When the opening ceremonies of the Games of the XXIV Olympiad were finished and the 95-foot-high sculpture called the World Tree had been transformed into the caldron for the Olympic flame, and the last child had rolled the last hoop of hope across the field, and the last taekwondoist had shattered the last piece of wood in the name of breaking down barriers among peoples, and Seoul's elegant Olympic Stadium had been emptied of the last bare-chested Olympian from Swaziland, the last Peruvian stilt dancer, the last dragon drum player and the last parachutist, the world sighed for many different reasons.
This is an article from the Sept. 26, 1988 issue
The 70,000 spectators in the stadium and the nearly three billion television viewers in more than 100 countries sighed with pleasure, for there had never been such a spectacle in the history of the opening ceremonies.
Like most of the 9,627 athletes from 160 nations who had come to Seoul for more serious business than a parade, hurdler Edwin Moses of the U.S. sighed with anticipation. "The party's over," he said. "It's competition time."
Like many of her 42 million countrymen, Lim Yun Suk, a young woman who works for The Seoul Olympian, sighed with pride tinged with regret. "I really missed the North Koreans," she said. "It was like going to a party without your sweetheart—a great party that would have been much better if he were there."
Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), sighed with anxiety. "Seoul has come so very far and has avoided so much potential trouble, but it's not done yet," he said. "On October 3, the day after the Games are over without incident, then we'll be able to celebrate."
Hwang Kyu Woong, director of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee (SLOOC) security division, which coordinates a force of 120,000 Korean soldiers, sailors, cops, gate guards, bombsniffing dogs, building-scaling commandos, scuba divers, plainclothes police and handbag-searching volunteers, sighed briefly. "There's no problem at this time," he said, "but we must remain prepared."
Glorious and trouble-free as the opening ceremonies were, no one dared sigh with relief. The specter of political upheaval and violence had hung over these Games for too long to be forgotten so quickly. Indeed, unoccupied hotel rooms in Seoul, unsold tickets to Olympic events and empty airline seats on international flights arriving at Kimpo Airport last week indicated that many non-Koreans had been frightened away. And that's a shame. The opening show on Saturday morning was exquisitely creative in its conception and absolutely flawless in its execution, even though 13,625 men, women and children performed a seemingly endless variety of Korean dances and rituals. One of the most moving moments occurred when Sohn Kee Chung, 76, the gold medalist in the marathon at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and South Korea's most renowned' sports hero, bounded into the stadium carrying the torch moments before it would be used to light the flame in the huge caldron. His selection as the honored final runner had been expected—in '36, he had won his medal after having been forced to take a Japanese name and compete as a member of Japan's Olympic team because the Japanese then occupied Korea—but to everyone's surprise, Sohn handed the torch off to yet another athlete, a pale, frail-looking 19-year-old Olympian named Lim Chun Ae.
The little-known Lim had won three gold medals, in the 800-, 1,500-and 3,000-meter races, during the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul and had become an instant national heroine. In the summer of '87, however, South Koreans were shocked when she was hospitalized for two weeks after her coach had slapped her so hard that he ruptured her eardrum. The coach said Lim had been spoiled by the adulation of the public, and after the incident she formally apologized for her sloth in training. Six weeks later doctors discovered she had been running with a stress fracture of her left leg (certainly not an injury brought on by sloth).
The mechanics of lighting the Olympic flame were also a surprise: The caldron was at the top of the World Tree column, and there was no apparent means of getting to it. Ah, but Korean creativity came into play again. The base of the column turned into a platform that lifted a high school student, a university student and a teacher up to the top, where they reached over the side to ignite the sacred flame with torches that had been lighted by the one Lim carried.
Of course, the true character of an Olympics is never defined by its opening ceremonies. Assuming Seoul remains calm and there are no terrorist incidents, these Games will be best remembered for bringing most of the countries of the world together. The major boycotts of 1976 in Montreal (by 26 African countries), '80 in Moscow (by 62 Western countries) and '84 in Los Angeles (by 14 Soviet bloc countries) had rendered many Olympic victories hollow, but in Seoul there would be no obstacles to classic confrontations among nearly all the world's best athletes.
The leading absentees, in terms of sporting excellence, were the Cuban boxing and baseball teams. For some unfathomable reason, Fidel Castro had honored North Korea's boycott of these Games. What the North Koreans expected to gain from their action was a mystery, too. Indeed, it seemed North Korea had offended its staunchest supporter, the Soviet Union, with its intransigence. At a press conference last week Marat Gramov, the minister of sport for the U.S.S.R., said when asked about North Korea's action, "Nonparticipation in the Olympics, regardless of which country stays away, always has negative results."
But while North Korea became more isolated because of its anti-Olympic stand, South Korea was opening new international doors. When Seoul was awarded the Games in the fall of 1981, South Korea had no formal diplomatic relations with 44 Olympic nations—including China and all of the Eastern bloc. On Sept. 13, Hungary, a Soviet ally, and South Korea declared that they would exchange missions. Similar connections with China, the U.S.S.R. and the rest of Eastern Europe are expected soon after the Games.
Though terrorism in general and North Korea's penchant for the politics of violence in particular were the most obvious threats hanging over Seoul last week, there was also the more subtle matter of drug use by Olympic athletes. The IOC has become more alert than ever to drug abuse, and Samaranch made a fierce speech last week in which he declared, "Doping equals death!" The list of IOC-banned substances now runs into the hundreds, ranging from cocaine, caffeine and certain cold remedies to anabolic steroids and any number of medicines and potions that can be used to mask the presence of other drugs. The SLOOC set up a $3 million Doping Control Center, with a staff of 80, in a five-story brick building not far from the Olympic Stadium, to analyze the urine samples that will be provided by the three medal winners in each of the 237 events and by other athletes picked at random.
