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Stage Fright At A Dress Rehearsal
William Oscar Johnson
September 29, 1986
The Asian Games in Seoul were as tense as the real Olympics
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September 29, 1986

Stage Fright At A Dress Rehearsal

The Asian Games in Seoul were as tense as the real Olympics

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The ceremonies themselves were damp but ineffably cheerful until late in the afternoon when a fleet of large black military helicopters suddenly rose above the stadium's gracefully curved rim. They were just part of the festivities, but the first sight of those snarling machines caused the immense crowd to freeze, if only for a second. In that blink of an eye, there were few who were certain which Korea had sent those sinister birds into the sky over Seoul, and the sense of alarm was undeniable.

Amazingly enough, even as fear and distrust of North Korea lay heavy over the Asian Games, the possibility still existed that the villains to the north might share in Seoul's staging of the '88 Olympics. This was due to the generosity of the Seoul organizing committee and to the tirelessly optimistic diplomacy of IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch. To review briefly: In 1985, four years after Seoul was awarded the Olympic Games, the regime in Pyongyang astounded everyone by demanding that it be allowed to put on 50% of the events. Of course, this was ludicrous, but the IOC and Seoul agreed to offer a plan to give North Korea at least token inclusion as the Games' host. The IOC promised North Korea two complete Olympic events—table tennis and archery—including finals and medal-awarding ceremonies. The IOC also offered some early-round soccer matches and to route a portion of the 100-kilometer bicycle race through North Korea.

Thus far, the North Koreans have pretty much sneered at these suggestions, but Samaranch is not completely discouraged. "They have until one year before the Games begin—that would be next September—to accept our offer. If they accept, we are ready to sit together, and we are ready to listen."

One sticking point that promises to take a great deal of sitting and listening: If North Korea does agree to hold some Olympic events, the country presumably will be required to admit freely journalists and spectators as well as competitors and coaches. That alone could cancel out all hope for this first infinitesimal step toward reconciliation of the two Koreas.

North Korea isn't the only country on the outs with South Korea. No fewer than 39 nations—including all of the Eastern bloc and the People's Republic of China—do not have diplomatic relations with the Chun government. North Korea has officially declared that it is boycotting the Asian Games and seven other eligible countries are no-shows, although China is participating. In light of recent Olympic experiences, Samaranch was asked what he thought the chances for a boycott in '88 might be. Again he was optimistic. He pointed out that of all the nations that exist sans relationships with Seoul, 30 of them showed up in that city last April for a meeting of 152 Olympic national committees. He also noted that the Soviet Union, Poland and East Germany have sent teams to compete in international events in South Korea in the past year.

"If some countries don't take part in the Games, it is up to them, because the Olympics certainly are not compulsory," said Samaranch. "But if you study what is going on these last months, you will realize that some very important teams from socialist countries have participated in events in South Korea."

All well and good, but even as Samaranch spoke of hope for cooperation and serenity among the Olympic nations, the Asian Games were being played in an environment that bristled with soldiers and suspicion. How did the IOC president feel about the fact that the Olympics would not last a day in Seoul without heavy military protection? He said calmly, "We have to pay for something that is that important, and one way we pay is by having security measures. In Korea, security is the problem of the government of Korea, and I think it knows better than I what measures it must take to protect our athletes and our games."

So as the Asian Games got under way last week, they were protected as if they were cupped in a mailed fist. Despite all the cold steel in evidence, the fact was that they were being played in some of the most graceful architecture ever designed for an Olympics—or any other sporting purpose. Seoul will spend $1.7 billion on these striking venues and another $1.4 billion on Olympic-related capital improvements—and it seems to be worth every won.

First-class though the facilities may be, it should be said for the record that the Asian Games are far less than Olympic as a sporting event. It is true that the area from which teams were drawn contains 2.8 billion people, more than half the earth's population. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those people are so consumed by the struggle for survival that any child who grows up to be a world-class athlete is also by definition a statistical anomaly. The best of the 3,800-plus competitors are China's triple Olympic gold gymnast Le Ning, bronze medal archer Kim Jin Ho, and former world high jump record holder Zhu Jianhua.

The most compelling competition of the Games will be staged between Asia's two superpowers, China and Japan. Four years ago in New Delhi, China won 61 medals against Japan's 57—the first time since the Asian Games began in 1951 that the Japanese did not wipe out all other national competitors. This year, the Chinese are again favored to come in first, although South Korea is strong, too.

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