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William Oscar Johnson
December 24, 1984
South Korea, the host nation of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, is reaping the rewards of three decades dedicated to recovering from centuries of war and foreign oppression
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December 24, 1984

A Rich Harvest From A Sea Of Trouble

South Korea, the host nation of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, is reaping the rewards of three decades dedicated to recovering from centuries of war and foreign oppression

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The question was put by our translator to a South Korean monk in a 1,300-year-old Buddhist temple on a remote mountain overlooking the East Sea (more commonly known as the Sea of Japan): "What is your opinion of having the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul?" The monk blinked behind his glasses. He murmured and sighed. He was obviously reluctant to reply. At last he spoke, almost inaudibly. "Personally, I am not interested in the Olympic Games, whether they are in Seoul or not," he said. "But if the people who believe in Buddha wish for success in the Olympic Games, then he will help them. If it's all right with Buddha, it's all right with me."

The 1988 Summer Olympics were awarded to Seoul, the capital of the Republic of South Korea, during a September 1981 meeting of the International Olympic Committee—in the West German resort of Baden-Baden. The vote was overwhelming: 52 for Seoul, 27 for Nagoya, Japan, which was the only other competing city. Though Buddha may have known the result ahead of time, it came as a stunning surprise to almost everyone else.

Among the most amazed were the supremely confident representatives of Nagoya who had thrown what amounted to a victory banquet the night before the vote. Also among the surprised were IOC insiders, such as sports director Walther Tr�ger. Tr�ger said, "Everybody was aware of the fact that an Olympics in Seoul would present many problems, but since nobody believed Seoul would win, there was no opposition." Also taken aback were members of the South Korean delegation. Thomas Keller of Switzerland, a former Olympic rower who is president of the powerful General Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF), was a close advisor to the Koreans, and he recalls, "On the night before the IOC vote, I bet them that they would get the Games, but they didn't believe me. They didn't think it was a possibility." A member of the delegation said recently, "Even after the numbers were announced, we couldn't believe it for one long moment."

Perhaps most surprised of all were the 40.5 million citizens of South Korea. As K.C. Hwang, an Associated Press reporter in Seoul for 28 years, explains, "Most people assumed that the main idea was for Seoul to be a respectable runner-up. We thought the Olympic bid was intended to put us in a position to get the Asian Games in 1986. We thought it was all a gesture toward letting the sports world know that South Korea exists and wants to be taken seriously soon."

Surprised or not, the South Korean delegation left Baden-Baden committed to putting on the '88 Games. The Olympic facilities will cost $1.66 billion. These include 33 venues for competition, plus 69 training and support facilities. Another $1.35 billion will be spent on related projects such as public transportation, sanitation and communication improvements. Even if it is all right with Buddha, a $3 billion Olympics (compared with $500 million for the '84 L.A. Games) is a tremendous undertaking.

The Seoul Olympics are scheduled to run from Sept. 17 to Oct. 2, 1988. And, yes, that is a long way off. However, there already has been an enormous amount of concern over these Games. Most of the worry is the product of ignorance or demagoguery, or both. Yet it has caused so much confusion and doubt that it's not too soon to examine seriously how things stand regarding the Seoul Olympics specifically and how holding the Games in South Korea might affect the Olympic movement generally.

Two SPORTS ILLUSTRATED colleagues, Anita Verschoth and Jerry Cooke, and I visited South Korea in late September and early October, the time of year when the '88 Olympics will be held, and interviewed dozens of people in Seoul and in the hinterlands about the Games. The successful L.A. Olympics were still fresh in our minds. Though the blustery America-first exuberance of those Games was in questionable taste at times, it had injected a desperately needed shot of enthusiasm into the Olympic movement, which had seemed listless after the Soviets declared their boycott in May. The fact that the nonparticipation of the U.S.S.R. and 18 other countries had scarcely caused a small bruise on the body Olympic offered great hope for the future. Certainly, Seoul's prospects looked better than they would have if L.A. had been a flop.

The question our translator put to Ahn Byung Keun, 22, a burly judo player who had won one of South Korea's remarkable total of six gold medals in Los Angeles, was an obvious one: "Do you think the Games in Seoul will be as good as those in Los Angeles?" Ahn's large, angelic face took on a frown, and he scratched his cauliflowered left ear pensively. After a long pause, he said, "It will be more beautiful here. More beautiful and more sweet."

We asked the same question of Korea's first gold medal winner, Sohn Kee Chung, 72, who won the marathon at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler's Berlin. A wiry, smiling fellow, Sohn said jovially, "The U.S. is richest, so it is Number One in money. Russia has to be listed Number One for other things, which many of us do not care for. Korea will be Number One, I predict, in giving the best Olympics. I am, as you know, a Korean, and so you will have no problem understanding why I say this."

Some social historians have called Koreans the Irish of the Orient. Once we'd talked to a couple of dozen South Koreans, we understood the appropriateness of that analogy. Like Sohn, many were open and gregarious, candid and trenchant and given to humor. When we asked a young English-speaking woman in a Seoul antique store what major gain the Olympics might bring to South Korea, she said, her smile glistening, "It will wipe out the M*A*S*H image forever, I hope. For all the years M*A*S*H has been on American TV, it has shown Korea as a weak rabbit, war-beaten and weary. The Seoul Olympics will show everyone that we have tigers inhabiting Korea, too."

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