SEOUL: The Olympic flame arrived in South Korea on Wednesday (Nov 1), 100 days ahead of the opening ceremony for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games.
South Korean Olympic gold-winning figure skater Kim Yu-na and the country’s sports minister Do Jong-whan carried the flame, in a white security lamp, down the steps from a Korean Air jet after a flight from Greece.
“Today is a very important and proud symbol of our work and passion in bringing one of the most exciting sporting events ever to our country,” said chief organiser Lee Hee-beom.
“We want the Olympic torch relay to connect you to the Games, and ignite passion and excitement in every corner of Korea.”
The flame will go on a torch relay along a 2,018km route around South Korea, through nine provinces and eight major cities in the country over the next 100 days.
The torch will be carried by 7,500 torchbearers – a number which is meant to represent the 75 million people residing on the Korean Peninsula.
The journey will conclude at the Olympic Plaza in Pyeongchang. There, the flame will be used to light the Olympic cauldron to mark the start of the Games.
The Winter Olympics will run from Feb 9 to Feb 25, 2017, but have been marred by slow ticket sales and the looming menace of nuclear-armed North Korea, just 80 kilometres away from Pyeongchang across the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula.
Over the two weeks of the Games, 1.18 million tickets are available, with 180,000 sold internationally so far.
But South Koreans have bought little more than 160,000.
Domestic sales are strong for blue-riband events, such as the ice hockey finals, and sports traditionally popular in South Korea, such as short track speed skating and figure skating.
But for less popular disciplines such as luge and cross country skiing, ticket take-up has been weak, raising the embarrassing prospect of images of empty seats being beamed around the world.
Organisers told AFP that banks, regional authorities and the education ministry had agreed to buy hundreds of thousands of tickets to fill up the Games venues if domestic sales continue to disappoint.
The nuclear and missile threat from North Korea is also putting a damper on the Games.
Pyongyang carried out its sixth nuclear test in September — by far its most powerful yet — and has lobbed missiles over Japan into the Pacific, while trading insults and threats of war with Washington.
France, Germany and Austria have raised concerns over the safety of their athletes during the Games, and Britain has drawn up evacuation plans in case of an emergency.
But in an interview with AFP, Lee dismissed fears of an attack as “a kind of exaggeration” and offered reassurances that the South has held several “very safe and secure sports events”.
“Pyeongchang is not the exception,” he said.
There have been decades of military tensions on the peninsula, during which South Korea has hosted major events such as the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
The 1988 Seoul summer Olympics took place only months after a bomb planted by North Korean agents killed all 115 people on board a South Korean plane, in what may have been an attempt to scare off foreign spectators and contestants.