Written by Helen Li

Each Olympic Games has had its own flavor, its own character and its own goals that ride the undercurrent of Olympic idealism. These contrasts make each Olympiad unique, as both internal and external forces come into play. South Korea hosted the 1988 Olympic Games in its capital city Seoul. The 16-day mega-event marked a turning point in the nation’s international standing. The following study investigates the major differences between the Seoul Games and other Olympics, the difficulties faced by the planning committee and South Korea’s strategies for hosting a successful Olympics.

"Seoul Olympus" by Rachel Lim. Taken in Inwangsan, Seoul.

“Seoul Olympus” by Rachel Lim. Taken in Inwangsan, Seoul.

Since the 1960 Games in Rome, host countries have come to see the Olympics as potential investment opportunities. With the advent of international broadcasts, increased international tourism and commercialization, hosting the Olympic Games could lead to new financial advantages in the world market. In 1984, Los Angeles made an unprecedented $225 million profit, demonstrating the vast economic potential of hosting the Olympic Games[1. Gold, John R. and Margaret R. Gold. “From A to B: The Summer Olympics, 1896-2008.” Olympics Cities: City Agendas, Planning, and the World’s Games, 1896-2016. Ed. John Gold and Margaret Gold. London: Routledge, 2011. 43.]. Even without a profit, hosting the Olympics could provide much-needed building and rebuilding in the world’s largest cities; in addition, the international attention could generate future tourism, one of the fastest-growing elements of the world economy[2. Heying, Charles H., Matthew J. Burbank and Greg Andranovich. “World Class: Using the Olympics to Shape and Brand the American Metropolis.” Tourism, Culture, and Regeneration. Ed. Melanie K. Smith. Cambridge, MA: CAB International, 2006. 102.].

If, however, one turns to the Seoul Olympics, a different narrative emerges. As Professors John and Margaret Gold state, “Seoul’s decision to seek the 1988 Games was less inspired by the thoughts of financial benefit — which had yet to re-emerge when the city gained the nomination in 1981 — than by the success of Tokyo 1964, which the Koreans believed had altered perceptions of the Japanese and helped Japan join the ranks of the developed world in the cultural, social, diplomatic and economic fields[3. Gold and Gold, 43.].” Though South Korea achieved great infrastructural growth through the Olympic Games, the Seoul Olympics were mainly a “coming-out” party for the country. As a country little known or understood beyond its wartime activities, South Korea could use the Olympics as a vehicle of demystifying the country and elevating its standing in the international community, as well as increasing its prestige and strength both inside and outside the country.

No clear path lay between the Seoul Olympics and its international aspirations. Three primary difficulties confronted the Games, each of which required different counter techniques on the part of the Planning Committee: political tensions, Orientalism and the Tourist Gaze.

During South Korea’s initial bid for the Olympics and throughout the preparation years, South Korea faced political strains on many fronts. Following the Korean War, South Korea went through a series of brutal regime changes, none particularly democratic. In 1979, shortly after the decision to bid for the 1988 Olympics, President Park Chung Hee was assassinated in a military coup led by General Chun Doo Hwan, destroying all pretenses of democracy. Using martial law, Chun immediately closed the National Assembly, arrested opposition leaders and banned political activities and demonstrations. These repressive actions reached a high point in 1980 when, on May 18, he sent special forces into the city of Gwangju to put down a student demonstration, resulting in hundreds of deaths in what would become known as the Gwangju Uprising[4. Heo, Uk and Terence Roehrig. South Korea since 1980. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 31.]. On September 1, 1980, Chun Doo Hwan was officially inaugurated as the president of South Korea, beginning a regime marked by oppression. Protests flared up in 1987, as the nation readied itself for international visitors. For the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee, these political realities would need to be circumvented to avoid an Olympic legacy similar to that of Mexico City 1968, where the event was marred by the Tlatelolco Massacre of regime protesters. Indeed, the political demonstrations in 1987 and the possibility of jeopardizing the 1988 Games led to the peaceful June 20 declaration which put Chun Doo Hwan out of power.

