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[Korea History] In 1988, world comes for Olympics to Seoul, sees it has grown by leaps and bounds
Leaders took Seoul Games as opportunity to show off country's economic and athletic developmentBy Yoon Min-sik
Published : June 15, 2023 - 11:52
The year 1988 was a memorable year in many ways. The Iron Curtain was slowly collapsing, the first World AIDS Day was held, the concept of the World Wide Web was first discussed in Switzerland, while denim jackets and Nintendo were all the rage. South Korea celebrated its first democratically elected administration in 16 years together with its most high-profile international event as of yet: the Summer Olympics.
“XXIVth Olympiad begins: The world comes to Seoul” reads the front page of the Sept. 18, 1988, edition of The Korea Herald, detailing how 160 nations flocked to the Olympic Stadium in Jamsil, southern Seoul, the previous day to participate in what was then the largest Summer Games to date. The Western and Eastern Blocs that respectively boycotted the two previous Olympics (the 1980 games in Moscow and the 1984 games in Los Angeles) had finally come together in one of the few divided countries in the world, although some countries, including North Korea and Cuba, stayed away.
Hosting the event was a source of immense pride for South Korea, only 35 years after from being shattered by the 1950-53 Korean War. While an average South Korean made $67 a year in 1953, the gross domestic product per capita had jumped to $4,520 by 1988 when it became the second Asian country to host the Summer Olympics.
Korean women’s reign in archery begins
On their home turf, South Koreans enjoyed their most prolific performance in the Summer Olympics to this day. They bagged 33 medals, including 12 golds, in the event dominated by the former Soviet Union, which scooped up a total of 132 medals, including 55 golds, in its last Summer Olympics before collapsing.
The host nation’s 12 golds placed it in an impressive fourth place in the country ranking. That was the country’s best record of all time and well ahead of any other Asian countries.
The headline for the Oct. 1 edition of The Herald reads, “Korea enjoys finest Olympic day ever” with seven medals, including two gold, added on the day. It was also the day South Korea’s female archers began its reign in the sport, with them sweeping all three medals -- gold, silver and bronze -- in the individual event.
The top performer of the bunch was 17-year-old high-school student Kim Soo-nyung, who won gold for both individual and team events in Seoul and would eventually become the winner of most gold medals of any Korean in history.
Kim would go on to win two more Olympic gold medals at team events in the future, relinquishing her crown in the individual competition to her compatriot Cho Youn-jeong in 1992. Kim’s personal medal tally at the Olympics stands at four golds and six medals in total.
Kim’s performance earned a mention in the story, “Seoul Games produce new cast of stars,” in the Oct. 3 edition of The Herald, alongside other prominent athletes in Seoul.
For Team Korea, the 1988 Seoul games marked a prelude to South Korean women’s decadeslong supremacy in archery.
While not as famous as the US basketball “Dream Team” that would debut in the next Olympics, the South Korean women’s archery team is among the most dominant squads in Olympiad history.
In the 10 Olympics since 1984, a South Korean has won the gold medal in nine of the 10 women’s individual events, and the Koreans have never lost a single women’s team event to date.
Stars shine on world stage
Kim was among the collection of big names that shined during the Seoul Games, including American sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner, who set the Olympic record in the 100-meter dash and the world record in the 200-meter dash. Twenty-five years after she set the latter record, no woman has managed to approach her 21.34-second record.
Romanian gymnast Daniela Silivas won a medal for every single event she participated in, winning three golds and equaling her compatriot, gymnastics legend Nadia Comaneci’s record of seven perfect 10s in one Olympic Games.
Seoul Olympics also featured the former West Germany's Steffi Graf, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, who became the first player to achieve a Golden Slam in 1988 -- winning all four major singles titles and an Olympic gold medal in the same calendar year.
Jim Abott, a pitcher famous for being born without a right hand, won an unofficial gold medal as part of the US baseball squad that participated in the demonstration event in Seoul. Baseball was at that time not yet an official Olympic sport. Abott went on to inspire countless fans by having a successful career in the Major League Baseball despite his disability.
David Robinson of the American basketball squad and Roy Jones Jr. of boxing did not win gold medals in Seoul, but the two Americans would eventually have hall of fame careers in their respective sports.
But while the Soviets’ victory over the Americans in basketball was deemed a fair win, Jones’ loss in the final match against Korean teenage boxer Park Si-hun in the light middleweight division remains one of the most controversial judging results in sports history.
Not all athletes who made a name for themselves at the Olympics would go on to enjoy future glory, as some budding stars would live in infamy beyond Seoul.
Behind the Olympics glory
There were also controversies surrounding the preparations of the event for South Korea, which was up until 1987 under the grasp of military dictator Chun Doo-hwan.
US civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson in June of that year called for the US to boycott the event unless there are “measurable improvements of human rights conditions” in the host nation.
At the time, nationwide protests against the Chun administration were taking place, and the authoritarian regime would eventually hoist a white flag through the landmark June 29 proposals that included the reinstatement of direct presidential elections.
Roh Tae-woo, the former army general and longtime friend of Chun who was elected president in the first poll since democratization, was sworn in February 1988, taking the baton from Chun to oversee the final stages of the Olympic preparations.
For many including the military leadership, it was more than a sports event. It represented a transformative moment for the nation to break away from the image of a struggling Far Eastern country overshadowed by news of war and political unrest to present a different side of itself to the world.
In the years leading up to 1998, the government pushed ahead with the forced redevelopment and relocation of those living in impoverished areas.
Documentary film “Sanggyedong Olympic” directed by Kim Dong-won shows how several villages in Sanggye-dong -- located in the northeastern part of the city and more than 10 kilometers away from the Olympic venue -- were mowed down because authorities did not want to expose them to the outside world while the Olympic torch passed through the area.
Despite these disputes, the Seoul Olympics was a significant achievement of South Korea en route to becoming one of the more developed countries in the world, proving that it could host major international events after hosting Miss Universe 1980 and the 1986 Asian Games. The country would go on to join the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in 1996 and become one of the leading economies in the world, hosting another major global sports event in 2002, the World Cup.
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