Silence echoes across Pyeongchang Olympic venues

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Pyeongchang, Feb 6 :  Just one year after the world’s best skiers and skaters gathered in South Korea to compete for Olympic gold, many of the venues stand empty, with arguments mounting over their future and upkeep costs.

The country built six sports centres and a ceremonial stadium from scratch for the 2018 Winter Olympics and renovated six existing facilities at a total cost of 800 million.

But today only the occasional elderly stroller passes through the Olympic park in Gangneung, where the cavernous speed-skating arena stands dark and ice-less.

The sliding centre in Pyeongchang, where South Korea’s Yun Sung-bin won Asia’s first Olympic skeleton gold, is locked with barriers blocking road access.

And protesters are demanding that a downhill ski slope site be developed into a resort and not, as promised, returned to nature.

South Korea also spent more than 10 billion on infrastructure before the Games, including a high-speed railway from Seoul to Gangneung, 200 kilometres (120 miles) east of the capital.

The construction bonanza was supposed to boost one of the poorest and least populated regions of Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

But hopes of a tourism boom have gone unfulfilled in a nation where bobsleigh and luge were largely unheard-of before the Olympics and participation in winter sports remains limited.

The risk of white elephants is a perennial issue for the Winter Games and the International Olympic Committee has struggled to find contenders willing to take on the burden.

There were only two candidates in the final round for the 2022 Games that ultimately went to Beijing, and after a series of withdrawals only two are bidding for 2026, Milan and Stockholm.

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