Monday, November 11, 2019

1988 Olympics: The view from the U.S. Embassy

The 1988 Seoul Olympics

Prologue 1: "Why can't Americans be Punished?"

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
Part 7:  No more lion: US swimmers' 'prank' becomes 'diplomatic incident'
Part 8:  KAIST catches Big Ben
Part 9:  Hankyoreh interviews Korean witness to theft by swimmers
Part 10: Stop me if you've heard this one: Four GIs head to Itaewon in a taxi...
Part 11: Taxi-kicking US runner taken to Itaewon police box
Part 12: NBC uses the power of t-shirts to insult Korea... again
Part 13: Cultivating outrage toward America
Part 14: Politicians engage in damage control
Part 15: Heaven on Earth
Part 16: Hustler magazine tramples the purity of the Korean race 
Part 17: Stolen gold
Part 18: The view from the U.S. Embassy

Not too long ago a rather amazing, 1364-page pdf titled "The Korea Country Reader," a collection of oral history interviews of American diplomats who served in Korea from 1945 to 2002, was brought to my attention by Jacco Zwetsloot. The interviews were conducted and collected by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, and readers for other countries can be searched for here.

I've been dipping into various eras, and it dawned on me that I should look at how the Embassy viewed the anti-Americanism that occurred during the 1988 Seoul Olympics. What I found were two interviews with different points of view, as well as reference to an contemporary news article worth reading that I had not come across before.

First up is an interview with Aloysius M. O’Neill, Political Officer, Seoul (1988-1992), from pages 1117-1118; the final two paragraphs are from pages 1121 and 1146, respectively.


O’Neill: The Olympic Games, aside from being a great triumph for Korea both in terms of organization and of the face that Korea put to the world was, as far as I was concerned, also a festival of anti-Americanism. That’s my most lasting memory of the Seoul Olympics. The Koreans were so on edge and so intent to ensure that everything went perfectly that anything involving Americans that didn’t go perfectly really set them off. This included the opening ceremony. The American team was waving to the crowds and cheering, and some of them were wearing Mickey Mouse ears and things like this as young, happy, naive Americans traveling abroad probably for the first time would normally do. This greatly offended the Korean news media who decided that this was not decorous enough and respectful enough of Korea for their sensibilities, and they began blasting the American team for that breach of decorum.

We had another incident… I don’t want to belabor this too much….

Q: No, I think it’s well to capture the flavor.

O’Neill: It was really flavorful! One of the first American gold medals was won by a men’s swimming relay team, and those young guys went that evening to the Hyatt Hotel and had a number of drinks, I’m sure, in the bar. They walked out of the bar with a plaster lion’s head that had been hanging on the wall. They just picked it up. It wasn’t something, as far as I know, that you could stick in your pocket, so it was pretty obvious that they were doing it. Rather than just approaching these tipsy or drunken young men who had just won a gold medal and said, “Give us our lion head back,” the Korean staff of the Hyatt went to the police about this “theft.” The police lost no time in going to their eager media contacts about this gigantic crime. From the media outcry, you would have thought that these swimmers had burned down the presidential mansion, the Blue House.

The outrage was unbelievable. I was, as I often was, in the embassy that Saturday afternoon. The incident was on a Friday night, and I was in the embassy all day Saturday, and the phones were almost literally ringing off the hook, with outraged Koreans calling. The poor embassy operators were just beside themselves trying to field the calls. I remember talking to one man who was just furious. “How could they do this??? How could they possibly steal something?” I said, “They were drunk.” He said, “What???” I said, “They were drunk. He said, “Oh.” And he hung up. It’s safe to say that Koreans understood the concept of doing outrageous things while drunk.

This whole thing, this hysteria, was fanned by the Korean news media. NBC Sports had the broadcast rights for the Olympics. They did a masterful job of broadcasting. Also as part of their programming they had prepared a number of really good…what would you call them?...spots or vignettes showcasing different things about Korea’s industrial might and the economic progress of the country, the palaces of Seoul, the history of Korea, things on the Korean War. Some of my relatives wrote me how much they learned about Korea from this fantastic coverage that NBC Sports was giving the country.

However, there was at least one spot about black marketing and prostitution particularly around the U.S. military bases, a not unknown phenomenon, shall we say. Again, the Koreans were not in the mood for any kind of accuracy or balance. What they wanted was laudatory treatment. If you gave 90% praise and 10% pointing out some warts, all they could think about was, “You were focusing on warts, and that’s rude.” Again, this set them off. There was a case where a Korean boxer had a match called against him. I believe the other boxer was an American, but the New Zealand referee called the match against the Korean. In response, that sportsman sat down in the ring and would not move. Every so often as NBC Sports was reporting on other events here and there, track and field and whatever else happened to be going on, they would occasionally go back and show this boxer still sitting there in the ring.

