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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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These are troubling conditions, to say the least. But perhaps an even more serious concern when one considers having the Games in Seoul is that there are 44 Olympic nations with whom South Korea has no formal diplomatic relations. This takes in all the socialist bloc countries, including not only the Soviet Union, East Germany and Cuba but also South Korea's increasingly good neighbor, the People's Republic of China, and the nice guy of Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia. Just because a country doesn't have formal relations with South Korea doesn't mean it's predisposed not to participate in the Games. China, for example, has already promised to attend. But South Korea's lack of relations with the socialist bloc doesn't exactly augur well for a tranquil Olympics.

Given these rather nasty facts, it's not surprising that there was—and is—skepticism regarding Seoul as an Olympic host. Oddly enough, one of the sources of optimism that the Koreans can nonetheless pull off the Games was—believe it or not—The Miss Universe Pageant of 1980. It's a pretty convoluted connection, but here's how it worked:

On Oct. 26, 1979, General Park Chung Hee, the president of South Korea for more than 18 years, was murdered by his own chief of intelligence. Park had been a classic strong-arm ruler. He'd ridden to power in '61 on the cold steel treads of a military coup and then held on to it through a combination of force, relentless repression of political opponents, emergency decrees when dissent grew too loud and several propitious rewritings of the national constitution to allow himself longer and longer terms in office with virtually absolute power. Park's reign was always tough and sometimes cruel, but he also masterminded South Korea's economic growth in the 1960s and '70s. He'd trained in Japanese military academies as a youth and served in Japan's army during World War II. Later, he'd watched with admiration in the '50s and '60s as Japan transformed itself from a defeated and disgraced nation into one of the world's economic powers. When Park became president of South Korea, his strongest desire was to copy the Japanese economic miracle. He had come very close to succeeding before he was killed.

In the wake of his assassination, South Korea was plunged into chaos and rioting. Military force was apparent everywhere. A new president was inaugurated in December 1979. But suddenly it was revealed by Major General Chun, then head of the defense security command, that the plot to murder Park had been hatched by a number of high-ranking military officers, who subsequently were arrested. This shake-up in the military establishment, which had been the symbol of stability, created more uneasiness in South Korea. Rioting reached a violent peak in May of '80 and continued sporadically into the summer, when—did you forget?—The Miss Universe Pageant was to be held in Seoul from June 28 to July 8.

Most of the 69 contestants were scared. Some refused to visit Seoul at all until their embassies there promised they would see to the contestants' safety. It all went swimmingly—including a five-mile parade with 35 flower-bedecked floats carrying the beauty queens through the streets. The parade route was patrolled by hundreds of grim, gun-packing plainclothes security agents. Still, some 300,000 spectators turned out to watch, and the 4,000-seat city center auditorium was sold out for the contest. More significant, a worldwide television feed sent all of this out to millions of viewers. Oh Do Wang, editor of South Korea's daily sports and entertainment newspaper, says, "It had not been a year since President Park was murdered, yet here were all these happy bathing beauties enjoying themselves in Seoul. TV showed them everywhere, and it changed our image on the spot. Miss Universe gave us the momentum to move on to our next big spectacular—the Olympics."

In Kyongju, an ancient provincial capital 230 miles southeast of Seoul, there's a large burial park of royal tombs. Each tomb is a great earthen dome two or three stories high; inside lie the mummified corpses of kings and queens dead a thousand years or more. The grass that grows thickly on the tombs is as carefully manicured as any golf course green, by women wielding small scythes and rakes. Asked what she thought of the Seoul Olympics, one of the tomb keepers said thoughtfully, "It's a great honor, but sometimes I wonder if it's too great an honor for Korea to manage well."

In September 1979, barely five weeks before his assassination, President Park appointed a committee to come up with a plan for Seoul to bid for the 1988 Olympics. As Park well knew, Tokyo had hosted the 1964 Games, and in many people's minds it was with the Olympics that the world recognized Japan as a major economic and political force again. Park picked as the Korean National Olympic Committee vice-chairman Cho Sang Ho, 58, a smart, energetic diplomat who speaks English, Italian and Japanese and had served as ambassador to Italy for four years. Cho, now secretary-general of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee (SLOOC), says, "There was tragedy and confusion all around when President Park was killed, and we were anxious as to whether the Olympic project could proceed without him. We decided we should stick to the decision to go ahead because we had already announced our intentions to the world."

Despite a wobbly government through early 1980, South Korea's pursuit of the Olympics went on. Then, in the summer of that year, Chun suddenly took power. As tough, repressive and dependent on military power as Park, Chun was also every bit as committed to bringing an Olympics to South Korea. Thus, the ambitious building program for new sports facilities continued, and Cho peddled Seoul harder than ever before. "I traveled everywhere, talked to every IOC member I could find," he recalls. "I argued that the Olympics would be a genuine help to peace in our region. I emphasized that, yes, South Korea was controversial but that this only made it a better place to prove the peaceful value of the Olympic movement. I preached also the universality of the Olympics and argued that Japan had already hosted the Olympics and for them to have it again [in Nagoya] would do the movement no good."

Did these points secure the Games for Seoul? Certainly not by themselves. The IOC is a polyglot of aristocrats, Iron Curtain functionaries, aging coupon clippers and Third World climbers. There are 91 members, each a considerable ego unto himself, each ineffably human in his individual foibles and failings. The word bribery has been used to explain the IOC's surprising decision to choose Seoul over Nagoya. It has been said that the Koreans laid on an assortment of fun and favors for IOC members—first-class trips to Korea, where they enjoyed lovely food, hotels, women, etc. IOC insiders say that, yes, there was quite a bit of entertaining done by the Koreans, but that it was neither excessive nor extraordinary and that it almost certainly had no significant effect on the voting.

There was another—and more effective—kind of bribery helping the South Korean cause, though it, too, probably wasn't decisive. This came from European manufacturers of shoes, timing devices and other athletic equipment. With only Seoul and Nagoya in the competition, these Europeans knew that should Nagoya get the Olympics, then Japanese companies would have a lock on the valuable commercial sponsorships of the Games (such as sportswear and equipment). Thus, these manufacturers spread largesse widely in the hope of influencing IOC members to vote for Seoul. Oh, the South Korean sports editor says, "They worked very hard to buy Third World votes, and I think they got many of them. I have been told that even some East European votes were also bought." Fekrou Kidane, editor-in-chief of the Paris-based magazine Continental Sports and an expert on political goings-on in the IOC, was asked about this, and he replied sharply, "Of course they have been bribed. Where have you been? It is normal procedure."

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