they had over the first three years constructed.

Then there was the weather. Korea normally goes through a rainy season. But summer 2015 brought a lot of rain. That meant a lot of mud on the mountains. That meant construction delays.

By last December, it was entirely unclear whether the gondola up Gariwang could be done in time to meet the required FIS Jan. 20 check-off, officially called “snow control day.”

Without the gondola, there was no point in seeing whether the other check-off due that day — snow volume and quality — could be met.

The gondola in operation over weekday test runs at Jeongseon // photo courtesy Doppelmayr

Thus the back story to this weekend.

The gondola, and how it got done, would prove hugely emblematic.

Cho had to be in Europe the first week of December for meetings, one of which revolved around his role in international aviation.

By then, POCOG had been told by officials of the gondola maker, a company called Doppelmayr, that the Jeongseon project was unsafe. No way it would be ready by Jan. 20. But that assertion didn’t elaborate.

On Dec. 6, a Sunday, Cho met in the lounge of a private aviation terminal near Vienna with Michael Doppelmayr, the company’s chief executive officer.

Doppelmayr told Cho that the firm’s No. 1 priority was safety. He said it had had 130 ongoing projects around the world.

For his part, Cho said, I have 150 aircraft that fly to more than 100 cities around the world, and Korean Air has the lowest insurance rates in the business.

That did it. At that instant, the two men recognized they were equals — sophisticated international businessmen.

The issue, as it would turn out, was that some of the pillars in the middle station planted on the Jeongseon run were misaligned. Without that alignment, the gondola wires and, obviously, any cable cars wouldn’t work right.

Cho told Doppelmayr the project had to get done.

For his part, Doppelmayr promptly sent a team of senior engineers to Korea. It was one thing to look at photos. It was quite another to be there, on scene.

After that, things swung into action. Crews worked 20-hour days, seven days a week. Christmas and New Year’s holidays? Not a chance. Work.

Meantime, on Dec. 24, Cho attended a POCOG executive board meeting. Hoarse, he could barely scratch out a few introductory remarks.

The important thing was that he was there. If everyone on the hill was working around the clock, he — despite the fact that he actually went to the hospital later that evening, where he was treated with antibiotics and released — was keeping a killer schedule, too. He wasn’t asking anyone to do what he wouldn’t do himself.

It got noticed.

On Christmas, everyone working on the hill enjoyed a traditional Korean barbecue. Cho paid for it himself — that is, himself, not from organizing committee funds.

Intriguingly, the weather in Korea — like in a lot of places now — had been unusually warm. The week before Christmas, as if by some magical confluence of karma, it turned cold, exactly when the Koreans needed it. Now they could make, and store, snow.

The week before the Jan. 20 deadline, the Koreans had made enough snow.

They kept going. By race day Saturday, they had 120 percent of the snow amounts the course requires.

Come deadline day, it was all good. The snow. The gondola, working, got certified.

Then came the raves.

And, come Saturday, the downhill. And more raves.

At that post-race news conference, Lindberg gave the event a score of 100 out of 100, bringing gasps and applause from Korean journalists. In a visit in December, she explained, IOC and other officials assuredly had "some doubts this event would take place." Even so, she said, "We trusted President Cho's promise," adding, "He made the impossible possible."

Echoed Gian Franco Kasper, the FIS president, "President Cho made us a promise and he really kept it," adding, "You have seen it today. We have an excellent downhill course here, according to the athletes and the coaches ... it's a beauty."

Jansrud, calling the mountain "fun," said, "This is more than an acceptable Olympic venue to ski on." Paris: "We can ski and we can have a lot of fun here." Nyman: A "joy to ski."

The FIS technical expert, Günter Hujara, had said earlier in the week, “Nobody believed we could do it but we did it.”

Or, as Cho said in a briefing Friday with a few reporters, “We had promised to deliver, and we delivered. Korea can deliver.”

Yang Ho Cho back atop Pyeongchang 2018


In certain circles in South Korea, such things as duty, responsibility, nation and family truly do matter, and matter a great deal. A promise is a promise, and a promise must be kept.  

Yang Ho Cho at Thursday's proceedings in Seoul // photo courtesy Pyeongchang 2018

Of course, these things can matter everywhere. All the same, this explains why on Thursday in Seoul, Yang Ho Cho — one of the world’s foremost businessmen, a pivotal figure in a leading Korean family, an advocate for his country — was elected president of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games organizing committee.

Three years ago, Cho led the winning Pyeongchang 2018 bid. Since then, Jin Sun Kim, the former governor of Gangwon province, where Pyeongchang is located, had served as the organizing committee president.

Kim resigned unexpectedly last week, saying new leadership was needed.

As Gangwon governor, Kim led Pyeongchang’s bids for the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games, which went to Vancouver and Sochi. He served as a special ambassador for the 2018 bid.

The timing and motive behind Kim’s resignation remain unclear; his second term as president was not due to end until October, 2015. No major concerns had been expressed about readiness or preparations for the Pyeongchang Olympics, the first Winter Games to be held in Korea.

Speculation has mounted that Kim resigned under pressure amid concerns over leadership issues, lags in producing needed domestic sponsorship contracts and, perhaps, construction delays.

The South Korean government audit agency announced last week it had conducted a special, weeks-long inquiry into the organizing committee, assessing financing and management. Results are expected within three months.

Cho was the obvious choice to replace Kim.

After all, not only had Cho overseen the 2011 campaign for 2018, it was the way he did it.

Simply put, Cho did a masterful job of orchestrating various constituencies — the levels of government, the sponsors and other business interests, the Korean Olympic Committee and more — as Pyeongchang, with 63 votes, roared to a massive first-round victory over Munich and Annecy, France.

Cho, now 65, is a vice-president of the Korean Olympic Committee. He has been president of the Korea Table Tennis Association since 2008, vice-president of the Asian Table Tennis Union since 2009.

In his business life, he is chairman of Korean Air Lines Co., the country’s largest carrier. The airline’s biggest shareholder is the family-owned Hanjin Group, one of Korea’s most significant conglomerates.

Cho is a graduate of the University of Southern California and Korean Air is in the midst of building what will be a $1-billion, 73-story hotel, office and retail complex — the largest building west of the Mississippi River — in downtown LA. The center, called the Wilshire Grand, is due to open in 2017.

Which leads to a little Korean history, and some perspective and context into — and maybe understanding of — Thursday’s transition.

Though Cho was the obvious choice, initially he did not want the job. He even said so. His business responsibilities — which, in his case, meant his family responsibilities as well — weighed heavily. Beyond the airline and the Wilshire Grand, there was a shipping business, and more.

At the same time, in 2011, at the IOC session in Durban, South Africa, Cho had made a promise to the members of the International Olympic Committee that the 2018 Games would be rock-solid. He had told them that day, "Our vision is clear and it is unique."

As word of Kim’s resignation got around the world, messages came into Cho from the members — saying, in essence, you are the one we know and trust.

Kun Hee Lee, chairman of Samsung since 1987 and an IOC member since 1996, has been ill; Dae Sung Moon, an IOC athlete member since 2008, has been caught up in plagiarism allegations over his doctoral thesis.

If not Cho, who? In Korea, the IOC needs a steady go-between.

With Cho, as those in the Olympic sphere as well as government and the business communities knew, any issues with leadership as well as sponsorship would likely dissipate, and quickly.

If indeed there are venue or construction concerns — because Cho oversaw the bid, he would not have to be brought up to speed with those, either.

So there was the matter of that promise.

And then there was this.

It was 45 years ago that the Korean government asked Choong Hoon Cho, founder of the Hanjin Group, to take over a debt-driven, state-owned Korean Air Lines. Mr. Cho turned down the proposal. Not just once. Twice. He thought it was a sinking ship. Then, though, the president of the country, Chung Hee Park, asked Mr. Cho directly to take over the airline. Mr. Cho reconsidered, accepting out of what would later be thought of — duly recorded in the history books — as devotion to the country through transportation.

Now the Korean government turned to the son, Yang Ho Cho, to take over the 2018 Pyeongchang organizing committee. At first, in an echo of the years gone by, he said no. The government considered its options. It came back to him.

This second time, Cho said yes. Out of devotion to the country through sports.

“I feel heavy responsibility,” Cho told reporters after the election, held at the organizing committee’s 10th general assembly, in downtown Seoul.

According to Associated Press, he also said, “I’ll do my best to achieve a successful hosting of the Olympics based on my experience as the bid committee chairman.”


Pyeongchang 2018: taking Korea to the next level


SEOUL -- Amazing how time really does fly. It will be 25 years this summer that Seoul played host to the 1988 Summer Games. People like to talk about the Barcelona miracle, about how the 1992 Olympics made Barcelona the hot spot tourist destination it is now. And that's true enough. But four years before, those 1988 Games did something profoundly amazing. They made South Korea a modern nation.

Or -- more important -- they made everyone everywhere think South Korea was the modern nation it was becoming, and surely is today.

Here Wednesday, they signed a formal marketing agreement to help fund the first Winter Games to be staged in South Korea -- five years from now, in 2018, in the mountains south of Seoul, in a hamlet called Pyeongchang.

Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, signed the agreement with the head of the Pyeongchang 2018 organizing committee, Jin Sun Kim.

The signing of such an agreement marks the moment, as Rogge noted in his remarks at a downtown hotel, that local organizers "truly take ownership of their promotional and financial destiny."

And -- in this instance -- so much more.

Because for South Korea, these 2018 Games mean so much more.

Photographers crowd around as Korean Olympic Committee president Y.S. Park, IOC president Jacques Rogge and Pyeongchang 2018 president Jin Sun Kim ready for a ceremony marking the signing of the 2018 organizing committee's marketing plan agreement

The agreement itself, which Kim in his remarks called "critical and meaningful," is a common-sense notion. It gives the Pyeongchang 2018 committee exclusive Olympic marketing rights in South Korea until 2020; the committee takes those rights over from the Korean Olympic Committee.

For the KOC, it's a win-win. It gets $10 million a year for the next seven years, up from $6 million or so a year it's generating now in sponsorships.

Pyeongchang 2018 needs the rights to raise revenue to meet its $2.1 billion operating budget.

Wednesday's agreement sets a formidable target, about $1.1 billion. That's traditionally Summer Games-style revenue.

And that ambitious goal was put out there even as the world remains largely mired in an economic downturn not seen in decades.

Rogge, however, said the IOC is "confident" the Koreans have "everything in place" to be "highly successful in [their] endeavors."

For his part, Kim said, "Now let me take this opportunity to encourage the country's leading companies as well as promising small and medium-sized businesses to take part in the historic 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games through its Olympic sponsorship program," adding a moment later that the committee, which goes by the acronym POCOG, is ready for "action."

Later, when speaking to a small group of reporters and asked whether now is indeed a good time to go to market, Kim said of the economic downturn, "Our analysis is that those conditions will get better."

Pyeongchang was elected in 2011 on its third try, coming up just shy for both 2014 and 2010. Kim served as governor of Gangwon province, where Pyeongchang is located, and was intimately involved with those first two bids; he was of course a familiar figure for the winning campaign, too. He has, among other responsibilities over his career, been a special Korean ambassador and a presidential advisor.

This nation recently held elections -- Geun Hye Park will take office Feb. 25, South Korea's first female president -- and Kim is heading up preparations for the inauguration, laughingly calling that -- still speaking through a translator -- a "second job."

This is a man who, for sure, knows how certain things get done, and that is absolutely a compliment.

This is a man who also, over the years, has learned considerably more English than many people might think he knows. Which is a great talent.

In his conversation late Wednesday afternoon with the small group of reporters, the respected British correspondent David Miller started to ask Kim about the impact of those 1988 Games.

Miller, launching into his question -- they had a "huge impact on Korea diplomatically, politically …"

At which point Kim interrupted, speaking in English: "… socially, culturally."

Miller, pausing to note the intriguing cut-in and then resuming: "What do you think will be the contribution of [the Pyeongchang 2018 Games] to the global perception of Korea outside the business of sport, to promote the global awareness of Korea?"

If there was ever someone ready to take that question, here was someone with context, perspective and background.

What these Games are not so much about, Kim made plain, was world peace. He didn't say this, because he is far too practiced and diplomatic, but here's the reality: the Pyeongchang bids that didn't win focused on peace on the Korean peninsula in our time -- and look at the outcome.

He did say at one point Wednesday, "We would like to send the message of peace to the international community … through sports and through the Games," adding, "We will work hard on realizing this vision." At the same time, he noted that right now, referring to the North, "There is no dialogue."

In part, the Games are of course about "new horizons," the winning 2018 tagline, the message of expanding winter sports throughout Asia.

But -- and again, so much more.

This marketing agreement was signed even as South Korea put a satellite into orbit Wednesday for the very first time. Ju Ho Lee, the country's minister for education, science and technology, appearing on a nationally broadcast news conference, and using the country's formal name, said with excitement and pride, "Students and youths! The Republic of Korea is expanding around the world and toward space!"

"As you said," Kim began, looking at Miller, speaking once more in Korean, "because of the 1988 Olympic Games, people around the world -- the international community -- came to know about Korea. The Games had a great impact on our society -- economically, politically and culturally. Altogether, it was a great opportunity to upgrade our nation.

"The 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games will be held 30 years after the Seoul Olympic Games. I believe for the nation of Korea that will mean the completion of the Olympic process."

He added a moment later, "Coming in 2018, I believe and I hope that South Korea will enter the [world's] advanced economies. I believe Pyeongchang 2018 will be a symbolic event for Korea to be taken to the next level once again in the manner of the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games."


