The one-year countdown to the Pyeongchang Games began Thursday with Yuna Kim revealing the Olympic torch and organizers opening online ticket reservations.
South Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn and an International Olympic Committee delegation led by Gunilla Lindberg, who heads the IOC’s coordination commission for the games, also attended the ceremony in Gangneung, which will host the ice sports events next year.
“I am convinced that the Pyeongchang Olympics will be a success,” Hwang said in a speech at the ceremony. “I believe in the great strength of our people who have successfully hosted international events like the 1988 Olympics and 2002 World Cup.”
Kim, a figure skating gold medalist who is perhaps the country’s most popular sports personality even in retirement, carried the white-and-gold Olympic torch onto a stage built over ice as a group of pop singers sang “We Are the Champions,” highlighting an event that also included a video message from IOC President Thomas Bach.
“It is my great pleasure to invite the national Olympic committees of the world and their athletes to participate in the Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018,” Bach said in the message.
Hwang has served as the country’s acting head of state since December when President Park Geun-hye’s powers were suspended after lawmakers voted to impeach her over a corruption scandal. He told organizers in a meeting earlier in the day that government is ready to invest “every reliable resource” to build buzz for the games and ensure the safety of athletes and spectators.
With preparations entering the last phases, the participation of North Korea and Russia have emerged as major issues ahead of next year’s games.
Relations between the two Koreas have worsened since North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and a string of rocket launches last year as it continues to expand its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Russian athletes have been caught up in a scandal following allegations of state-sponsored doping around the time of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Lee Hee-beom, Pyeongchang’s organizing head, expressed hopes to see athletes from both countries at the games.
“Every country and every athlete who loves peace has a right and obligation to participate in the Olympics,” Lee said. “North Korea is no exception. We are making preparations for the possibility that North Korea participates in the games.”
The Pyeongchang Games will mark the second time the Olympics have been staged in South Korea, which also hosted the 1998 Games in Seoul.
This time, organizers have had to overcome delays, local conflicts regarding venue constructions and difficulties attracting domestic sponsorships before putting preparations on track.
Construction workers are putting the finishing touches on the 12 competition venues in Pyeongchang and nearby Gangneung, including six new facilities that organizers say are about 96 percent complete on average.
The athletes and media villages, an international broadcasting center, and a pentagonal stadium that will host the opening and closing ceremonies are expected to be finished by September.
The political turmoil surrounding President Park has been a massive distraction that slowed organizers’ efforts to stoke lukewarm public interest, and also rattled the country’s ministry of culture and sports, which oversees the Olympic preparations.
Lee said that the recent political situation “to a degree” negatively affected preparations for the games,” but said such impact could be overcome with more help from government organizations and the business community.