Three jeers for 'Asian' Games
Getting pretty warm around here, isn't it? Yeah, the mercury is going through the roof in Asia - 35 degrees Celsius here in Hong Kong and much of the same in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Ho Chi Minh City. But it's time to wipe that sweat from your brow, folks, because your good friends in South Korea are pleased to announce they are officially bringing winter to Asia. In a landslide vote this week, the International Olympic Committee named Pyeongchang as the host of the 2018 Winter Olympics over German and French bids.
Granted, the Winter Games are not nearly the catch that the Summer Games are. The Summer Olympics are held in iconic cities like London, Beijing, Athens and Rome, while the winter gatherings are often in outposts like Sochi, Albertville, Lillehammer and Squaw Valley. Still, getting the Olympics is being treated in Korea as a massive coup and well it should be. In fact, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak thinks their victory has much larger implications. Lee claimed this week that it was 'his duty and his mission to deliver the Games to Asia'.
But I don't think people in Jakarta or Singapore are feeling a sense of continental pride right now. Among the most populous countries in the region, neither Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia nor Vietnam participated in the Winter Olympics last year in Vancouver, while Hong Kong sent one athlete as did Taiwan. China, Japan and Korea do winter Olympics around here and that's basically it. Those countries also happen to be the second, third and 14th biggest economies in the world, a fact not lost on some IOC members who admitted they were looking to 'tap into those lucrative markets'. These Games were actually delivered to northeast Asia, not Asia, which makes perfect sporting and business sense. And maybe the Philippines will send a bobsled team as a novelty act like Jamaica did in 1988 but it still won't make it a truly Asian event. Still, politicians are expected to indulge in hyperbole so Lee gets a pass here. But what he said next was a whopper even by political standards.
According to Lee, the South Korean bid was 'all about the Olympic spirit. It is about friendship, hard work and fair play'. This may sound like a gross generalisation but fair play is not the first thing I think of when it comes to South Korea or the IOC. Of course, every country and every Olympic bid has a few skeletons in their closet, but some have a few more than others. No less than four prominent members of South Korea's Olympic bid committee have been convicted of corruption and financial malfeasance. The head of the Korean Olympic Committee and former IOC member, ParkYong-sung, was convicted of embezzlement and recently pardoned by Lee, who also conveniently pardoned IOC member and Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee last December from a tax evasion conviction. The head of global communications for the Samsung group recently told The New York Times that in South Korea a pardon erased a conviction. 'It expunges the case entirely from the court's history,' he said. So if the host country is looking for a way to win more medals in 2018, perhaps they can add pardoning as an Olympic sport.
Also seemingly expunged was the record of the head of Korean Air and the chairman of the Pyeongchang bid committee, Cho Yang-ho, who was sentenced to three years in prison in 1999 for tax evasion but appealed and settled with the government for US$12 million. The senior vice-chairman of the bid committee, Lee Kwang-jae, was stripped of his job as governor of Gangwon province, home to Pyeongchang, earlier this year after being convicted of taking bribes, but he is appealing as well. These are the men who brought the Winter Olympics back to Asia but it was President Lee who made the final presentation this week to IOC delegates before they voted. The former mayor of Seoul, Lee was investigated for stock fraud in 2008 before special prosecutors mysteriously dropped the charges.
According to a number of anonymous IOC members, none of this was cause for alarm because this is the way things are done in South Korea. And it's true, what may seem like a rogue's gallery to many is just business as usual in a country where corruption has long been a way of life. Despite recent efforts to clean things up, the president still has a way of expunging misdeeds. Of course, the IOC knows corruption all too well. Some may say they wrote the book on it before trying to clean up their act after a number of high-profile bribery scandals. While transparency issues linger and the presence of some dubious characters still abound, compared to the disgraced power brokers over at Fifa, the IOC looks like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir these days. But none of that matters today because it's now official; winter will soon be coming to Asia. It might take 7 1/2 years and a few more presidential pardons to get here, but rest assured it's coming.