Q: I recall that!

O’Neill: Again, Koreans were outraged that the Americans news media were humiliating Korea by showing this jerk sitting on his backside in the ring. No mention of the poor sportsmanship of the Korean boxer who had legitimately had a call against him. In fact, either in this match or in another boxing match that went against a Korean, his ringside staff and the Korean security people assaulted the referee.

Throughout, you had cheers for Soviet athletes and boos for American athletes with few exceptions. When Flo-Jo won everybody cheered. I happened to have been there at the track and field semi-finals, where she starred. Otherwise, it was a very grim period for Americans in Korea and the grimness lasted after the games, too. It really ground down a lot of people in the embassy.
One of the reasons for the outburst of anti-Americanism in the Olympics and afterward was because Koreans who felt this way were freer to do so than they had been in the past. They were able to express their bottled up emotions at the way they saw America as being the friend of the dictators of Korea over the decades before this election. They tended to forget or did not know that we had been pushing behind the scenes all these decades to get the kind of electoral situation that they had now arrived at.
Most particularly as I detailed earlier in the interview in the context of the Seoul Olympics. I still unfondly remember that as a gigantic anti-American festival with sporting events thrown in. Ambassador Jim Lilley was there up through the end of December 1988, so he had the full blast of the Olympics. He used the expression, “We’re the biggest show in town,” meaning that of all the countries represented there, we were the biggest especially with the large military presence and its endless potential for crimes or accidents, which could become an immediate focus of the anti-American student movement and others as well.


A view more sympathetic to Korea can be found in an interview with Thomas P. H. Dunlop, Political Counselor, Seoul (1983-1987), and Country Director for Korea, Washington, DC (1987-1989). [Pages 927-28]


The Seoul Olympics were a great success for the South Koreans. There were lots of anecdotes about them, none of which particularly deserves recording. The South Koreans did a good job. I was not there for it. I thought that I might try to "boondoggle" my way out there, but the Embassy was under a tremendous amount of stress just handling the American Olympian contingent. I would say one thing. I got to know some of the people who represent our Olympic movement, and some of them are absolutely arrogant, egocentric, and very difficult people to deal with. I mean that they are concerned about petty things, like demanding suites with a "hot tub" and things like that. I'm not talking about the athletes. I'm talking about the administrators in the American Olympic Committee and all of their "hangers on." They can be real pains to deal with. The Embassy didn't need me hanging around, so I did not go.

Q: What about the problems of having the press all over the place? When the press got there, and the American press in particular, I imagine that they were always looking for a story to make the South Koreans look bad. They did that at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. This is just what the press does.

Dunlop: NBC [National Broadcasting Company] had the coverage. The South Koreans didn't like the coverage. We had complaints from them. NBC, like any American network, put on a lot of "background" stuff about Korea. Of course, what they did was to oversimplify things. Although there are a lot of things in Korean history that are not particularly admirable, on the human rights side, for example, this was probably more than the South Korean authorities wanted to see dredged up from the past and, maybe, the not so distant past. However, there were no big problems.

I remember one example of cultural insensitivity. There was a Korean boxer who was thought likely to take one of the medals and, perhaps, win the gold medal. He was in one of the middle weight areas. He was really beaten and committed a foul in the process, which counts a lot in the Olympics. You get points, and the foul involves subtracting points from the total. He lost. He refused to leave the ring. After the celebration of his opponent's victory, he slumped down in the middle of the ring.

However, the cameramen didn't turn off the lights. The cameras were still on him. He presented a picture of utter dejection. People came up and tapped him on the shoulder, but he just sat there. The commentators began to laugh at him. He stayed there in the center of the ring for about an hour. They would keep cutting back to show him. They would say, "Oh, he's still there." I thought that this was just perfectly without any shred of taste. What was happening to that young man was that his whole life was in ruins. He had lived to be an Olympic boxer. He was a hero in his hometown. He had a salary. He had preferment. He had goodies which were otherwise probably unthinkable for his family. He had the responsibility for keeping all of that going. It was all gone. He knew that they would set the dogs on him in his home village. He would be pelted with stones when he got back there. I think that it was a particularly bad case of insensitivity.

