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Sports Diplomacy in Seoul Olympics


By former IOC Vice President Dr. Un Yong Kim, speaking on “How to make use of sports for deepening international understanding and for promoting socio-economic development” at the International Symposium “International Exchange and Cultural Diplomacy through Sports” on December 19th at the Tokyo Aoyama Gakuin University.

When the 84th IOC Session in Baden-Baden awarded the 1988 Games to the city of Seoul in 1981, many political observers raised their eyebrows in concern and expressed doubts on decisions taken by IOC and many problems soon arose. But this divided country still considered to be a developing one and subjected to many fears and threats due to the international situation, organized one of the best Games ever, boycott free, and provided Korea with ample opportunity to show off before the entire world. The unity and pride engendered among Korean people served as a prime motivation for Koreans to accomplish much in the fields of politics, economics, culture, diplomacy, society, science and sports. It served as a spring board to Korea’s globalization.

1. Organization of the Games

When Korea was awarded the Games, Seoul had never organized a full World Championship. There were no national federations in three Olympic sports. Country had no color TV and Han River had no solid bank. Korea had curfew from 12 midnight to 5 AM. Country was under boycott threat from Soviet blocs and facing a threat from North Korea.

It used 1986 Seoul Asian Games as preliminary experience and constructed the venues and trained operational personnel.

But participation of all NOCs in the Games was a key to its success, especially, after two Boycott by two super powers. Boycott by Soviet Union and socialist blocs will mean a fiasco for Seoul Olympics as Soviet blocs occupy top standard in all sports. Boycott by the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe will diminish the quality and value to its half. Already, American NBC was demanding reduction of TV rights fee if it happens.

And diplomatic effort for inviting Soviet Union and Socialist blocs became a paramount importance. And full effort was exerted to this purpose. Korea did not have any diplomatic, economic or cultural relations with Soviet Union and socialist countries. Even communication was not existent.

2. Soviet Participation: The Socialist Bloc and China

The Soviet bloc strongly opposed Seoul becoming the host city. This opposition continued even after the Games were awarded. The Soviet bloc had no diplomatic, economic, cultural or any kind of bilateral relationship with Korea. All relations were multi-national rather than bilateral.

But even the socialist bloc’s multi-national-based participation in world championships or international conferences were occasionally marred by North Korean protest. North Korea always interfered with or protested against Seoul’s international programs. Socialist bloc nations called for a change in site or cancellation of the Games. They threatened a boycott. The situation was worsened with the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and shooting down of Korea Air Flight 007 by Soviet Missiles.

For socialist blocs in those days, Kremlin was everything. It could say yes or no at the last minute. We had to mainly concentrate our effort on Soviet Union while offering optimum conditions to other socialist blocs.

First visit by Soviet sports leaders was during ANOC meeting at Lotte Hotel in April of 1984. Soviet Sports leaders saw Korea for the first time and were impressed with Korean market economy and discovered that Koreans were not antagonistic but even friendly.

SLOOC invited all IFs and NOC leaders who were to prepare for participation and offered optimum conditions for partipation. Especially, every request by Soviet NOC was met. Negotiations were in Moscow, Seoul and even in Tokyo.

The IOC President lendered full cooperation and assistance. Juan Antonio Samaranch attended all socialist sports ministers’ meetings and frequently met government leaders in Moscow and East Berlin to solicit their participation.

Sports Programs were all worked out with International Federations. If leaderships and technical officials were invited to Seoul for consultations. ANOC and ASOIF meetings were organized in Seoul which provided them with ample opportunities to meet, learn about each other and negotiate organization.

TV rights agreements were signed with whole world networks including OIRT which incorporate all socialist state Broadcasting networks. It gave SLOOC not only financial resources but also security of the Games.

SLOOC attended all international sports competitions and conferences to meet Soviet and Eastern bloc sports leaders. SLOOC also invited those sports ministers and NOCs to Seoul to show Korea and its preparations of the game and offered them optimum participation conditions and negotiated directly and gave assurances of safety.

I frequently visited Moscow and met officials of the Soviet communist party, foreign Ministry, Sports Ministry, Cultural Ministry, Aviation Ministry, Tass, State Broadcasting committee to establish dialogue.

SLOOC agreed to provide Soviet delegation with 630 Extra officials’ accreditations. I persuaded President Chun to approve mooring of Soviet ships at Incheon-port for recuperation of athletes and boarding of extra officials. Security for athletes was guaranteed. Landing right of Aeroflot was also granted.

SLOOC agreed with Soviet Aviation Ministry to fly KAL to Moscow to transport athletes during the Games. SLOOC and Soviet Sport Ministry worked out to invite Soviet Cultural Missions composed of Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Ballet, Circus, and
Bolshoi Chorus.

East Germany and sports leaders of socialist states were afraid that another boycott would destroy athletes who prepared for last 8 years. New wind since Gorbachov took office and policy of detente with the West also greatly helped.

During the 1985 IOC Session in East Berlin, President Honecker and Spoprts Minister Ewald had tacitly indicated a positive sign.

17 September 1987, one year befor the Opening of Seoul Olympics, IOC organized a big ceremony in Lausanne, sending out Invitational letter to all NOCs, asking them to respond by January of 1988.

SLOOC held 4 South-North Sports talks under aegis of IOC to meet wishes of the Soviet Blocs under pressure from North Korea. North Korea demanded half of Olympics-12 sports.

Finally, Soviet Union, socialist states and China started to announce participation from 20 December 1987 to 10 Jan 1988.

3. Conclusion of the Seoul Olmpics

When I thanked President Gorbachov in 2006 for Soviet Participation as an important contribution to Seoul’s success, to my surprise, he said Seoul Olympics rather helped expediting democratization of East Europe.

13,300 officials and athletes and 15,000 Media personnel from 160 countries participated in Seoul Olympics, boycott free after 12 years transcending political barrier.

Seoul Olympic was a political and economic showcase. Sports diplomacy played an important role. With the success of Seoul Olympics as the best Games ever, Korea embarked upon its globalization. David Miller of ‘the Times of London’ said that Koreans had an American sense of money, the organizational skills of the Germans and the courtesy and culture characteristic of the Orient. IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch said, Never before has a city, a people, a country devoted so much enthusiasm, good will, inventiveness and sacrifice in carrying out with the zest, intelligence and organizational talent, the mission entrusted to them by the IOC in 1981 in Baden-Baden. It was phenomenal and universal. Friendship and good will were everywhere. Sports relations from Seoul Olympics developed to cultural, economic and political relation with Soviet Union and those Eastern blocs and China. Soon, Korea started to open diplomatic relations with these countries one by one.

This article was republished with permission from the author, Karl-Heinz Huba and publisher of The Olympic News Digest and International Inside Sports Newsletter.


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