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Original Issue


It's too soon to push the panic button over the Seoul Olympics

As more and more protesters poured into the streets of Seoul last month to battle for their right to free elections and a democratic government, Olympic pessimists expressed growing concern. With rising anxiety, they raised the possibility that the Summer Games of '88 might have to be moved elsewhere. Some flatly predicted that the Games of Seoul would never come off.

One who did so almost gleefully was Howard Cosell. His ideas no longer reach millions via TV, but he does have a semiweekly syndicated column. At the height of the rioting in Seoul, Cosell wrote: "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."

Officials of several cities rushed to declare that they would be willing to host the Olympics should Seoul succumb to civil siege. Los Angeles, West Berlin, Indianapolis and New York City were among the eager volunteers. South Koreans, a ritually courteous people, were insulted by the unseemly haste to pronounce their Olympics dead. "It is shameful that some foreign countries are trying to host the next Olympics in behalf of us," said Park Seh Jik, president of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee. "When we were awarded the right to host the Games, we were entrusted by the people all over the world to stage the Olympics—trouble-free and smoothly."

When the International Olympic Committee in 1981 picked Seoul for the Games, trouble-free was not the image that immediately came to mind. The general reaction—including mine—was one of disbelief, followed by doomful predictions of problems ahead. Not only was South Korea under firm authoritarian rule, but it was also known for internal disruption. Besides that, since the Republic was formed in 1948, it has been under constant threat of terrorism or outright invasion from its enemy/brothers in the Korea to the north.

It wasn't hard to be pessimistic about the '88 Olympics, but the fact was that most of us pessimists had never actually been to the South Korea of the 1980s, which happens to be an astonishingly prosperous and energetic country despite the heavy-handed politics practiced there. I visited there in the autumn of '84 and, almost instantly, was transformed into a hard-core optimist. Even then, the majority of Olympic facilities were finished.

Two weeks ago, when street fighting was at its most violent, those Olympic sites remained magically free of disturbance—as sacrosanct and untouchable as Vatican City had been to Allied bombers in World War II. Indeed, South Koreans of all political persuasions see their Olympics as having a sacred aura about them. They see these Games as a kind of salvation from the centuries they have spent as the people of a second-class country, centuries when their country was constantly invaded, occupied and generally kicked around by its bigger neighbors, China and Japan. South Koreans are proud, tough, ambitious, efficient people. They believe that a successful Olympics will eradicate forever the hated "M*A*S*H syndrome" (in the immensely popular television show the American characters were lively, funny, courageous people, while the Koreans were depicted as passive, childlike victims of the war).

There is nothing passive or childlike about South Koreans these days. Throughout the month of June, large numbers of middle-class citizens for the first time joined the throngs of militant students who have long been the catalyst for dissent in Korea. Together they confronted armies of police, day after day. Violent though the demonstrations were, it appeared at times as if both rioters and cops were performing some carefully worked-out choreography for revolution that would neither endanger their booming economy nor risk their beloved Olympics. The specter of a ruined Olympics loomed over the street riots, contributing to restraint on both sides and to the ultimate triumph—President Chun Doo Hwan's stunning decision last week to acquiesce to the protesters' demand for full democratic processes.

Many times in the past the Olympics have been used as an instrument for advancing political causes and crusades. But never have the Games been put to better political purpose than in South Korea this summer. Of course, a betrayal by Chun of his commitment to democracy or rigidly unreasonable demands by the opposition could still end all hope for a peaceful Olympics in Seoul. But, for now, the result was plainly not madness: It was an inspiring surprise.