Claire Galofaro and Kim Tong-Hyung, The Associated Press
JEONGSEON, South Korea — A coal mine stands on the mountain exactly as it was the day it was abandoned, now a rusting relic of blue-collar glory lost to a globalized world.
It towers over this Korean coal community that is much like its American counterparts: poor, aging, hollowing out since the mines shut down and the young and able fled for cities. But with one notable exception.
A statue of a cartoon white tiger was recently erected at the foot of the mountain: Soohorang, the smiling mascot of the 2018 Winter Olympics, its foot raised to march, its back to the molding mine on the mountain. Unlike American coal counties, this Korean coal county is hosting the Olympics.
The Pyeongchang Winter Games are spread across South Korea‘s Gangwon Province, a rural region that few overseas had heard of until its hard-fought bid to be an Olympic host — a massively expensive proposition with dubious payoff, now typically dared only by world-class cities and established resort towns. Its organizers touted it as an opportunity to invest in much-needed infrastructure and transportation upgrades — and with it, restore a sense of pride and purpose.
But will it work? And would it work in its American equivalent, the coalfields of Appalachia?
Kentucky native Maddy Boyd drove to the new Jeongseon Alpine Center to join spectators from around the globe to watch superstar athletes race for gold. She took in the mountains and the winding roads and the traffic that backed up behind tractors.
“It feels like home,” she said, rooting for the notion that her home state, an American underdog, might one day chase Olympic glory.
If South Korea could do it, she reasons, why couldn‘t Kentucky?
“It may be far-fetched to imagine an event like the Olympics coming to these hills,” says Dee Davis, founder of the Center for Rural Strategies based in Whitesburg, Kentucky, the heart of American coal country. “I can guarantee you that this time yesterday I wasn‘t thinking about an Olympic Village in Whitesburg.”
But then he considered the similar statistics of Gangwon, where the Olympic Village that currently houses the most elite athletes in the world now stands.
It is rugged, isolated, one of the country‘s oldest and poorest regions, just like the Appalachian states of Kentucky and West Virginia, but with the added complication of “sitting right there in the world‘s military powder keg,” about 50 miles from the fortified border with North Korea.
“We‘ll see how it turns out,” Davis says. “But you‘ve got to say that they have heart. They put down a marker, they said, ‘We are here.‘ That‘s as courageous and provocative as trying to have an Olympics in West Virginia.”
It seems inconceivable that rural America might consider an Olympic wager. Tulsa, Oklahoma, bid on the 2024 Games and was greeted with adjectives like “adorable.” Also: “delusional.”
The United States government does not finance Olympic bids, which often cost upward of $50 million just to prepare, then billions more if the city wins. They require multiple stadiums and tens of thousands of hotel rooms.
The only American places with a chance are those that already have the infrastructure or that can afford to sink billions into the Games despite long-shot odds of a lasting return on the investment. America‘s current Winter Games contenders are Denver, Reno and Salt Lake City.
“For us in hardscrabble rural communities, I think there are lessons that we can learn from Pyeongchang now,” says Davis, with Kentucky‘s Center for Rural Strategies.
“It‘s a gamble, but they‘ve asked the world to come see for themselves, not just to enjoy the competition, but to have a beer, listen to stories, to observe the whole dance, show up and experience local life,” he says. “Then they‘ll make up their own mind, and that will replace the stereotype. That‘s the lesson we can learn in places like Appalachia. The faint of heart will not win the day.”
So Kentucky 2030, then? Probably not the most practical idea, he says, with all those hotel rooms and arenas they‘d somehow have to build.
“But,” Davis says, “I don‘t doubt that we could host something really special.”