When the opening ceremonies of the Games of the XXIV Olympiad were finished and the 95-foot-high sculpture called the World Tree had been transformed into the caldron for the Olympic flame, and the last child had rolled the last hoop of hope across the field, and the last taekwondoist had shattered the last piece of wood in the name of breaking down barriers among peoples, and Seoul's elegant Olympic Stadium had been emptied of the last bare-chested Olympian from Swaziland, the last Peruvian stilt dancer, the last dragon drum player and the last parachutist, the world sighed for many different reasons.
The 70,000 spectators in the stadium and the nearly three billion television viewers in more than 100 countries sighed with pleasure, for there had never been such a spectacle in the history of the opening ceremonies.
Like most of the 9,627 athletes from 160 nations who had come to Seoul for more serious business than a parade, hurdler Edwin Moses of the U.S. sighed with anticipation. "The party's over," he said. "It's competition time."
Like many of her 42 million countrymen, Lim Yun Suk, a young woman who works for The Seoul Olympian, sighed with pride tinged with regret. "I really missed the North Koreans," she said. "It was like going to a party without your sweetheart—a great party that would have been much better if he were there."
Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), sighed with anxiety. "Seoul has come so very far and has avoided so much potential trouble, but it's not done yet," he said. "On October 3, the day after the Games are over without incident, then we'll be able to celebrate."
Hwang Kyu Woong, director of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee (SLOOC) security division, which coordinates a force of 120,000 Korean soldiers, sailors, cops, gate guards, bombsniffing dogs, building-scaling commandos, scuba divers, plainclothes police and handbag-searching volunteers, sighed briefly. "There's no problem at this time," he said, "but we must remain prepared."
Glorious and trouble-free as the opening ceremonies were, no one dared sigh with relief. The specter of political upheaval and violence had hung over these Games for too long to be forgotten so quickly. Indeed, unoccupied hotel rooms in Seoul, unsold tickets to Olympic events and empty airline seats on international flights arriving at Kimpo Airport last week indicated that many non-Koreans had been frightened away. And that's a shame. The opening show on Saturday morning was exquisitely creative in its conception and absolutely flawless in its execution, even though 13,625 men, women and children performed a seemingly endless variety of Korean dances and rituals. One of the most moving moments occurred when Sohn Kee Chung, 76, the gold medalist in the marathon at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and South Korea's most renowned' sports hero, bounded into the stadium carrying the torch moments before it would be used to light the flame in the huge caldron. His selection as the honored final runner had been expected—in '36, he had won his medal after having been forced to take a Japanese name and compete as a member of Japan's Olympic team because the Japanese then occupied Korea—but to everyone's surprise, Sohn handed the torch off to yet another athlete, a pale, frail-looking 19-year-old Olympian named Lim Chun Ae.
The little-known Lim had won three gold medals, in the 800-, 1,500-and 3,000-meter races, during the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul and had become an instant national heroine. In the summer of '87, however, South Koreans were shocked when she was hospitalized for two weeks after her coach had slapped her so hard that he ruptured her eardrum. The coach said Lim had been spoiled by the adulation of the public, and after the incident she formally apologized for her sloth in training. Six weeks later doctors discovered she had been running with a stress fracture of her left leg (certainly not an injury brought on by sloth).
The mechanics of lighting the Olympic flame were also a surprise: The caldron was at the top of the World Tree column, and there was no apparent means of getting to it. Ah, but Korean creativity came into play again. The base of the column turned into a platform that lifted a high school student, a university student and a teacher up to the top, where they reached over the side to ignite the sacred flame with torches that had been lighted by the one Lim carried.
Of course, the true character of an Olympics is never defined by its opening ceremonies. Assuming Seoul remains calm and there are no terrorist incidents, these Games will be best remembered for bringing most of the countries of the world together. The major boycotts of 1976 in Montreal (by 26 African countries), '80 in Moscow (by 62 Western countries) and '84 in Los Angeles (by 14 Soviet bloc countries) had rendered many Olympic victories hollow, but in Seoul there would be no obstacles to classic confrontations among nearly all the world's best athletes.