The Olympic Spirit Takes a Backseat to Politics

Sports Illustrated
South Korea Moves On
June 26, 1989
Aside from the sports stadiums squatting along the Han River, there are few traces in Seoul of the 1988 Summer Olympics. The Games, which catapulted South Korea into global prominence nine months ago at a cost to its citizens of $3.1 billion, have slipped into the past in a country obsessed with the future. Newspapers that once were filled with articles about the Games of the XXIV Olympiad have moved on to other subjects—political infighting, governmental corruption, anti-American protests and so on. “Seeing such a thing pass away without notice is very sad,” said a top official at Seoul City Hall.

Even the most controversial aspects of the Olympics have been quietly purged from the public realm. Remember the boxing incident in which five officials from South Korea attacked a referee from New Zealand after a South Korean boxer lost? The government of South Korea reluctantly yielded to foreign pressure and charged the offenders with various crimes. But once NBC packed up its cameras and the world focused its attention elsewhere, the Justice Ministry more or less washed its hands of the affair and handed out fines ranging from $450 to $750. One of the officials is now an executive of the Korea Amateur Boxing Association, and several others are working as referees.

The big scandal of the Olympics, the Ben Johnson drug bust that is still causing reverberations in Canada and elsewhere, has been largely ignored in South Korea. Johnson’s saga was a blot on the Seoul Games. He is regarded as a guest who made a messy scene and nearly ruined the whole party. The hearings in Toronto on Johnson’s use of anabolic steroids have received extensive international attention, but only passing notice in South Korea.

The country’s ability to avoid unwelcome news was further illustrated by the death in January of synchronized swimmer Shin So Hyon, who had been dropped from South Korea’s national team before the Games. Shin, who died from malnutrition, was known to have been taking diet pills to hold her weight down and regain a spot on the team. It would be logical to expect that the Johnson scandal would force the South Koreans to take a close look at drug abuse among their own athletes. But local papers reported Shin’s death only in brief articles, none of them delving into the real questions of her tragedy or how many other South Korean athletes are on drugs.

A few months ago, many of the people who left good jobs to work at the now-defunct Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee staged sit-down protests because they thought the government was not living up to its promise to provide them with good jobs once the Games ended. As a result of these embarrassing demonstrations, most of the white-collar workers have been given jobs with government-controlled corporations.

There are many explanations for the demise of the Olympic spirit in South Korea. For seven years leading up to the Games, the military-backed government extolled—to an initially skeptical population—the virtues of building a vast and expensive Olympic complex in a country in which the average annual income was less than $3,000. Even Park Chung Hee, the president of South Korea who approved the Olympic bid in 1979 shortly before he was assassinated, is reported to have responded initially to the idea by saying, “You must be joking.” In addition, the South Korean people doubted the motivations of Park’s successor, Chun Doo Hwan. They felt, and justifiably so, that in his push to host the Games, Chun was thinking of his own political gains rather than of any gains for his country.

Because national honor was at stake, proud South Koreans generally went along with the Olympics, hoping to help their country shed its image as the hapless, forlorn place depicted in the television series M *A *S *H. The South Koreans were hardworking, efficient and eventually successful, but they seemed to lack real enthusiasm for the Games. Though the opening ceremonies were picture perfect, the largely South Korean crowd was restrained. Applause was polite but not overwhelming, as it had been at the start of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. At many other events empty seats were the rule rather than the exception, even though locals could easily purchase reasonably priced tickets. Like certain computers and VCRs that South Koreans produce mainly for export, the Seoul Olympics seemed to be made more for other people to enjoy.

One reason for this detachment is that, even though the country has been moving toward democracy, many South Koreans continue to distrust their government, and some accuse it of having staged the Games in an effort to bolster its position both domestically and internationally. Other citizens complain that vast sums of money were poured into Seoul for the Olympics while the rest of the country received little benefit. Indeed, the Games appear to have accelerated a demographic imbalance caused by a continuing influx of people from the countryside into the capital, now the fifth largest metropolitan area in the world, with a population of more than 10,000,000.

But even if the South Koreans wanted to savor the Olympics, the pace of political change has robbed them of the opportunity. The success of the Games was one of the reasons that former President Chun accepted free elections during the protests of 1987. Moreover, the Games also acted as a brake on greater social disruptions that could have further shaken the country. After the Olympics ended, however, South Korea reeled from one political crisis to another as it tried to cope with a reservoir of social ills and, at the same time, build a functioning democracy.

A month after the closing ceremonies, Chun was forced into internal exile after surrendering his acquired wealth to the state and making a televised apology for his abuse of power. Then came an emotional series of formal governmental contacts with North Korea, briefly raising hopes for reunification of those bitter enemies. Strikes and protests by workers and students broke out this spring, prompting Chun’s successor, Roh Tae Woo, to warn that he might use “emergency measures” to stop the turmoil.

“The fast pace of change explains why South Koreans forgot about the Olympics,” said Hyun Hong Choo, the minister of legislation. According to The Korea Herald, “The aura of the 1988 Seoul Olympics has been darkened and nearly obliterated in the shadow of loud and turbulent political and social disturbances.”

One thing everyone agrees on is that the Olympics helped open to the outside world a country once known as the Hermit Kingdom. A sometimes paranoid bastion of anti-Communism, South Korea used the Games to broaden its contacts with socialist countries. As a result, for the first time in recent history, South Korea has established open trade links with the Soviet Union and China as well as full diplomatic ties with Hungary.

What has also been heightened by the Olympics is a sense among South Koreans that they are no longer citizens of a second-rate nation. President Roh spoke for many people when he said in a post-Olympic speech, “We have now acquired the confidence that we can do anything to which we put our mind.”

If there is one place where the Olympic spirit undoubtedly lingers in South Korea, it is at Olympic Stadium, the site where it all started last September. The flame was long ago extinguished, but something about the place sparks passions dormant outside the stadium gates.

On a recent spring day, a large group of tourists, some of them South Korean, was sitting in the stadium. Two of the visitors, middle-aged men dressed in suits, mischievously clambered onto the track and blinked in the sunshine. They smiled at each other, and then started running on the same red oval where Carl Lewis, Flo-Jo and others had won gold medals during those 16 days in 1988. One of the men faltered at the turn, but the other continued, smiling as he raced down the homestretch, his tie dancing in the air. He crossed the finish line laughing like a child, and kept running.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.