Special Olympics send-off: feeling the joy


Next week, there's a super little event down in New Orleans that will occupy thousands of reporters, camera crews and beignet-consuming, bead-throwing party-goers. You won't be able to escape it. Meanwhile, over on the other side of the world, in Pyeongchang, South Korea, another major sports event will be going on, too. If you read anything about it in your local newspaper, however, it's likely to be buried back in the very back pages. It's unlikely to command a fraction of the television time, if that, that Ray Lewis or Colin Kaepernick will.

Jim and John Harbaugh against one another for Vince Lombardi's trophy makes for a great tale, for sure. But you want a story? On display Thursday night at a Los Angeles hotel were  hundreds  -- literally -- of  stories of pride, perseverance, dedication, discipline and overcoming the odds.

Indeed, it was all genuine emotion and heartfelt enthusiasm as the 150 Special Olympics athletes of Team USA made their way down a red-carpet introduction  before a send-off dinner.

"To see the joy -- it makes me want to cry," said Julie Foudy, the soccer star turned television analyst, who was on hand to help the athletes cruise the carpet.

"And," she said, "scream, 'U-S-A!'"

Chase Lodder, 25, of Salt Lake City, Special Olympics snowboarder

Daina Shilts, 22, of Neillsville, Wis., Special Olympics snowboarder

Some 2,300 Special Olympics athletes from more than 110 nations are due to compete in Pyeongchang in seven sports: alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, short-track speedskating, figure skating, floor hockey and the demonstration sport of floorball.

Organizers expect perhaps 15,000 fans and family to attend.

Just like the Olympic Games, the Special Olympics run on a two-year cycle. The 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games will be held in Los Angeles.

In Pyeongchang, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge is due to attend some of the Special Olympics action while checking out some of the already-built venues for the 2018 Winter Games; he will be joined by Gunilla Lindberg, head of the IOC coordination commission for the 2018 Games. They are set to be briefed by, among others, Pyeongchang 2018 chief Jin Sun Kim.

Also traveling to Korea with Rogge are the IOC director general, Christophe de Kepper, as well as IOC Games executive director Gilbert Felli and sports director Christophe Dubi.

Rogge is also due Feb. 1 to meet with South Korea's president-elect, Geun Hye Park.

That's obviously big stuff.

But one wonders -- bigger, really, than what awaits, say, U.S. snowboarders Daina Shilts, 22, of Neillsville, Wis., or Chase Lodder, 25, of Salt Lake City?

Perhaps more than anything, the Special Olympics is about breaking down stereotypes. Yes, they rip it on snowboards at the Special Olympics World Winter Games, and in disciplines such as slalom, giant slalom and super-G.

"A lot of people don't know that," Lodder, who has been boarding for five years, said.

"When I work at Home Depot and I tell them I am in the Special Olympics," he said, a smile across his face, "they are really supportive. They are really good about it."

Shilts -- the others uniformly said she was fastest on the American team -- has been snowboarding for six years.

At first, she said of learning to ride, "It was rough. It was hard." She quickly added, "But if a sport is not hard, it's not a sport."

A substitute aide for special-needs children, Shilts said this would be her first trip overseas. "I just say this will be challenging and fun and new and exciting," she said.

And one other thing. She said, "I'm going to win."












Musing on IOC membership: next, please?

The U.S. Olympic Committee's press release Thursday out of Redwood City, Calif., and the board of directors meeting there, started out with the news that Larry Probst had been confirmed for a second four-year term as board chairman. It immediately switched -- same paragraph -- to note that Bill Marolt, president and chief executive since 1996 of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn., and Whitney Ping, a 2004 Athens Games table tennis athlete, had been added as new directors. The entirety of that same first paragraph was devoted not to Probst but to Marolt and Ping and who they were replacing on the board.

So typically understated.

To be clear, there is nothing -- nothing at all -- wrong with being so low-key. Indeed, there is a lot right, and it explains a lot of the USOC's success under Probst's direction. He gets things done. People in the Olympic movement have come to trust him. The USOC is taken seriously. And he isn't the sort of person who needs a lot of attention, or public validation, for any or all of it.

The issue now: when does Probst become a member of the International Olympic Committee?

Mind you, Probst is not -- repeat, not -- lobbying for IOC membership. But it only makes sense, and not only for the USOC. It makes sense for the IOC, and for the Olympic movement worldwide.

To be clear once more, there are always any number of candidates for IOC membership. But, as things stand now, two are not only incredibly obvious and deserving but would actually bring a demonstrated business and political track record as well as proven leadership skills -- Probst and South Korea's Yang Ho Cho, who directed the winning Pyeongchang 2018 bid.