I must say that an American sports columnist, Tony Kornheiser, wrote a good story about it. Some Korean told him what was going on, and Kornheiser wrote a nice piece on this incident. I wrote to Kornheiser and said that this was just a pebble on the beach, but it was nice to see that somebody had taken the trouble to report what was really going on, in a cultural sense.


Tony Kornheiser's article for the Washington Post, titled "It's Not The Koreans Who Do Not Understand," can be read here. Below are excerpts of it, which begin after Kornheiser's recap of various events like runner Johnny Gray "Kicking a taxi," the theft of the lion sculpture by the swimmers, NBC's attempt to make insulting T-shirts, and the incident in the boxing ring where the referee was attacked by Korean staff.


"Why did you have to show it so many times?" my Korean friend, Mr. Lee, asked me at dinner the other night.

"We'd do the same thing if it was an American," I told him. "That's the way journalism works, it reacts to the story. We do it at home all the time."

"But you are not in your home now," Mr. Lee said, "you are in ours."

Until last year's social revolution, the Korean press historically was in the side pocket of the government. Koreans have clamored for a free press, but don't really comprehend all that goes with it. Koreans saw the Olympics as a way to announce their accomplishments to the world, something like an advertising supplement. They didn't expect the American media to go looking at anything other than what the Koreans wanted to show; they think it's mean that we don't play the game their way, censoring our best instincts for the good of their public image. They've been our friends, and though they should know better after all these years, may think we have betrayed that friendship.
That gong sound we hear is the clash of cultures. We're unnerved and a bit frightened by the anti-Americanism, and justifiably upset at Koreans taking offense when no offense was intended. But it hasn't deterred some Americans from practicing what is construed as -- particularly by the contentious European press -- as Ugly Americanism. Many Americans treat the Olympics like their own private tour group. We shouldn't apologize for our enthusiasm, but we wave our flags and chant in the loudest, most self-absorbed way. This behavior is beyond patriotism. It's about rudeness and the automatic right of way that Americans consider their birthright as they travel the world in a clumsy exuberance that other cultures take for bullying. Every uniformed guard we treat with impatience, every custom we insult, every sideways glance we give, we feel we're entitled. We're No. 1. We've bought the damn Games, and we have our own aggressive way of doing things. We like to wear our diamond rings on everbody's nose.

It was bad enough in Los Angeles, which was at least our home. It's provocative here. We've been here more than two weeks and most of us have learned one phrase -- kamsa hamnida, which means thank you. One phrase in two weeks, and we get annoyed because every Korean cabdriver doesn't speak perfect English. Not only haven't we been sensitive to their culture, we haven't even acknowledged it.

And yet there have been so many small moments of grace between us and the Koreans, so many tender mercies. I have foundered hopelessly in the Seoul subway, intimidated by Korean language maps and signs, and Koreans have literally led me by the hand to where I should have been. I have been on the streets without a clue how to get home, and Koreans have stopped for me and driven miles out of their way to take me to the press village, and refused to take any money for it. I have been unfailingly treated with politeness and friendliness and genuine warmth by police, security guards and Korean Olympic personnel. They give me flags and pins and small gifts to take home so I'll remember Korea. The anti-Americanism seems more an expression of hurt than anger.

"Please understand," Mr. Lee said, "that we have always had great friendship with the Americans."

"You shouldn't take this boxing thing personally," I told him. "You should let it roll off your backs."
"This is what you do?" he asked.

"All the time."

"You are a big country, a great country, and things roll gracefully off your back," Mr. Lee said. "What rolls off your back is enough to drown a small country like Korea." There was a bottle of Korean soju on the table, and Mr. Lee poured two shot glasses. "I cannot ever make you understand how important Olympics are to us," he said, and in the moonlight his face seemed 5,000 years old. "We invite you to our house to show you what we have done."

I raised my glass. "To your house," I said.


Though there are a few cliches in there, Dunlop was right to highlight Kornheiser's article as an attempt to see things from both sides. Most pertinent was his observation that during the Olympics "The anti-Americanism seems more an expression of hurt than anger." What should be added is that it was the media that fanned the flames and turned that hurt into anger. As O'Neill noted, "it was a very grim period for Americans in Korea and the grimness lasted after the games, too." Many of the issues brought to the forefront by activists during (or just before) the Olympics such as the need to revise SOFA, the need to ban the direct importation of US films, and the need to test foreigners for HIV/AIDS, would, in the months to come, get a push from the burst of hurt turned to anger at the US during the Olympics.

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