The future of the Olympics may depend on how South Korea makes this one work

There’s a lot riding on this year’s Winter Olympics: South Korea has to show that hosting can be economically viable, or the games would lose their sheen further.

Hosting the Olympics has become an expensive venture, and a number of hosts — Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro and Russia’s Sochi, for example — went into debt after overshooting their budgets.

Rio, which hosted the 2016 Summer Olympics, was bailed out by the federal government just weeks before the games because it ran out of money to pay for enhanced security during the event.

South Korea is expected to spend $13 billion on organizing the 2018 Winter Olympics, nearly double the $7 billion originally projected, according to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations.

“As the cost of hosting Olympics keeps escalating, it becomes even more difficult for cities to realize positive returns from the events,” Abhineet Kaul, a director for public sector and government practice consulting at Frost & Sullivan, told CNBC in an email.

“Most of the host cities have taken on unaffordable debt to fund the infrastructure development, and the financial returns have not justified the investment. This has led to cities cutting public spending to service their debt or the vicious cycle to borrow more to retire old debt,” he added.

The diminishing economic case for organizing the games has resulted in fewer cities wanting to become hosts.

The lack of candidates saw the International Olympic Committee — the organization behind the games — make the unusual move of choosing the venues for two games at once.

A number of cities in the race to host the 2024 summer games had pulled out, leaving only Paris and Los Angeles. The IOC then decided to make the cities hosts for 2024 and 2028, respectively.

It took South Korea three attempts to bring the Winter Olympics to Pyeongchang after its capital Seoul hosted the summer games in 1988.

“In Asia, winter sports are relatively undeveloped,” said Kim Jin-sun, the former head of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics organizing committee, after South Korea was named the host for the 2018 games.

“Our vision is very clear: New horizons, developing industries, building a hub of winter sports in Gangwon province,” said Kim, who stepped down from his position in 2014.

Budget overruns are common in the history of Olympics hosting and Pyeongchang has once again ignited the debate over the costs and benefits of organizing the games. The last host city to stick close to its budget was Salt Lake City, which spent $2.5 billion to put up the 2002 Winter Olympics — $100 million more than its initial projection, data compiled by CFR showed.

The maintenance of many Olympic facilities, post games, has also added to the spiraling costs. The failure of Rio to maintain and re-purpose its venues has left many of them abandoned as “white elephants” — a term used to describe unused Olympic infrastructure after the games.

The IOC has warned South Korea that it mustn’t go down that route. The country, in response, has drawn up post-games plans for most of its Olympic facilities.

Unused facilities after the Olympics would cost Gangwon — the regional government responsible for most of the games’ infrastructure — an estimated $8.5 million annual deficit, according to CFR.

The organizing committee of the Pyeongchang games did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment, but various media outlets reported that the figure skating rink would be turned into an indoor gym after the games. Another facility, the Olympic stadium, would become a park and a museum.

Overall, the 2018 Winter Olympics has the potential to add 64.9 trillion won ($59.4 trillion) to the South Korean economy over the next decade, Hyundai Research Institute estimated.

But with ticket sales falling short of what was seen at past games and the country hit by a tourism deficit, it remains to be seen whether South Korea can live up to Hyundai’s projection and help the economic case for hosting the Olympics.

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