The tricky part would seem to be how to get this done.

And when.

The way the system is now set up, both would seem to be eligible to come in through the national Olympic committee door -- Probst as the chairman of the USOC, Cho as a vice-president of the Korean Olympic Committee.

There are, of course, two IOC sessions -- as the IOC conventions are called -- within the next 14 months, the first in Buenos Aires in September, 2013, the next in Sochi, in connection with the Winter Games, in February, 2014.

It's not entirely clear, given the way these things shift, how many NOC openings there might be. But the thinking in some circles is that initially there might only be one.

If that's the case, who is more deserving? The chairman and chief executive of Korean Air? Or the chairman of Electronic Arts?

Or is that in any way a fair way to frame the issue?

Can the IOC finesse the matter to make one or the other a member in his individual right? Or somehow?

In Cho's case, Pyeongchang ran away with perhaps the most impressive bid victory ever -- winning in the first round in July, 2011, with 63 votes over Munich, with 25, and Annecy, France, with seven. Those 63 votes were the most-ever in an IOC first-round ballot; Salt Lake City took 54 in winning for 2002.

Cho came to the 2018 campaign -- the third in a row for Pyeongchang -- after others, led by formidable personalities such as Jin Sun Kim, governor of the province in which Pyeongchang is located, had not quite pushed the bid past the finish line. Pyeongchang lost for 2014 by four votes, for 2010 by three.

The 2018 campaign proved a high-wire balancing act. Out front, all seemed seamless. Behind the scenes, Cho had to balance a multiplicity of interests: government (national, regional and local), business (Samsung and others), the KOC, all the while taking the dramatic step of moving the bid toward its "new horizons" theme in first-rate English, hardly the preferred language of many of those he was directing.

Kim is now the Pyeongchang 2018 organizing committee chairman. Cho is back at Korean Air.

Intriguingly, like Probst, Cho is not much of a publicity-seeker. He, too, just gets stuff done.

Probst, after a rocky start as USOC chairman that saw Chicago's 2016 bid booted in first-round IOC voting in October, 2009, has since been nothing short of -- at the risk of losing one's journalistic skeptic card -- sensational.

The way he has done it has been entirely, thoroughly appropriate but at the same time fascinating: he has ceded day-to-day control to the chief executive he hired, Scott Blackmun.

That has led, genuinely, to trust and teamwork.

The results:

On the field of play, the U.S. team won the medals count at both Vancouver 2010 and London 2012.

Behind the scenes, the USOC and NBC repaired a relationship that by the time of the Chicago vote in 2009 had shown some signs of fraying; in 2011, NBC agreed to pay $4.38 billion for the rights to the 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 Games.

Most important, perhaps, the USOC and IOC this year finalized a new revenue-sharing deal.

Blackmun and Probst have made international relationship-building a priority, perhaps with an eye toward a bid for the Games, probably in 2024 for the Summer Games; it was said Thursday that the call will go out in the first few weeks of 2013 to cities interested in bidding.

Under Probst and Blackmun, the USOC has genuinely put into practice the unique duality that is its reality.

Because of its resource, history and geography, it is at once a stand-out Olympic committee among the 204 on Planet Earth. At the same time, it is simply one among 204 -- a humble member of the so-called "Olympic family," a point Probst and Blackmun stress repeatedly, and in that spirit the USOC played host in 2012 to an IOC "women and sport" conference in Los Angeles, an IOC athlete jobs conference in Lake Placid, N.Y., and a Pan American sports meeting in Miami.

Big picture:

It might have been better for his own personal life if Probst had not gotten that second term. But, like Cho, Probst gets it. He understands the power of the Olympic movement to effect change in people's lives, especially young people.

And the USOC rules are such now that, absent something dramatic or untoward, you'd expect a third. That kind of continuity would be a good thing, indeed.

Even better if he -- and Cho -- both -- were IOC members.

Pyeongchang 2018: the secret is now out

DURBAN, South Africa -- Nearly 30 years ago, I spent a year backpacking around the world by myself. I idled away nearly six weeks of the trip in India, a lot of that down in the southwestern corner of the country, in Goa, where the ocean lapped up gently on the sandy white beaches and for one American dollar you could buy a beer and a huge grilled fish, and for less than that you could rent a room and you didn't have a care in the whole wide world. It was a huge secret.

Not for long, of course. Now Goa is built up with luxury hotels. The same way Negril Beach in Jamaica got built up. And Koh Samui in Thailand. And all the world's secret spots.

Pyeongchang is next.