In addition to these political issues, South Korea faced the discourse of “exotic weakness.” In his famous 1979 work, philosopher Edward Said coined the term “Orientalism” to describe the historical process whereby Eastern nations gradually took on the reputation of being weaker, more feminine than their Western counterparts[5. Said applied his theory primarily to Middle Eastern countries, but he and other scholars have since extrapolated to other countries east of Europe, including Japan, Korea and China.]. This mindset persisted and permeated 20th century interactions between the two regions. This distinction took on a particularly potent form in the discussion of sports culture, long associated with the masculine “West” and kept beyond reach of the feminine “East.” Beyond the historical reputation of East Asia’s physically weak body also lay the discourse of East Asia’s “unusual” and “exotic” spirit, countries still steeped in centuries-old traditions and out of touch with the modern world. For example, National Geographic published an article on South Korea in August 1988 in order to provide an illustration of the country before the Games. To write this article, journalist Cathy Newman traveled to a remote village in Gyeongju. Through her commentary, one gathers the sense that South Korea was a country unchanged for thousands of years. She speaks to an elderly traditional artist and reports his words: “‘American line is sharp, unyielding: the Washington Monument, the tail fins of a car.’ He sliced the air with a chopstick to illustrate. ‘Korean line,’ he said, ‘is a curve: the softness of a woman in her hanbok, the green waves of mountains surrounding Kyongju, the jade ornaments that dangle like ripe pears from the gold Silla crowns[6. Newman, Cathy. “Kyongju, Where Korea Began.” National Geographic. August 1988. 265.].’”

According to this dialogue, America is harsh modernity and South Korea is gentle tradition. Newman moves on to document the lives of the Cho family, among whom rigid customs prevail and Confucianism encourages the ideal of obedience to authority[7. Newman, 267.]. Such language invokes a feeling of a nation that is entirely different from the United States, one driven by tradition and stagnancy rather than by modernity and progress.

Yet, these narratives of South Korea did not fit with the economic realities of the time. South Korea in the 1980s was experiencing a period of extraordinary growth. In 1975, the country’s GNP was 44.3 billion U.S. dollars. By 1980, it had risen over 40% to 63.1 billion and in 1983, 77.4 billion dollars. At the same time, per capita income rose from $1,207 in 1975 to $1,586 in 1980, and finally to $1,870 in 1983. Korean exports, valued at 55 million dollars in 1962, increased to 24 billion by 1983[8. Manheim, Jarol B. ‘The 1988 Seoul Olympics as Public Diplomacy.” The Western Political Quarterly 43 (1990): 281.]. South Korea was fast becoming one of the world’s most important new economies, as well as one of the most urban.

Given the history of Orientalism and the economic boom of the three countries, it would seem advisable for the planning committees to commit to the full expression of modernity in the Seoul Games. One final obstacle, however, made such a course of action a difficult one: the Tourist Gaze. Coined by John Urry, the concept holds that a tourist develops distinct symbols of a country in their cognitive landscape and will look to collect those signs, for example hanbok and arirang in South Korea. The tourist, who goes to great length to leave the familiar and experience the unknown, does not wish to see more of the same. Even viewing the Seoul Olympic Ceremony on television and finding it indistinguishable from Los Angeles would diminish its attraction, restricting future impulses to visit South Korea. Tourism in the last few decades has become the world’s largest industry. National tourism sources compete to advertise the individual nature of their country, something no other nation can provide. To deny the visitor or the viewer the expectations they came with would be to commit a grave error in a country’s promotion. Thus one sees that the obstacles facing the Seoul Olympics were, like the events themselves, highly complex. The organizers needed to reconcile the stigma of Orientalism with the need to accommodate the Tourist Gaze, all within the context of political tensions and instability.

