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Original Issue

Stage Fright At A Dress Rehearsal

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

The 10th quadrennial Asian Games had long been considered a kind of mammoth dress rehearsal for South Korea's production of the biggest show on earth, the 1988 Summer Olympic Games. But last week, by the time some 5,000 athletes and officials from 27 Asian nations as wildly diverse as Iran and Indonesia had arrived in rain-soaked Seoul for opening ceremonies, the rehearsal had come to be fraught with all the tumult and tension of the main event.

The tumult came mainly from a rhapsodic citizenry—41 million South Koreans, all turned into drum-beating boosters and starry-eyed patriots, so proud of their country that they could scarcely stop grinning. Korea was known for centuries as the Hermit Kingdom. Now this former backwater, which for most of the last 100 years had been stepped on like a bug by its big-footed neighbors, China and Japan, had the chance to play the magnanimous host at a glittering sports event that included both of those conquerors. It was a dream almost too good to be true.

Yet behind the notes of national pride and triumph lay tension. And it would not go away. Indeed, it hadn't gone away since September 1981, when South Korea was awarded the '88 Summer Games by the International Olympic Committee. At the time, the Koreans themselves were stunned that they had won over Nagoya, Japan, the only other city competing; they had considered their bid a sort of symbolic hat in the ring in preparation for a "real" bid that would be made sometime in the future. Those outside the Olympic movement were stunned for a different reason: They couldn't believe that the IOC had chosen this volatile little country with a recent history that included violent domestic politics as well as a still smoldering war with their enemy-brothers north of the 38th parallel. Bluntly speaking, they couldn't believe that South Korea could remain at peace long enough to get an Olympics off the ground.

Six days before the 16-day-long Asian Games were to begin in Seoul, just 30 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that was established in 1953 to separate North and South Korea, those fears seemed justified. At 3:12 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 14, a bomb exploded in a steel trash can just outside the crowded international arrivals terminal at the city's Kimpo International Airport. The bomb sent chunks of cement, steel fragments from the can and slivers of glass from seven large double-plated windows scything into a throng of travelers. Five people died on the spot and 31 were injured. The place became a living nightmare, the floor slippery with blood, bodies of the dead and wounded sprawled amid rubble and shards of broken glass. The bomb went off near an entrance reserved for South Koreans, and no athlete or official connected with the Asian Games was in the vicinity. Yet the assumption was that this act of terrorism had been perpetrated for the purpose of disrupting the competition and embarrassing both the Korean Olympic organizers and the government of president Chun Doo Hwan.

To preserve the image of business as usual for arriving Games competitors, authorities feverishly worked to clean up the bombed area. Within hours of the explosion the floors were spotless, a cement wall had been repaired and new panes of glass had been installed in all the broken windows. In the days that followed, the chief administrator and the head of security at the airport were sacked, 6,000 homes near the airport were inspected by police for signs of terrorists, and dozens of suspects were arrested—including 37 hapless Japanese who were picked up the night after the bombing because they seemed "suspiciously eager" to get on a plane and leave the country.

Despite all such activity the prime suspect was never in doubt in the minds of the police and most of the people of South Korea. Kang Min Chang, the director general of the 100,000-man national police force, said it unequivocally at a press conference the day after the atrocity: "We believe that the explosion was the work of North Korea or impure elements."

So far there has been no publicly revealed evidence clearly linking the Kimpo killings with North Korea. That is not to say there isn't sound reason to suspect skulduggery from the North Koreans. They long ago said they would boycott these Asian Games; North Korean President Kim Il-Sung lately labeled them "impure." On the rather silly side, there were broadcasts from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang warning Asian Games participants to think twice about going to Seoul because there supposedly had been 600,000 cases of AIDS reported in South Korea.

But the North Koreans are a serious people, and they are seriously feared in the South. As much to protect their Olympics' future as their Asian Games' present, the South Koreans reacted to the bomb with a massive increase in security. A "Type A emergency" was declared—the same conditions that would prevail if the country were under an immediate threat of a military attack.

Most major universities in Seoul were closed to keep anti-Chun dissidents isolated. More than 40,000 members of the national police force went on duty in Seoul itself. Much was made in the local papers of the fact that the U.S. battleship New Jersey had put in at the port of Inchon, 45 miles from the North Korean border. Though no one in the Reagan Administration said so, the widespread opinion was that the proximity of the ship was an American warning to Pyongyang to keep its hands off the Games.

Nonetheless, tension heightened. At sunset on Friday, the night before the opening ceremonies, soldiers with detectors and dogs completed a meticulous sweep of every nook and corner of the two-year-old Olympic Stadium. Behind the bomb squads, several hundred troops marched in formation into the stadium, and round-the-clock sentries were posted at every entrance. The next afternoon, beneath drizzling skies, a capacity crowd of 100,000 was frisked at least twice by good-natured (although sometimes heavy-handed) guards. Metal detectors at every entrance were set to such a high sensitivity that eyeglasses or a single large key would set off their alarms.

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.

Though the opening ceremonies went without a hitch except for rain, no one dared relax. The tension would go on. And on. The Asian Games conclude on Oct. 5, but the tension will continue in Seoul. It won't go away until Oct. 2, 1988, the day the Games of the XXIVth Olympiad at last come to an end.



Torchbearers started the Games in Seoul.



The drizzle did not dampen the thrill of the opening ceremonies for this bright group.



The Hermit Kingdom is now quite modern, especially Seoul, where police, fearing violence, guarded the Asian Games parade.



[See caption above.]



Traditional Korean dress shared the Olympic Stadium's field with the latest in uniforms.



The '88 Olympic symbol was everywhere.