In selecting Pyeongchang to play host to the 2018 Winter Games, the International Olympic Committee on Wednesday shouted out to the world the secret that is now a little Korean resort. Over the next seven years, it's going to blossom into a much, much, much bigger resort -- the hub of an Asian winter-sports explosion.

Too bad if you didn't already hold real-estate rights in and around Pyeongchang's Alpensia resort. It works for ski resorts just the way it does for beach gems. To see Alpensia in 2011 -- to tour it as the members of the IOC's evaluation commission did this past February -- is to provide a modern twist on the early days of, say, Whistler Mountain, where the ski events of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games were held.

There are perfectly fine ski lifts in the area. There's an upscale hotel, the Intercontinental, and a Holiday Inn. There's a water park, a superb golf course layout and a concert hall.

And there's a lot yet to be left to the imagination.

Indeed, there's a compelling argument to be made that Pyeongchang benefitted during this 2018 bid cycle in the same way that Chicago got the shaft during the 2016 cycle, and for precisely the same reason -- because the IOC forbids bid-city visits by the IOC members.

If the members had gotten to visit Chicago, they would have seen what a lakefront jewel it is. If they had gone to see Pyeongchang -- or, for that matter, Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Games where everything had to be built from scratch -- how many members would have been willing to take that leap of faith?

The Alpensia complex cost $1.4 billion, constructed over the past 10 years on what used to be potato fields; it was completed in October, 2009. Seven of the 13 sports venues are now built.

Credit for that has to start with Jin Sun Kim, the former governor of Gangwon, the province where Pyeongchang is located, for 2018 a special bid ambassador. Kim led the two prior bids; despite two narrow defeats, he refused to yield. He almost came to tears Wednesday in urging the IOC to vote for Pyeongchang; again, his faith, dedication and steadfastness must be recognized.

This time, the bid was led by Yang Ho Cho, the head of Korean Air. He performed superbly. "We did what we wanted to do," he said simply and elegantly just moments after leading Wednesday's presentation to the IOC.

How well did he lead this bid? The answer is in the landslide of a first-round victory: 63 votes for Pyeongchang, 25 for Munich, seven for Annecy. The argument can be made that over the past two decades no city has won an IOC election so compellingly or convincingly.

A key issue for this 2018 bid was whether multiple -- and potentially competing constituencies -- in Korea could be kept not just in check but in sufficient harmony, everyone pulling toward the common goal. Korea may be, as the saying goes, the land of morning calm; the joke in bid circles was that it was the land of evening meetings.

In addition to the presidency and other layers of government, there was -- in no particular order -- Samsung, along with other powerful business interests and, of course, the Korean Olympic Committee.

The 2010 IOC vote was held in 2003, in Prague; Samsung flags and banners were all over central Prague, raising questions about whether the Korean business heavyweight -- and leading IOC sponsor -- had exerted undue influence. This time, Samsung's presence around and about Durban was extraordinarily muted.

Two rock stars stood front and center for the 2018 Pyeongchang team.

One the world knows well: 2010 figure skating champion Yuna Kim. She was brought onto the team late in the game, making her first appearance on stage in May in Lausanne, Switzerland, the IOC's base, before most of the members, at the so-called technical briefing. Nervous, she made a couple mistakes in her lines. The members ate it up, finding it endearing; after all, she is still just 20 years old.

On Wednesday, meanwhile, she was smooth and polished, declaring she was a "living legacy" of her nation's investment in sports.

The other star: Theresa Rah, the articulate and poised director of communication. A former television personality, she spoke Wednesday from the stage in both English and French. Over the two-year course of the bid run, she proved -- time and again -- a remarkable talent with a gift for directing traffic on and off camera.

Behind the scenes, any number of hands played key roles. But enormous credit has to go to Terrence Burns, the first-rate bid consultant from Helios Partners in Atlanta. He dreamed up the tagline "New Horizons," which captured the essence of the historical moment the IOC vote on Wednesday delivered. He wrote every word of all their presentations, including the one here. He trained the presenters, including the president of Korea, to deliver lines with verve. In English.

For Burns -- it marked his fourth Olympic win.

Mike Lee, the British consultant, continued an Olympic winning streak, too: London 2012, Rio 2016, rugby as an Olympic sport and now Pyeongchang.

By 2030, according to an Asian Development Bank Study, Asia will make up 43 percent of worldwide consumption. From 1990 to 2008, the middle class in Asia grew by 30 percent, and spent an average of an additional $1.7 trillion annually. No other region in the world came close, as the Koreans emphasized time and again these past several months.

When you combine that with the 90 percent approval rating the 2018 project garnered in opinion polling in Korea -- an absurdly high result in any poll -- the IOC had to take notice.

