Pyeongchang takes center stage of the sporting world on Friday, hosting elite athletes for the Winter Olympics and hoping to raise its profile as a winter resort destination. But if you'd never heard of Pyeongchang before now, you're not alone.
Pyeongchang is a county, not a city, and and up to now it's been known primarily as a rural mountain retreat, with a population of just over 40,000 people, located about 40 miles from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and North Korea. It has Buddhist temples and a reputation for a healthful climate. But it wants a reputation as a sports mecca. And so now, 30 years after Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics, Pyeongchang is seizing the spotlight.
Here's a rundown of more things to know about this place that finds itself welcoming tens of thousands of athletes, media and spectators.
'Happy 700' in Pyeongchang
Hosting the Winter Olympics has been a longtime pursuit for officials in Pyeongchang and its home province of Gangwon: It took three tries for the county to finally win the right to host the Games.
Pyeongchang sits across the Korean Peninsula from Seoul, nestled in a long mountain range that runs parallel to South Korea's east coast. Many of its mountains have rounded rather than sharp crests; their sides are dotted with pine trees.
Pyeongchang promotes itself as having an ideal climate – in part because a phalanx of mountains help block air pollution from the northwest, and in part because of the "Happy 700" – the 700-meter altitude (about 2,300 feet) that Pyeongchang's boosters say is optimal for the health of people and animals.
The climate here prompted a meteorologist at Accuweather to proclaim that people in Pyeongchang require only five or six hours of sleep to feel rested, "because the pressure in this area increases melatonin in a person's brain" – an estimation that could be utter balderdash, but is also nice to hear if one is keeping those hours.
As the Olympics go on, expect to hear about Pyeongchang's history – the area is home to the Woljeongsa Buddhist temple that was founded nearly 1,400 years ago. It's one of more than 100 temples in the region; many allow visitors to reserve space to spend the night.
Pyeongchang and its province, Gangwon, are bearing much of the costs of building facilities for the games. And in the eastern edge of the province, along what South Korea calls the East Sea (a.k.a. the Sea of Japan), lies the Olympics "sub-host" Gangneung, a coastal city with a population of more than 200,000.
All of the flat-ice events, from curling and speed-skating to figure skating and hockey, are being held in this city, about 40 minutes from Pyeongchang by car.
Geographically, Gangneung is very distinct from Pyeongchang. For one thing, it's a large city with beaches. And crucially for many visitors, its climate is much milder. In the week we've been here, Gangneung has been nearly 15 degrees warmer, in Fahrenheit, than Pyeongchang.
For competitors and media, the relatively small scale of Pyeongchang has led to unique circumstances: There are two Athletes' Villages at these games, and the Media Village, usually positioned near the main press center where news conferences and offices are based, is a 35-minute bus ride from that hub.
The city's wide, flat areas also make it an ideal spot for the Olympic Park and other installations that showcase both the hosts' culture and their sponsors' support.
For a sign of the dramatic leap this city and its area are taking away from their past, consider this: on either side of the massive new Olympic park are two older and more humble sporting facilities. To the west sits the Gangneung Tennis Association, with a handful of weathered courts and rows of concrete bleachers; to the east lies a clubhouse and grounds for gateball, a sport that bears some similarities to croquet. Both of those sports, we'll note, are best played in warmer weather.
Preparations and the people
There was little suspense over whether Pyeongchang's venues would be ready: organizers announced that they had finished building the Olympic facilities last November, marking 100 days from the start of the games.
The construction included the Olympic Plaza and Olympic Stadium (the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies). Six competition venues were built; another six were renovated for the Olympics. A large chunk of that work was done in its earlier bids, as the area tried to prove it was ready to host a huge international event.
Another big investment lay in finding a way for people to reach Pyeongchang, a relatively unknown area that lacks a large airport. For most visitors, the main point of entry is a new KTX high-speed rail line that runs from Incheon Airport and Seoul eastward to the two Olympic host areas. It was completed just months ago and has been running on schedule.
To accommodate those guests, organizers are installing 5G for Internet access, and they've encouraged taxi drivers to learn a bit of English – we can attest that this seems to have worked.
Pyeongchang organizers say they've deployed 22,400 volunteers to help these games run smoothly, as delegations from 95 countries converge on this region. So far, we've found it to be very hospitable, in large and small ways.
As we've come to expect at Olympic Games, there are real concerns about the costs of putting these games on — though, at an estimate of nearly $13 billion, the Pyeongchang Games would be a relative bargain in recent Olympics history. There are also worries over how the facilities will fare after the world turns its attention elsewhere.
A symbol of those concerns is the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, which cost tens of millions of dollars to build – reports have ranged from $60 million to $100 million. With a capacity of 35,000, the stadium could house a large chunk of Pyeongchang's population. After this winter, the stadium will be dramatically renovated (and partially torn down) after just four uses: the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and Paralympics.
In addition to the centerpiece stadium, organizers and local officials will determine how to use the other 12 venues from these Olympics, from a sliding center to an ice arena and a hockey center – of which they now have two.