In order to properly put the 2008 Beijing Games into historical context, I wanted to provide links examining how the world has dealt with similar issues in the past.
In 1988, the Olympic Games were held in Seoul, South Korea. Its hard to envision controversy surrounding those Olympic Games. The South Korea that I see, the only one that I have experienced in my lifetime is a thriving multi-party democracy that has become a world economic power. When South Korea hosted the World Cup a mere six years ago, there was no controversy. Merely congratulations at how well the South Koreans worked with co-host and historical oppressor, Japan.
But it was only twenty years ago that South Korea looked far different. In 1980 General Chun Doo-hwan staged a coup d’état against the government. Until 1987, he and his government held Korea under autocratic rule. The death by torture of student ignited demonstrations throughout the country. The demonstrations snowballed when another student from Yonsei University, Lee Han Yeol, was killed by a police-fired tear gas bomb while he was demonstrating against the military government. After the Resistance of June, more groups joined the national movement started by the students.
As Sports Illustrated wrote in a 1987 article entitled A Strange And Resolute Calm, “When the world sees Seoul on the TV evening news, the picture is usually violent—burning cars, bursting tear gas grenades, enraged cops, infuriated rioters. And so the world wonders whether Seoul can possibly be safe enough to allow the 1988 Olympic Games to go on undisturbed.
Complexity and contradiction are the daily bread for 41 million inhabitants of the Republic of Korea. For we are talking about a nation whose economy is skyrocketing along at an annual growth rate of 15.6% for the first four months of 1987; at the same time, the country is under the unpopular reign of a strong-arm president. We are talking about a society that has spent $1.66 billion to create the most tasteful Olympic architecture in memory, with seemingly effortless efficiency; at the same time, South Korea is under constant threat of sabotage and attack by a nation of enemy/brothers to the north. We are talking about a country in which a leading member of the ruling party, said last week with a comfortable smile, “Of course there is turbulence. Of course there are demonstrations. It may look horrible on the TV box, but as far as Koreans are concerned, it is business as usual. Korea is stable. In every aspect our Olympics are an assured success.”
Some opposing Chun have decried the 1988 Olympics as being a symbol of government oppression. Kim Young Sam, 59, the recently named president of the opposition Reunification Democratic Party (RDP), was particularly blunt in making the point: “If the 1988 Olympics are to be a self-advertisement for this government, and if the people are to be coerced by the use of government force to participate, then our Olympics will be no more than a reenactment of the Berlin Olympics of 1936 under the Nazis.”
In another 1987 Sports Illustrated article entitled A Vote For South Korea, Howard Cossell is quoted as saying “The current unrest and instability is part of long-term ongoing internal problems. They cannot be solved in time for a flag-waving ceremony and they certainly cannot be contained without police-state measures too hideous to contemplate…. And this is the site for the ’88 Games?…Seoul, South Korea. It’s just plain crazy. It’s just plain madness. It’ll never happen.”
In June 1987, the NY Times was running editorials, that lead off with “Now more than ever, the United States needs to sound the call for peaceful transition to democracy in South Korea. That country has reached a pivotal moment. Its future is being settled in the streets by protesters and police, with the army ever-present in the background. Its leaders operate in a culture where compromise and restraint are not considered political virtues.”
In the United States, Korean-Americans were peacefully demonstrating in favor of democracy. According to the Times, “All Koreans interviewed seemed to agree on two points: a need for democratic reforms and also for the 1988 Olympic Games to take place in Seoul as scheduled.”
Sounds a lot like the China that we hear about today, doesn’t it?
We know now of course that the situation in South Korea in 1987 was markedly different from the South Korea of 1988. Change came fast and furious. From Time Magazine, “In a year of exciting political change, South Korea rewrote its constitution and in December 1987 held its first free presidential elections in 16 years. Most of its political prisoners were released. The press was allowed to operate freely, the door to political debate thrown open. Elections for a redistricted National Assembly, won by the opposition last April, confirmed a commitment to the electoral process.
Roh Tae Woo, 55, who came out ahead in a hard-fought battle for the presidency, has set South Korea on a more liberal path, a course to which the country is still accommodating itself. Political opposition is flourishing.”
In the end, the Seoul Games were a smashing success, not marked by protest. It was the first time since the 1972 Games in Munich where most all the countries of the world will attend. Black African nations boycotted the 1976 Montreal Games over participation by a New Zealand rugby team in a tournament in South Africa. The United States and more than 50 other countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union and 20 other nations boycotted the subsequent Los Angeles Games in 1984.
The Americans performed okay, not great. The Soviet Union, in its death throes politically, was athletically dominant. There were heroes and villains to be remembered. Matt Biondi won seven medals in swimming. Greg Louganis attempted a reverse dive with 2½ somersaults in the pike position, and ended up slamming his head into the board. Carl Lewis got the gold, because Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids.
Skeptically, Koreans Await Demonstrations of Democracy. FOR optimists, here are some signs of a democratic breeze that has been blowing sweetly through South Korea since the mid-December election of Roh Tae Woo as President.
Seoul Is Opening Up, But Its Jails Are Still Full. Even before the end of the Seoul Olympics last year, which raised Koreans’ hopes for progress and stability, leaders here fretted about a potential post-Games letdown. Today the euphoria of that time is long gone, and South Korea is struggling with the shadows of its authoritarian past and lurching fitfully in its transition to democracy after decades of military rule.