If it's not clear why the Koreans came up just short in 2010, it's manifestly evident why they came up shy for 2014 -- Vladimir Putin. He is among the most important figures in our time -- not just in global politics but, as well, in international sport.

This time around, there was no Putin with which to contend.

Plus, Rome wants to bid for 2020. Madrid, too. And the Swiss are exploring a 2022 bid. Translation: incentive for others in Europe to keep 2018 out of the Alps.

It all broke Korea's way.

Despite the usual professions for public consumption about how this was a close race -- behind the scenes, it had been clear for a long time that this was the way it was going down. Even the other bids knew it.

The members said so, too, just not for publication. In prior years, some European members acknowledged they were almost embarrassed to admit they might be supporting Pyeongchang. This time, several let it be known openly that they were with the Koreans and that was that.

The presentation Wednesday proved the icing on the cake. The Korean president, Myung Bak Lee, promised full support. The head of the Korean Olympic Committee, Y.S. Park, told a hilarious joke, apologizing to that noted newlywed and IOC member, Prince Albert, for making his serene highness sit through a Pyeongchang bid presentation for a third time. It broke up the room.

The prince said later, "It was even better the third time. Don't worry."

When the world shows up in Pyeongchang in February 2018, the area will for sure look very different than it does now. They're going to spend another $6.4 billion between now and then, $3.4 billion of that on a high-speed rail link between Pyeongchang and Seoul, to be completed in 2017.

It's why former Governor Kim welled up with emotion on stage Wednesday -- the notion that Pyeongchang, this little jewel, is for sure going to be a secret no more.

He said, "It has been 17 years since Pyeongchang first had the dream about the Olympics. We decided to realize the dream 12 years ago. We failed two times in the bidding. Now we are here for the third time. We have walked a thorny path to get here to this day.

"As I was explaining the whole thing to the IOC members, I did not even know I had tears in my eyes. I was filled with emotion. That's what I had been feeling -- not just me, but all of us."

Three bids, 88 members, 49 days to go

LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- Two years ago, Rio de Janeiro's bid team came here and put up a map that showed the Summer Games had never been to South America, a remarkably clever piece of stagecraft that separated Rio from four other contenders and, ultimately, made the case for its stunning win for the 2016 Summer Games. The three cities for the 2018 Winter Games came here Wednesday with movies and charts and Olympic medalists by the score, the two perceived chasers, Munich and Annecy, France, looking for a similar breakout moment to make up ground against the favorite, Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The Koreans came Wednesday with the admittedly "nervous" but nonetheless impressive Yuna Kim, the women's 2010 figure skating gold medalist. And they have their own world map.

That map shows that the Winter Games have been held in Asia only twice, and both times in Japan, in Nagano in 1998 and Sapporo in 1972.

This is the underlying dynamic of this 2018 race, and unless the others wield a compelling argument to the contrary, it's why this arguably is -- and always has been -- the Koreans' race to lose. The IOC will vote July 6 by secret ballot in Durban, South Africa.

The essential 2018 question is whether the forces of history, economics and demographics are -- or are not -- on Korea's side.

To frame it another way: Is the sports world still in the expansionist mode of recent years? Or is 2018 the campaign in which the IOC takes a break and opts for a more traditional locale before venturing forth anew in 2020, 2022 and beyond?

To be clear: The Koreans have a lot going for them. Then again, if they could win, of course they could lose. They have bid twice before for the Winter Games, for 2014 and 2010, and lost both times. Moreover, it's an International Olympic Committee election; by definition, the only thing predictable about an IOC campaign is that it's unpredictable.

Indeed, sometimes it's just flat-out unusual.

One such moment:

At the session Wednesday, held at the Olympic Museum, and formally dubbed a "technical briefing," with each city given a 45-minute presentation window followed by a question-and-answer session, Hicham el Guerrouj, the great Moroccan middle-distance runner who since 2004 has been an IOC member, posed a question during Annecy's time about the arrest in New York on sexual assault charges of French financier Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

IOC president Jacques Rogge promptly ruled the question out of order.

Rogge was not asked about that question at an end-of-the day news conference.

He declared the day a big success: "It was a very good day for the International Olympic Committee because whoever wins will definitely be able to stage very good Games."

He also said, and perhaps he's absolutely right about this, perhaps he's just practicing diplomacy: "It's going to be a close race."

The Koreans, with their tagline about taking the Games to "new horizons," would appear in many regards to be driving the campaign. At the least, the other two bids have felt compelled to respond to the Korean narrative.

