Part 1: The Seoul Olympics, 25 years later
Part 2: The 1988 Olympics and Korean fears of AIDS
Part 3: Americans and bad first impressions
Part 4: Reptilian Style: The 'live-or-die general war' against Hollywood
Part 5: An attack in a boxing ring
Part 6: Media responses to the boxing ring incident
Following (and during) the attack on a New Zealand referee following a boxing match in which a Korean boxer lost, the media went to work. When the Korean boxer, Byun Jong-il, held a 67 minute sit-down protest, officials eventually turned off the lights and left him in darkness. Or at least, he would have been in darkness if NBC hadn't decided to turn a spotlight on him. As this post puts it, "As tactful and considerate as ever, NBC followed the entire protest, even using split screens to show the boxer in the ring during other events." Some westerners agreed that NBC went too far (for criticism of an NBC interview with one of the attackers, scroll right here). Others thought it was the whole point of television to tell such a story. Koreans, on the other hand saw things differently, as Ian Baruma noted:
The Korean television cameras quickly averted their gaze, but NBC did not, rightly so: it was good TV. Why did the Korean security guard shed his blazer to indulge in some punching of his own? His honest answer was: "The Korean man, he win, so I pissed off." The immediate reaction in Korea was to blame the referee. "He was bribed by the Americans to get at us Koreans," was one comment I heard. But things clearly had got out of hand, and the papers called the rowdy behavior a national disgrace. "Referee number ten, Korean men number ten," was the opinion of my taxi driver, who had a more balanced view of the matter than many.Recall what was in this this article:
During the news conference, one member of the South Korean media shouted at [Anwar Chowdhry, the president of the IABA], asking how the IABA felt about the "biased" officiating of Walker.The Korea Herald, in an article subtitled “Yesterday’s controversy latest in a series of incidents,” which was clearly trying to normalize what happened, summarized the boxing controversies up to that point.
That same night, the president of the Korea Amateur Boxing Federation, Kim Seung-youn, offered his resignation and publicly apologized for the incident. But then, moments later, he placed much of the blame on Walker.
"As far as I know, the incident resulted from unfair refereeing," Kim said. "It was a sheer fraud. The referee violated the very ABCs of refereeing rules."
American middleweight Anthony Hembrick was disqualified for his failure to show up on time for his fight against Korean Ha Jong-ho Monday.I guess people are always out to get Korea, aren't they? Even if, as was noted by Sports Illustrated, Walker was not the nemesis they were looking for:
On the same day, the International Boxing Association overturned a loss suffered by Canadian featherweight Jamie Pagendam and forbade the referee who officiated the Canadian’s match Sunday from presiding over any further fights.
As for the boxing ‘ruckus,’ the Herald asserted that it was Keith Walker’s “incompetent officiating” that was the cause. “The referee was unfair. The Bulgarian committed many more fouls without having his points deducted,” Korean trainer Lee Hong-soo said.
Kim Tong-myong, a Korean boxing commentator, said the referee was apparently pressured by Jet Chev, Bulgarian chairman of the AIBA referee-jury commission, to officiate the fight in favour of Hristov.
“Chev has the authority to assign referees and judges to international tournaments,” Kim said. “Nobody dares displease him.”
Walker has been the nemesis of Korean boxing officials as he refereed Oh Kwang-soo’s controversial fight against American Michael Carbajal Wednesday [The day before]. The home fighter lost to the American on points.
“We were planning to appeal to the AIBA protest commission for the biased decision against Oh,” Korean coach Kim Seung-eun said. “We could not stand it any longer.”[…]
“It’s sheer fraud. The referee violated the very ABCs of the refereeing rules,” commentator Kim said.
The Yonhap News Agency quoted a Korean organizing official as saying, “I heard Mr. Chev telling the New Zealand referee just before the start of the fight “I know you are a very good referee.”
The incident resulted from a case of mistaken identity. The Korean officials and fans thought that Walker was Theodoras Vidalis, a Greek who the day before had refereed a highly controversial 3-2 decision awarded to Michael Carbajal of the U.S. over Oh Kwang Soo of South Korea.That it wasn't the same referee is no reason not to engage in conspiracy theories, however. (In another article the trainer is quoted as saying the referee from the day before also threatened to kill him.) The next day the Chicago Tribune interviewed Koreans to see how they felt about it.
