Pyeongchang, a small-town Olympic Games backed by Chinese tech behemoth Alibaba

AllTechAsia in Pyeongchang

When Alibaba founder Jack Ma shook hands with IOC president Thomas Bach a year ago and announced that China’s largest ecommerce platform would join the Olympic Partnership long-term sponsorship, he may not have foreseen the possibility that one day Alibaba’s own showcase center might become a prime attraction during the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Photo from Alibaba.

The 15-meter tall and 900 square-meter grey glass hall stood right next to the entrance of at the Gangneung Olympic Park. On Saturday, Ma and Bach laid out details and the future of their partnership. The two said that they share the same vision of digitizing the Olympic Games.

“Whether you like or not, a technology revolution will come,” Ma said. He went on to say that technology could be the solution that breaks the cycle of the public’s enthusiasm towards the games fading away and increase the efficiency of restarting the games every four years.

What Ma has pointed out about the public’s reaction to the Olympic Games has long drawn wide media debate, especially considering the lengthy list of cities in the West that have withdrawn bids to host the Olympic Games including Oslo, Stockholm, Boston, Rome, and Hamburg.

For most of the cities that have walked away from the opportunity to host the games, economic costs rank as a primary concern. 2014’s Olympics in Sochi, for example, are seen as cautionary tale after it came to light that USD 51 billion was burned almost entirely on building venues and related infrastructure alone.

Interestingly, including the current Pyeongchang Olympic Games, the coming three games will all be held in Asia, as the 2020 summer games are scheduled for Tokyo whereas the 2022 winter games will be held in Beijing-Zhangjiakou.

For Asian cities, the incentive that the Olympic Games can draw worldwide attention and help boost local economic development weighs more heavily than concerns over immediate economic costs. One might say that such an approach embodies the entrepreneur spirit of turning opportunity to fortune.

Before the Olympic Games, Pyeongchang was a county with a population of less than 50,000. It was effectively nameless, as was its home state, Gangwon. Even many Koreans say that they didn’t care about the remote mountain province except perhaps to occasionally visit the seaside and watch the sunrise.

Changes can already be seen in Pyeongchang thanks to recently upgraded and expanded infrastructure. The roads and public transportation system have certainly improved because there’s now high-speed train service from Seoul to the area. Locals say that it used to take about four hours to drive from Seoul to the seaside in Gongwan but now takes half the time using public transportation.

On Saturday, Jack Ma spoke about his opinion on sports and Olympic Games — they can be anytime, anywhere, and enjoyed by anyone. The tech behemoth has carefully crafted a slogan for their Olympic sponsorship: To the Greatness of Small.

In Ma’s eyes, the slogan’s philosophy has contributed to the success of today’s Alibaba, which operates as a mothership for small entrepreneurs.

To date, Taobao, the company’s largest ecommerce platform that’s aimed at small entrepreneurs, has attracted more than 500 million registered users while its daily active user rate reaches over 60 million.  Alibaba’s fresh Q3 earning report stated that the company’s revenue rose to RMB83,028 million (US$12,761 million) for the quarter ending in December.

Photo from Alibaba.

For the IOC, it’s not only about who’s supporting the games but also the future of Olympic athletes. Standing with Jack Ma, IOC president Bach said that he’s determined to push the boundary of Olympic Games to the next level, and athletes are the most important point of access. He asserted that Alibaba’s cloud-service and big data technology will help track data of athletes’ performance and monitor his/her training progress to prepare them to best compete in the Olympic Games.

Alibaba Group CMO Chris Tung said that the company’s cloud-service and other technologies can do much more for the games. He said that Alibaba Cloud can help host cities to plan venues smartly by using AI and big data analysis in order to select the best venue locations. Additionally, he said cloud-based biometric identification technology will further ensure the safety and security of the games by improving access control and crowd management.

Furthermore, on gathering data during the games versus audience privacy, Joey Tan, Head of Global Strategic Initiatives at Alibaba Cloud, said that the public should not be overly concerned about the issue because  Alibaba makes sure to abide by all local privacy rules and regulations before providing cloud-service technology services.

(Top photo from AllTechAsia)

Wu Nan

Nan is the Founder and Editor in Chief of AllTechAsia. She is an award-winning journalist with honors from Foreign Press Association in New York and Hong Kong Journalists Association. For years she worked for top-notch media outlets including South China Morning Post and the Wall Street Journal. She co-founded the NetEase Annual Economist Conference (NAEC), a leading economic forum in China. She holds a master's degree in Journalism at U.C. Berkeley and is a 2012 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Write to her: nan[at]

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