Petitions are piling up at the South Korean President’s office as the Pyeongchang games turns into an Olympics of grumbling about the cold, the treatment of volunteers – and, most damning of all, the food.
More than 60 petitions have been filed with the Blue House, the South Korean presidential office, demanding hot drinking water, hot showers and improved accommodations for an army of 15,000 volunteers that organizers say is the biggest ever for a winter Olympics.
The grousing comes in the final days before the opening of the Pyeongchang games, which have attracted muted interest at home but enough complaints that both President Moon Jae-in and the head of the local organizing committee have been forced to respond publicly this week, expressing appreciation for those helping to stage the games and pledging improvements in their treatment.
Blue House petitioners have complained that 10 volunteers were jammed into accommodation for four. Local media have reported water dripping into rooms.
Volunteers are housed for free. But conditions “are unbelievably inadequate,” said one petition, which listed a series of perceived injustices against volunteers, who have been clad in bright North Face gear and dispatched to 188 different locations. The Pyeongchang organizing committee calls them the “Passion Crew.”
None of the gripes have captured more of the public imagination than those about the food, after volunteers posted pictures to social media of anemic portions of unappetizing dishes. One shows a breakfast and lunch served on a disposable plate with a small bread roll, a smattering of rice, a bit of meat and a bowl of soup.
“That’s some pretty sad-looking food,” said Seoul food writer Jennifer Flinn. “I can’t imagine people would have been happy even if it were free.”
For the volunteers, food is provided for free – they were promised three square meals a day. Still, volunteers have been “shocked” by what’s on their plates, another Blue House petition claimed.
“Even prison food is better than this,” raged a late-January headline in Seoul Shinmun, a national daily newspaper, which published a picture of a plate with two slices of dried-out white bread next to chunks of meat with gelatine squares and shredded cabbage with something that looked like instant seaweed soup.
The article cited staff who moaned that volunteering for the Olympics is like working for “Pyeongchang Jail.”
Days later, Shinsegae Food, the conglomerate that is the official catering sponsor of the games, cut prices on some of its Olympic cafeteria foods by 50 per cent. The company issued a “message of regret,” saying it “will listen to your valuable opinions and actively strive to improve.”
Other volunteers, including an interpreter, have shared photos of much tastier looking fare.
But complaints have continued, with social media circulating unfavourable comparisons of Olympic volunteers’ food with “emperor’s lunch boxes” eaten by political leaders at a recent Blue House meeting devoted to the Olympics.
The warm treatment of North Korean games participants has drawn further unflattering comparisons, and provided fodder for President Moon’s political foes, who are seeking to make gains in municipal elections shortly after the Olympics.
“South Koreans are walking on a path made of dirt while the North Korean athletes and related personnel are walking on a path lined with flowers,” said Kim Sung-won, spokesman for Liberty Korea, a leading conservative opposition party.
Nearly 2,400 volunteers have quit since last October, games officials acknowledge – but, according to the most recent numbers, only eight left after actually starting their volunteer work.
Still, on Tuesday, Pyeongchang organizing committee president Lee Hee-beom acknowledged “problems with providing adequate food” in some instances. Some volunteers, he said, had been working from 6 a.m. to midnight. He promised snacks and bottled water.
“I have ordered that we pay particular attention to improving the situation for our volunteers. And we are working on executing various plans to make that happen,” he said.
On Monday, Mr. Moon expressed love for the volunteers. Temperatures in Pyeongchang fell to -19 degrees Monday. Even in the cold, Mr. Moon said, they “are working hard to prepare for the games. We are very proud of you and admire you.”
Still, the idea that volunteers haven’t been properly fed has struck a particularly sensitive spot with the public.
“You definitely shouldn’t play around with something as important as people’s food,” said Kabkyu Noh, who owns a tea house in Seoul. “It’s kind of like lying to ask for volunteers and then treat them this way, and very hard to forgive.”
“There’s a famous Korean saying: ‘You have to eat well in order to work hard,'” said Jeong Areum, who writes for a popular food television show in Seoul. “Of course, these volunteers are doing their work through a sense of service, but if their meals are so terrible, they would feel mistreated. Seeing these photos, I think they’re being mistreated too.”
But South Korea has a history of controversy around volunteers. Four years ago, university student Kim Tae-hong quit partway through volunteering for the Incheon Asian Games because he felt he was mistreated.
Seeing the pictures of the volunteers’ food at the Olympics, he said, “I thought ‘it’s the same thing all over again.'”
The Globe and Mail, February 6, 2018