Dr. Park Jong Sei, technical director of the center, said confidently, "We will catch them one way or another. I'm sure we're a little smarter than the athletes." American pole vaulter Kory Tarpenning thought differently. "We know a lot of athletes are using drugs," he said, "but they're able to test negatively because they know the system so well. Right now, I'd say the athletes are smarter than the testers."
Perhaps it's well to recall that at the Los Angeles Games, the first at which drug tests were widely administered, there were only 11 positive results from the more than 1,500 test samples. The most pessimistic observers estimate that some 50% of the Olympians in Seoul have used banned substances to help themselves qualify for these Games. Whether there will be a massive drug crackdown against the Olympians remains to be seen, though it seems unlikely. Still, some countries have done their own Olympic housecleaning.
For instance, the U.S. removed freestyle sprinter Angel Myers from its Olympic swimming team after she tested positive for steroids, and Steve Hegg, a gold and silver medalist in cycling in L.A., was nailed a week before the Seoul Games began for having an excessive amount of caffeine in his system.
No country has been better than Canada at nailing drug users. Even before its weightlifting team got to Seoul, three of its seven members had been dismissed—and a fourth soon followed—after they tested positive for steroids. A Canadian wag noted that in a sport featuring an event called the clean and jerk, the weightlifters' score was Jerks 4, Cleans 3.
Though the taking of drugs is certainly not acceptable at the Games, these days the taking of money most definitely is. Not all that long ago, any Olympian who took money for any athletic endeavor was considered guilty of treason, prostitution, grand larceny or worse. The idea that athletes might one day be offered performance incentives openly, officially and proudly by their national Olympic hierarchies would have been regarded as an absurdity. No more. Whatever other history may be made in Seoul, these Games will be known as the first at which governments or Olympic committees declared that they would be awarding cash prizes for medals.
The list includes such anticapitalist bastions as the Soviet Union, which has promised 12,000 rubles ($20,200) to each athlete who wins a gold; Poland, which will give the equivalent of $10,000 for an Olympic victory; Hungary, which has a pay scale ranging from $10,000 for a gold down to a $4,500 insurance policy for a sixth-place finish; and East Germany, where a winner reportedly is guaranteed $15,000. China will give $2,700 for a gold—although in a country where the average wage is $32 a month, that kind of windfall can go a long way.
Bigger cash prizes have been promised in the capitals of capitalism. A gold medalist from Belgium (slim as the chances are) will get the equivalent of $26,000; from France, $31,400; from Taiwan, $140,000. The Nigerian government will give big cash prizes for medals, though the amounts have not been announced, and beyond that has told its athletes that any bronze medalist will have a street in his neighborhood named after him; a silver medalist, a street somewhere else in his hometown; and a gold medalist, a street in the new capital of Abuja.
Once the Games began in earnest, every competitor seemed grim and determined, as if every medal were worth a million bucks. The earliest finals were in the demonstration sport of taekwondo, a martial art that originated in Korea some 2,000 years ago. Naturally, the hosts overwhelmed the visitors, winning six of eight gold medals in four divisions. A startling exception occurred in the women's welterweight competition, in which 22-year-old Arlene Limas of Chicago, a senior in prelaw at DePaul, defeated Kim Ji Sook of the home team. A maverick who uses an unorthodox kicking style that baffled her opponent, Limas says that her goal is to become the mayor of the Windy City.
The first official gold medal of the Games was awarded at 11:02 a.m. on Sunday. It went to Irina Chilova of the Soviet Union, winner of the women's 10-meter air rifle event. When asked what she would do with her bonus, Chilova replied, "Any lady can always find something to do with a sum of money."
Two U.S. defending Olympic champions—the men's basketball and volleyball teams—produced first-round victories as expected. Full of pent-up fury and frustration after eight weeks of brutally intense practices under coach John Thompson, the basketball players burst free with a 97-53 drubbing of a bewildered Spanish team that was hardly the same macho bunch that got the silver medal in Los Angeles. The volleyball team came close to losing its first game to Japan. The U.S. looked uneven and uneasy as it fell behind early 11-7 but pulled out that game 15-13, and crushed the Japanese in the next two, 15-2 and 15-2. American team captain Karch Kiraly said of the Japanese, "It gets more and more difficult to hold them down. We've now beaten them 38 straight times since 1983, but streaks are made to be broken."
In gymnastics the American men, who won the team gold medal in 1984, were in 12th and last place after Sunday's compulsory events. The Soviets, with strong performances from Vladimir Artemov—he scored a perfect 10 on the parallel bars—and Dmitri Bilozerchev, the individual all-around world champion, were first.
The U.S. soccer team was a surprise, tying a strong Argentine squad in a preliminary game played in Taegu, about 200 miles southeast of Seoul. The score was 0-0 until late in the second half, when a U.S. substitute sweeper, Mike Windischmann, kicked a booming shot into the Argentine goal. Some five minutes later America's dream of victory vanished when the referee, Jamal AlSharif of Syria, called a penalty on U.S. midfielder John Harkes for tripping forward Carlos Elfaro. The crowd whistled in anger at the call, but Elfaro put the penalty kick past goalie David Vanole. Final score: 1-1.
So the Summer Games were under way at last, and from the moment the opening ceremonies began there was a sense of something rare in the Korean air. All the great powers and nearly all of the great players in the world were on the Olympic stage again. With luck nothing would transpire to darken their spotlight.