"Yesterday," said Lee Heung Soo, the team trainer, immediately after the Byun-Hristov melee, "when the referee was asked why he called so many fouls on Oh, he said, "Shut up. We'll get the Korean again next time.' This is the same referee."
"They should have broken his neck," said Yu [Byung Pil], still upset 24 hours after the decision and the resulting melee in the ring that had shaken the Olympic boxing competition.I would imagine there were lots of people who found the incident disturbing or embarrassing, and that the reporter was searching for angry people to spice up his report. The immediate reaction in the media, however - beyond blaming the referee - was to hang its head in shame. This article quotes the Hankook Ilbo's editorial:
Yu, who watched the fight on the tiny portable television set inside the delivery truck he drives, is not alone in his assessment. Nor is he alone in understanding the 67-minute sitdown protest in the ring by Byun after the decision was announced.
"Byun Jong Il did the right thing. It is the Korean way to protest in dignified silence," said Chang Chae Mo, a noodle shop owner in Seoul`s downtown Myongdong district.[...]
"We can never trust foreigners to treat us fairly," said Chang, serving up a bowl of kuk soo chan gol (beef noodle soup) to one of several customers who were pouring over accounts of the fight in their Korean language newspapers. "It has always been that way."
"Yes," grunted another man sitting on a nearby stool. "It seems like our medals are being stolen from us even though these are our Olympic Games."
"Unforgiveable is the extreme act by some South Korean boxing officials and coaches who by force turned one part of the Olympics into a melee. They spoiled the festival of the entire world, a feast we prepared by taxing our labor,"The Korea Herald translated part of an editorial by the Chosun Ilbo:
Again, the referee wasn't fair. And despite the calls for reflection and assertions that the host felt ashamed, as is noted in the book Korea Witness, "the recriminations proved short lived and were quickly channeled into anger against he United States." This is, in fact incorrect. It should say that they were simultaneously channeled into anger against the US. The case in point would be the Donga Ilbo's coverage.
On page two was an Editorial titled: "Olympic Boxing Ring Mayhem," which opens with this paragraph:
An Olympic Games cannot be expected to be perfect, and at these Seoul Olympics as well unscrupulous things contrary to the spirit of sports and ethics are happening. A weightlifter has been stripped of his gold medal for taking drugs and in the pentathlon currently in progress participating, athletes have also been caught for taking drugs. There has also been no shortage of disputes over refereeing decisions. In particular, in the case of boxing, doubts have been raised over the fairness of referees at these games.Again, note the attempt to normalize the event by inserting it in a chain of other events. And, of course, the refereeing isn't fair. The rest of the editorial is summarized in a translation by the Korea Herald:
Ah, yes: Korea wanted to show off its "moral and ethical supremacy" and its "noble aim in hosting the Olympiad" (which clearly wasn't to win as many medals as possible). Plus there's the assertion that Koreans should stop being so humble. Well, that message would be received with great enthusiasm, to be sure. But the thing is, while that not-so-contrite editorial by the Donga Ilbo was on page 2, on page 14 (opposite an article about the 'ruckus,' as well as an article about students protesting a Hustler article about the Olympics) was a column titled 'Olympics in the eyes of the world,' in which a summary of foreign reports on the boxing incident is given; the title and subtitles tell us all we need to know.
"The Boxing ring incident is the biggest stain on the Seoul Olympics"
The US and Japanese media have special reports [on this] as if they were waiting for this [to happen]
NBC even delayed transmission of an awards ceremony to broadcast from the [boxing ring]
To be sure, the Western media were not being so forgiving.
On Saturday Sept 24 Korean Olympic committee president Kim Chong-ha resigned, and was described in a Korea Herald article the next day.
Kim told the press yesterday morning he resigned because he wants to assume moral responsibility for the incident as the head of the host National Olympic Committee. […]They may have 'played it up' because it was unprecedented for the Olympics. If we remember, AIBA President Anwar Chowdhry said "It was the most disgraceful incident I have ever seen in boxing, and I have no words to defend it." It would appear the Korean media decided not only to forget Chowdhry ever uttered those words, but - we'll look at this later - the Korean Olympic team also went on to ignore the suspensions AIBA handed down.
Kim blamed American and Japanese media for playing up the incident as if the peace of the Olympics had been breached.
