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Bird flu scare latest to rattle Winter Olympics

November 28, 2017

The Winter Olympic Games have been dogged by avian influenza, as well as the concern over the unpredictable regime in North Korea, poor ticket sales, a shortage of accommodation and rising prices. Julian Ryall reports.

Bird flu disinfectant being sprayed in South Korea
Image: picture-alliance/Yonhap/

Local governments in South Korea have called on operators of farms close to venues that are to be used in February's Winter Olympic Games to slaughter around 6,000 ducks and chickens after avian influenza was discoveredon a duck farm in North Jeolla Province.

The H5 strain of the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus - commonly known as "bird flu" - is common in bird populations but has also made the jump to humans. In July 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it had confirmed 630 cases in humans in the previous decade, resulting in 375 deaths.

Winter Olympics in South Korea
Image: Getty Images/K. Nagahama

Organizers of the PyeongChang 2018 games are desperate to play down fears of an outbreak among spectators or athletes taking part in the games, which run for 16 days from February 9, 2018, and the Paralympic Winter Games, which will be held over nine days from March 9 next year.

Officials in the city of Gangwon and surrounding counties have visited farmers and offered them up to 120 million won (92,000 euros) to cull their flocks.

Read more: Beijing to host 2022 Winter Olympics

Latest problem for Games

The concern about avian influenza is only the latest problem to hit the Winter Olympics, which are being held in South Korea for the first time.

Earlier this month, seven spectators were treated for hypothermia at a music concert at the newly completed Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium. Despite demands that the stadium hosting the opening and closing ceremonies have a roof to offer spectators some protection from the elements, the Culture Ministry insisted that budgetary constraints made a roof impossible.

Temperatures during the Games are expected to average minus 4.8 degrees, nearly eight degrees colder than on the night of the pop concert.

Ticket sales to the showcase event have also been disappointing, although organizers reported on Monday that sales have increased as the opening of the event draws closer. To date, some 550,000 tickets - around 52 percent of the total - have been sold, including for the opening and closing ceremonies.

Read more: Security, sales a concern 100 days before Pyeongchang Winter Games

Figure skating and short-track skating events have already sold out, although a mere 37 percent of tickets for the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton disciplines have been sold so far.

The South Korean government has been pushing the games hard in recent weeks, with President Moon Jae-in even getting involved in the campaign. The presidential Blue House announced on November 16 that anyone who buys tickets for Olympic events would be entered into a draw to have dinner with Moon and be given a commemorative watch.

Hotel room shortage

"I have also been reading in the newspapers about problems with a shortage of hotel rooms during the games, while other hotels have put their prices up really steeply," said Eunjoo Yoon, a professor of convention and event management at Hallym University of Graduate Studies in Seoul.

"The government has announced that sales are already better than at the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia, but there have been some problems," she told DW.

Inevitably, she added, the biggest worries have revolved around how the deeply unpredictable regime in North Korea is planning to react to the games being on its doorstep. The host city, Pyeongchang, is around 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Demilitarized Zone, which divides the Korean Peninsula, and France's sports minister hinted in September that the French team might not take part because of the tensions on the border.

Korean ambassadors to other countries that were also apparently wavering - including Germany and Austria - were ordered to commence a charm offensive to convince foreign governments that the games would be perfectly safe. That campaign appears to have paid off as no nations have informed Seoul that they are withdrawing.

Read more: North Korea nuclear tests spread fear among German Winter Olympic teams

Although, with less than three months until the opening ceremony and Pyongyang still angry at international sanctions, that situation could change.

"When foreigners look at Korea, they do not think it is safe," agreed Yoon. "The host city is very close to the border and I have heard suggestions that a couple of foreign sporting organizations have cancelled their accommodation because they are concerned."

Will North Korea participate?

And despite repeated requests from South Korea for Pyongyang to send athletes to the games, North Korea has not yet confirmed whether it will send a delegation. The concern for Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, might be that his athletes are soundly beaten by their South Korean and US rivals, which would cause a significant loss of face, particularly in front of a domestic audience.

Song Young Chae, a professor in the Center for Global Creation and Collaboration at Seoul's Sangmyung University, says that "some people" are excited about the upcoming events, but most are rather indifferent.

"But, in truth, while the North may not send a team, I cannot believe they would do anything to upset an international event such as a Winter Olympics," he told DW.

"Many people were worried that something could happen when Seoul hosted the summer games in 1988, but in the end it went off smoothly," he said. "Even Kim would not be foolish enough to risk an incident when the eyes of the world are on Pyeongchang."

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea