The Diplomacy Olympics

 Pat Garofalo

When the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are done and dusted, South Korea has a novel plan for what to do with its Olympic stadium: Tear it down. That's right – the $109 million stadium will be used four times over the course of two weeks and then simply destroyed.

As for the other venues built for these games, the plan for what to do with them once the Olympics are over is decidedly TBD. (Though rest assured, the speed skating venue will not be turned into a giant seafood freezer, as was apparently suggested.) The International Olympic Committee, which generally doesn't bother itself much with post-Olympics issues faced by the host nation, has even made public noise about Korea's venues becoming the dreaded "white elephants": Expensive and useless eyesores that are abandoned and crumbling.

This problem is emblematic of the modern Olympics: Countries engage in an orgy of public spending on venues that have little use once the festivities are over. Local officials convince themselves that the games will bring in a big economic boost that will justify building sites for skating, skiing, curling and everything else, but that boost never materializes. Playing host to the Olympics, in economic terms, is a game a city can't win.

There's no reason to think that the Pyeongchang Olympics, the opening ceremony of which is Friday, will be any different. However, there may be reason to believe these Winter Games will provide another benefit that can't be measured in dollars and cents: A thaw in relations on the Korean peninsula.

First, let's take a look at the economics. Just like every Olympics these days, boosters have spent years throwing around numbers about the billions of dollars South Korea will supposedly see thanks to playing host. But according to the economic literature, there's not much of a chance that boost is actually going to materialize.

Many economists have for a long time desperately sought proof that the Olympics provide a jolt to the economy. They haven't found it, because it doesn't exist. As economist Jeffrey Owen wrote, "To date there has not been a study of an Olympics or other large-scale sporting event that has found empirical evidence of significant economic impacts. … It is unlikely that anyone ever will."

What has been found, though, is that hosting costs a ton of money. The most expensive Olympics to date are the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, at $51 billion, and the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, which topped $40 billion. At some $13 billion, Pyeongchang won't be breaking any records, but that's still orders of magnitude more than cities were spending just a few decades ago.

That $13 billion is also several billion more than Pyeongchang originally planned to dedicate toward the Olympics, which is not unique to the 2018 Games: According to an Oxford University study, the average cost overrun for the Olympics is 156 percent, and every Olympics overruns its budget in some way.

The only things you can count on, apparently, are death, taxes and Olympic budgets being blown.

That's not to say that the Olympics have no benefits whatsoever. Given the right circumstances, they can put a city on the long-term tourism map (see: Barcelona); there's also a measurable "feel-good effect," which essentially means that residents are happy to have hosted a big sporting event, which isn't something you can count on a ledger. Generally, though, those positives can't outweigh the negatives.

But in South Korea, there's one other factor: The inclusion of North Korea and the potential for diplomatic breakthroughs with that rogue regime.

North Korea has been particularly active of late when it comes to testing missiles, engaging in threats and being generally disagreeable. But it has agreed to re-open talks with its southern neighbor, and is sending athletes to the games, including players for a joint North-South women's hockey team. The Korean athletes will march under the flag of a unified peninsula in the opening ceremony. The sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un will attend the opening ceremony, making her the first member of the north's ruling family to ever visit South Korea.

There's also talk of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence – part of an administration that has been needlessly poking North Korea in the eye since it came into office – meeting with representatives of the Hermit Kingdom when he's at the games. So there's at least some chance these Olympics are a catalyst for previously closed diplomatic channels reopening.

South Korea actually has some history with the Olympics being a part of huge political changes. Seoul was scheduled to host the 1988 Summer Games, which were granted to it while the country was under a military dictatorship. When protests against the regime began in 1987, fear of what it would mean to have a brutal crackdown on dissent one year before the Olympics, in part, led to the end of military rule and a free and fair presidential election later that year.

Of course, it's entirely possible, and even likely, that the Olympic diplomacy all amounts to nothing; North Korea could cynically take advantage of the opportunity to have its athletes on the world stage and then go right back to business as usual. But as Mike Fuchs wrote here at News, "the United States won't know whether there's an opportunity for progress here unless it tries. And giving this a shot means taking steps the Trump administration has been unable to do to date: Speak with one voice, get on the same page with South Korea and prevent the president from tweeting about North Korea for a while."

If – and it's a big big if – something positive comes out of welcoming North Korea to the Olympics, that'll be worth more to South Korea, the U.S. and the world than whatever dollars Olympic tourists spend.

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