"When you choose the Olympic host city, it is about more than just geography," Katarina Witt, the chair of the Munich bid, stunning as ever in a low-cut dress by the Berlin designer Michalsky, told the 88 IOC members on hand, stressing that Munich would deliver full stadiums and "the single greatest experience" of each athlete's life.

It's not just about geography, of course.

Even so, the broad theme of the era in which we are living is writ large.

The nations that through the 1990s played host to major sports events have been giving way in recent years to countries and regions that, logically enough, are saying, it's our turn now.

As a for instance, this is why -- despite what is shaping up to be a comparatively weak field for 2020 -- the U.S. Olympic Committee, even if its revenue and marketing issues with the IOC are resolved, ought to give serious, serious pause before considering an entry.

One theory holds that after ranging afield to new locales -- such as Rio for 2016 -- the IOC needs to park in a safe harbor, such as the U.S., for 2020.

Applying that theory now would deliver 2018 to Germany or France -- after 2014 in Sochi, Russia, where they're building a brand-new Winter Games destination from scratch.

The competing theory is that the Olympic and international sports world is still very much in the midst of turning away from what was and toward what's next.

See, for example: Russia 2014; Brazil 2016 (and soccer's World Cup in 2014.)

Russia, again, for the World Cup in 2018. Qatar, for the World Cup in 2022.

Qatar, again, for the men's team handball world championship in 2015 -- chosen this past January over three European bids, from France, Norway and Poland.

Our world is changing all around us. Just a couple days ago, in an event that went virtually unnoticed in the United States but is big stuff in Europe, with more than 100 million people tuned in to watch the final episode, Azerbaijan, one of the former Soviet republics, won the Eurovision song contest.

Germany was 10th; Britain, 11th. Spain and France finished farther still down the list.

Azerbaijan winning Eurovision -- that underscores a major cultural and economic shift.

Here's another huge economic shift in the making, a point the Koreans have underscored time and again during this 2018 campaign:

By 2030, according to an Asian Development Bank Study, Asia will make up 43 percent of worldwide consumption. From 1990 to 2008, the middle class in Asia grew by 30 percent, and spent an average of an additional $1.7 trillion annually. No other region in the world comes close.

Complicating the 2018 Olympic dynamic, though, is the factor of personality politics.

Thomas Bach, the vice president and presumed IOC presidential candidate in 2013, is leading the Munich bid. He observed Wednesday that "there are cycles of life," a time where "you go to new shores" and another "where you cultivate your foundations."

While the presentations Wednesday were important, the behind-the-scenes politicking now begins in earnest.

"This is a marathon race," Bach said at a news conference. "It's of no importance whether you lead at 22k or 35k or 40k. The only thing that counts is to cross the finish line first, on the 6th of July. After today's presentation and the response, which we can feel, we go into this final stretch of this very special Olympic marathon with full confidence and with all the determination and with all the passion we can have for the Olympic Games in Germany and for winter sports in particular."

Asked where Munich stood at this point in the "marathon," Bach answered, "I don't care. This is, as I said, about winning."

For their part, the French team includes Jean-Claude Killy, the triple 1968 Games ski champion turned sports administrator. Arguably no one within the Olympic movement carries more credibility within winter sports circles. "We think we have nothing to envy the other two propositions," he told reporters after the French had briefed the 88 members.

Later, he said that he supported the bid "very strongly." He also, reading from a paper left over from the German news conference, said, "It says here that 'Munich loves you.' So I just want you to know that we love you, too."

The chairman of the Korean bid, Yang Ho Cho, met reporters immediately after the Pyeongchang presentation ended. In keeping with the Korean message of humility, he said, "The decision is up to the IOC members. We did our best," adding a moment later, "We sent a message of new horizons."


A quickie and by no means exhaustive summary of the three bids:

-- Munich: One of the world's great cities. Re-purposed 1972 Summer Games venues. Big crowds. Fantastic guaranteed atmosphere. German business underwrites 50 percent of the revenues of the seven sports on the Winter Games program. Germany hasn't hosted the Winter Games since 1936.

-- Annecy: The IOC has had a penchant for staging recent Winter Games in big cities -- Vancouver, Torino, Salt Lake City. What about the mountains? "Authentic" Annecy, amid the world's most iconic mountain range and with a sustainable development plan in mind, is uniquely positioned to take the Winter Games, and mountain communities worldwide, into a 21st-century future.

-- Pyeongchang: Time is not only ripe but right to go to Asia and South Korea to grow the Winter Games, and in a big way. 87 percent national support for 2018 Games. Major national priority. Two prior bids, spent $1.4 billion to build first-class Alpensia resort in what used to be potato fields. "We are keeping our promises to the IOC," former provincial governor and bid leader Jin Sun Kim stressed at news conference.