The instant nature of the Olympics and the international attention focused upon a single city for 16 days create many obstacles for host countries, but at the same time many opportunities. Regardless of a country’s previous history, if it can present its version of culture and history in a persuasive media event, it has the potential to change future dialogue. The Olympic Games are a packaged, staged phenomenon where the host nation can create the history and culture it wants others to internalize. The Olympic Planning Committees have the chance to design their performed copy for international consumption.

The planning committee for Seoul 1988 had a unique weapon at their disposal: the relatively benign cultural currency of South Korea. A smokescreen of sorts, cultural displays have long been a mainstay for circumventing political and economic public relations thorns. The Main Olympic Stadium in Seoul was designed so that its lines followed the curves of a Chosun Dynasty porcelain vase. The swimming pool imitated the iron turtle ships of the 16th century[9. Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee. Official Report: Organization and Planning Volume 1. Seoul, Korea: Korea Textbook Co., Ltd. 1989. 162-164.]. Every detail of the torch ceremony from torch design to runner uniforms was designed domestically to reflect South Korea’s 5,000-year-old cultural tradition[10. Official Report: Organization and Planning Volume 1, 62.]. A visitor to the Seoul Olympics could easily experience a feeling of exoticism, fulfilling the needs of the Tourist Gaze and guiding the tourists’ literal gaze away from stickier political realities.

In addition, the planning committee committed to gradually changing the very meaning of “exoticism.” The cultural displays in Seoul simultaneously demonstrated modernity and tradition. Historian Sandra Collins brings into play the phrase “modern hybridity” to describe the East Asian Olympics, an amalgamation of modernity coupled with ancient culture[11. Collins, Sandra. “The Fragility of Asian National Identity in the Olympic Games.” Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New China. Eds. Monroe Price and Daniel Dayan. Ann Harbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008. 186.]. During Seoul’s bid for the 1988 Games, their promotional display featured their time-honored culture using advanced slide presentations. Korean Air stewardesses representing one of the most modern and advanced industries in Korea served visitors in traditional Korean costumes[12. Official Report: Organization and Planning Volume I, 40.]. Carefully placed artwork in the Olympic stadiums “called for Korea’s traditional patterns such as multicolor stripes, hunting scenes and embroidery to be included with a slightly modern interpretation [such as brighter colors and minimalistic designs] to display Korea’s true image[13. Official Report: Organization and Planning Volume I, 656.].” This mix of old and new existing side by side came to define the Seoul Olympics. Visitors could leave with a pre-packaged feeling of a country all at once benign, exotic and modern.

Viewed from this perspective, the 1988 Seoul Games were a massive success for a country only very recently ravaged by war. One need only speak to a South Korean citizen about the Olympics to feel their pride in the Seoul Games and their belief in its contribution to South Korean history. Koreans have more to look forward to in their country’s Olympic story. In 2018, South Korea will host the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Already in its preparations for the Games, one can see the continued focus on “modern hybridity.” Thirty years after its successful introduction, South Korea will look to cement its place in the world as a country full of cultural and traditional surprises for every visitor, but at the same time bursting with innovation and modernity.

"Namsan Tower" by Neal Singleton. Taken in Seoul.

“Namsan Tower” by Neal Singleton. Taken in Seoul.

Today, Samsung Electronics is the world’s largest handset maker, beating out Apple and Nokia[14. “Samsung beats Apple, Nokia as world’s largest handset maker,” Fox News, April 27, 2012.]. South Korea has steady footholds in many of the world’s most advanced industries. Culturally, South Korean pop music has global appeal. As a rather unorthodox example, take legendary American rapper Snoop Dogg/Lion, who stated that Korean pop was his guilty pleasure on the blogging website reddit[15. Reddit. “I’m Snoop Lion! Ask me Anything!” 1 April 2013. <http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/14cb0c/im_snoop_lion_ask_me_anything/>]. Though perhaps Snoop Dogg/Lion would not attribute his interest in South Korean girl groups to the Olympics, the 1988 Games marked a turning point in South Korea’s relationship with the world — a successful coming-out party indeed.

Helen Li is a 2013-2014 ETA at Changypeong High School in Changpyeong, Jeollanam-do.