A particularly critical look at the Korean boxing team appeared in the LA Times, which noted the following:
A Canadian boxing official, Jerry Shears, said that South Korean boxing officials have unreasonable expectations of their boxers.It seems hard not to think that AIBA 'suspended' Walker (who had already left the country) simply to placate the Koreans. And, well, who could blame them, really?
"Basically, the Koreans are trying to develop a world-class boxing program without teaching their kids how to box properly," he said.
"And on top of that, the coaches in the South Korean federation simply don't understand the rule book. On Thursday, they were the only ones in the building who believed their boxer had somehow been cheated. I couldn't find anyone else who thought the decision was unfair."
As for not being able to find anyone who thought the decision was unfair, the Korean writer of one astonishing article seemed to have no trouble. On September 29, the Korea Herald published excerpts of an article titled ‘Let’s be a Calm, Unflinching Host of the Greatest Party for Reconciliation” by Dr. Lee Shi-hyung, which appeared in the Joongang Ilbo on September 27. In it he describes going to a boxing arena “for the first time in my life.”
While there I struck up conversations with quite a few foreigners. I wanted to sample how the foreigners felt about the whole hullabaloo. Their predominant reactions caught me quite by surprise.That's quite the jaw-dropping piece of creative writing. When faced with criticism for violating norms, simply retreat into an alternate reality in which your acts are in fact "heroic deeds." Kind of like how bomb-throwing independence activists are seen as heroic, despite accomplishing nothing in regard to liberation other than making Japanese foreign minister Shigemitsu Mamoru walk with a limp when he signed the surrender on board the USS Missouri.
Most of them felt that Koreans deserve a pat on the back for a job well done. An elderly gentleman practically covered with Olympics badges spoke excitedly, “I think Korean should have torn the arena apart. If that kind of outrageous refereeing had taken place in a hot-tempered country, people would have probably shot up the whole place.” He explained to me how crooked the referees and judges were by enumerating concrete examples.[…]
“From now on they will give a second thought before pulling a dirty deal like that. Look how quickly they disqualified the referee in question. They must have felt a needle-sharp pain going through their heart when Koreans erupted in anger over the verdict,” he said.
A youngster from Central America wearing a jogging outfit also voiced a view in a similar vein. He said Koreans did rightfully give them what they had deserved all along, adding that he truly envied the sheer guts displayed in the boxing ring assault.
In my opinion, Korea had put up with that sort of injustice long enough. Koreans actually did a service to amateur boxing by breaking the whole mess wide open,” he said.
Statements by other foreigners more or less struck a similar chord. They were not expressing their views merely to please me. All in all, they seemed to term the incident a “heroic deed” that once and for all cleaned away the atmosphere in which unfair refereeing was the order of the day. It took more than courage to challenge the seemingly impregnable bastion of amateur boxing.
Of course, there were a few who said the protest at the ring was a bit too long and Korea should have resorted to a more reasonable means to put forward their grievances. But the general sentiment prevailing among the foreigners I met was that Korea did well to unmask the sordid side of the international amateur boxing for its own good.
Then I discovered, to my great astonishment, that the whole mess didn’t end right there. The entire issue seemed to be revolving around the United States and its NBC-TV, which was brazen enough to brand the incident a “riot” in sharp contrast to the general mood looking at it as a “heroic deed.”
But I digress.
Here are two opinion pieces from the Korea Times about the incident. The first, from October 5, is about how boxer Byun Jong-il was victimized by the referee (and perhaps by the Bulgarians):
Not a lot of nuance there. Another piece from September 30 has more of interest:
Note how NBC is "arrogant, biased and malicious" while the attack on a referee is "unfortunate". Despite this, he does get at one of the main causes for the anti-Americanism about to sweep the country:
"Of course, if we can, we like to see our young Korean athletes win many medals at the Games, but the most important thing what Korean wants is to have the proud Korea correctly appreciated by the world and many visiting friends. Biased and unfriendly views on Korea and Koreans of the past, was what we wanted to correct by means of hosting the Games.This, and other comments like it, deserve more attention (which they will get) but amid the sports conspiracy theories was the feeling that NBC - and thereby America itself - was trying its best to humiliate Korea during its big moment on the world stage - a feeling cultivated with great care and attention by the media, especially the Donga Ilbo. And from this point on, any action by an American (or by NBC) that could be construed as an insult to the Korean people would be focused on and portrayed that way by the media. And unfortunately for the US, its athletes, as well as NBC staffers, were going to give the Korean media plenty of material to work with.