After All: Snow guns versus rocket launchers

Our columnist visits the site of the February 2018 Winter Olympic Games, which promise to be the most technologically advanced in history, and compares them to the much more low-key Moscow Olympics of 1980

Life is full of amazing parallels. My first thought on spotting the white tiger Soohorang and the Asiatic black bear Bandabi, mascots of the 2018 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games about to start in the county of Pyeongchang in Gangwon-do Province, South Korea, was how similar the latter looked to Misha the Bear, the smiley symbol of the unfortunate 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. During a two-day visit to Pyeongchang in December, I could not help making comparisons between the two. The similarities – as well as differences – were striking.

Those are the only two Olympic Games I have direct impressions of – having lived in Moscow throughout the 1980 extravaganza and having now visited the Olympic sites of Pyeongchang. On both occasions, Russia (or the USSR in 1980) was subjected to a boycott by the International Olympic Committee: in 1980 for invading Afghanistan, and in 2018 for its audacious doping programme.

The similarities end here, so let’s focus on differences, which are plenty, starting with the fact that the Soviet event was held in the summer, and the Korean – with athletes from over 100 countries competing for 102 gold medals – in winter.

While in Pyeongchang, I had a quick chat with Yeo Hyungkoo, Secretary General of the Games’ Organising Committee, who told me that 6,500 athletes and officials were expected to take part – a record number for winter Olympics. No participation records were set in Moscow due to the boycott, yet we were warned never to come close to foreigners, who, in the words of one local party official (I was at that briefing myself), might try to inject the unsuspecting Muscovites’ buttocks with poison on crowded buses and Metro trains.

For the duration of the Moscow Olympics, all ‘undesirables’ (including prostitutes, drunks, petty criminals and schoolkids!) were temporarily evicted from the city, which was also closed to any Soviet visitors from outside the capital. An unprecedented window-dressing exercise (or ‘pokazukha’ in Russian) was in progress. For three weeks only, the normally bare shops were stuffed with the never-before-seen in Moscow mutton and butter from New Zealand, canned beer from Finland, and chicken drumsticks (nicknamed ‘Jimmy Carter’s legs’) from the USA, among other things. Queues disappeared and the normally rude and uncouth saleswomen had to learn to smile and memorise such previously unfamiliar phrases as “Spasibo” (thank you) and “How can I help?”.

I don’t need to tell you that Pyeonchang and its thriving and versatile food scene (I fell in love with Korean food at first taste) does not need to resort to window dressing. South Korea’s per capita GDP has grown over 300 times in the last 50 years and is one of the highest in the world. Nor will it have to import the famous napa cabbage, the base of Korea’s best known staple dish, kimchi – I saw the cabbage being harvested in the fields all over Gangwon-do Province.

The most striking difference from the Soviet Olympics, however, was technology, which in 1980 Moscow was limited to the US-made refrigerator trucks delivering ice cubes to the Pepsi street stalls (both the trucks and the stalls promptly disappeared after the Games) and, perhaps, the mythical poison-injecting syringes, with which all those treacherous ‘foreigners’ were, reportedly, armed.

According to Lim Songjae, manager of the 2018 Organising Committee’s media relations team, with whom I spoke inside the just-completed and still smelling of fresh paint Gangneung Ice Arena, the Games promise to be the most technologically advanced in history, with a variety of state-of-the-art ICT innovations including a 5G mobile phone connection service, Ultra High Definition (UHD) TV, new virtual and augmented reality apps, pioneering broadcasting technologies, which, for the first time ever, will include the athlete’s view of the events, the KTX high-speed rail link to Seoul, and lots of AI.

The acclaimed South Korean robotics will descend on Pyeongchang in force. The country’s finest robots will take part in the torch relay, including Hubo, developed by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. The Paralympics torch relay will have its own star – a robot, similar to the one from the ‘Iron Man’ movies, that will help an athlete with hemiplegia carry a torch.

The Games will also feature the first ever robot skiing competition – the Ski Robot Challenge.

In another engineering breakthrough, a large proportion of the Olympians’ sporting equipment – helmets, ski poles, bobsleds, snowboards etc – will be made not of synthetic resins or aluminium alloys, as before, but of carbon composites mixed with plastics – the material five times stronger and five times lighter than steel.

Finally, to possible shortages – not of the locally produced staples, like in Moscow, but of snow, a scourge of a number of international winter sports competitions. Pyeongchang is not free of this threat, and several snow-making technologies will be tried. I saw one of them in operation at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre – spraying ‘super-cooled’ and quickly solidifying water mist onto the ski slopes of the Taebaek mountains. Looking at the multiple snow guns at work made me think of other guns, or rather cannons and rocket launchers, 8,000 of which are permanently aimed at Seoul from North Korea, according to the New York Times.

Remembering that increased my admiration for the organisers of the 2018 Winter Olympics who keep on calmly and meticulously  adding final touches to the Olympic structures and venues. And here is the main difference between Moscow – a threat to the world back in 1980 – and South Korea, which manages to maintain one of the planet’s most democratic and technologically advanced societies, right under the barrel of a gun.

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