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The Impact of the 1988 Seoul Olympics on Democratic Politics

            The International Olympic Committee (IOC) accepted Korea as a member in 1947, prior to the country’s split into North Korea and South Korea. The origin of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games was in large part due to South Korean ruler Park Chung-hee who, in the late 1970’s and near the end of his government’s time in power, inspired the idea that South Korea should host the Olympic Games. Chung-hee was soon after displaced when he was assassinated in the midst of a military coup led by General Chun Doo-hwan. Arguments against South Korea’s bid for the 1988 Olympics included IOC concerns about South Korea’s recent 15 months of bloody coup in Kwangju as well as their state of war with North Korea. Nevertheless, in 1981, the IOC voted 52 to 27 in favor of Seoul, Korea over Nagoya Japan to host the 1988 Olympic Games. Literary reviewers of the Seoul Olympics argue anticipation of the games, international media attention, and the importance of sports in world politics contributed to the democratization of South Korea.

Literary reviewers agree that a main political consequence of the 1988 Seoul Olympics was that the Games advanced the process of South Korean democratization. Global games: culture, political economy and sport in the globalized world of the 21st century, by John Nauright exposes the greater reason behind the Olympic Games’ ability to catalyze political changes: “Sports and sporting events have become integral components of a global political economy…as entertainment extravaganzas to specialized tournaments like the Olympic Games… large-scale events have become key factors in local and national development strategies.” Trevor Taylor’s article, Politics and the Olympic Spirit, agrees: “No international competition is more subject to such politicization than the quadrennial world’s fair that is the Olympic Games.” Other writers on the subject also recognize that the global stage of Olympic competition carries with it massive amounts of press and publicity to politically pressure changes such as restructuring and democratization. In Rites of Passage: The 1988 Seoul Olympics as Public Diplomacy, Jarol Manheim explains why sports and politics are, indeed, related: “Precisely because it holds the attention of large numbers of people in multiple countries and conveys to them simple and high symbolic messages, high-level international sporting competition is inextricably linked with international politics.” Although these and other sources cited seem to establish the direct link between Olympic sports and political mobilization, it is not correct to rule out the argument that the 1988 Seoul Games is a unique case in the assessment that sports and politics are inevitably interconnected.

Opposing the connection of sports and politics, International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage (1952-1972) said that sports and politics are disconnectedly separate: “sport like music and the other fine arts, transcends politics.” Even today, as IOC member Dr. Kipchoge Keino explains, the Olympics should be separate from politics. “Though politics is an essential part of any society or country, it should not be a part of the Olympics. We will be there in the Olympic arena for fair play and for sharing the Olympic spirit.” The United States Commission on Olympic Sports has a similar understanding of the idea that sports and politics are not connected, noting “with deep regret the declining ability of the nations of the world to separate sport from politics” (The Final Report of the President’s Commission on Olympic Sports, 1977). Nevertheless, the U.S. commission’s findings support assertions by writers like Andrew Strenk who say “The reality of the world is that sports are politics.” Strenk explains the close connection between sports and politics and in particular the Olympic Games, in his article What Price Victory? The World of International Sports and Politics Sports. “Sports can be a very useful political and diplomatic tool and weapon,” Strenk asserts.

The 1988 Seoul Olympic Games influenced South Korea’s political system by offering democracy as an effective ideology to a country that was previously unsure of its future political path. Black and Bezanson’s article, The Olympic Games, Human Rights and Democratization: Lessons from Seoul and Implications for Beijing asserts the 1988 Olympic Game’s impact on South Korean politics: “In short, the Games were closely associated with a dramatic and decisive process of democratization, by the end of which the military regime in South Korea had been peacefully displaced by a new era of multi-partyism and electoral democracy.” The evidence of South Korean democratization materialized in the form of government capitulation to protests in June of 1987, to form a new constitution, which was adopted in October and culminated in the first democratic election of a South Korean president in twenty-six years in December (South Korea in 1987: The Politics of Democratization, Sung-Joo, 1989). Author Jarol Manheim finds evidence of democratic developments even as early as 1981, when it was announced Seoul won the bid to host the Olympics: “Indeed, as a symbolic statement of the boost to its confidence the Olympic selection afforded, some two months later (December 1981) the government lifted a nationwide curfew that had been in effect since the end of World War II.” Thus, effects of the 1988 Seoul Olympics on South Korea’s democratic political reforms are shown to be both directly prior to the Games but also seven years earlier, as a result of Seoul winning the bid to host.

Some of the obstacles to South Korea’s developing a democratic political system were the Communist threat from North Korea as well as the suppression of the non-democratic government still holding power in South Korea. The Seoul Olympics played a large role in bringing world awareness and scrutiny to the situation. Author Han Sung-Joo explains that by hosting the Olympic Games, “South Korea would purchase a form of insurance against northern aggression.” The Olympics also had an effect on anti-democracy groups in South Korea. Author Jarol Manheim explains the integral role the Olympics played in making democracy possible in South Korea: “Internally, the Games played a pivotal role in bringing democracy to South Korea, if only because intensifying world scrutiny made it difficult for the government to deal harshly with those demanding expanded freedoms.” In light of these democratic oriented changes, the 1988 Seoul Olympics were widely viewed as a great success with a record-breaking 14,000 athletes and officials from 160 countries participating. As such, the Seoul Games became a “potent force for change in the political and diplomatic life of the nation than anyone could have imagined” (Sung-Joo, 1989).

Jarol Manheim’s discussion of the Olympics as a catalyst for political change, and as is referenced by Black and Bezanson in their article, exposes the notion that the Seoul Olympic’s role in South Korean democratization was certainly “contrary to the defined interests of the ruling party” (Black and Bezanson, 2004). Black and Bezanson suggest if the South Korean government’s objective was to use the Olympics to enhance its legitimacy, the tactic effectively backfired. The Olympic “countdown” served to restructure rather than reinforce the current political system. Black and Bezanson explain it was the anticipation of the Games rather than the Olympics themselves that created the impetus for democratic change in South Korea. “Indeed, South Koreans of otherwise divergent political persuasions agreed that the country’s credibility as Olympic host would be secure if it were to become a democracy before the event.” Black and Bezanson present evidence of their assertion in a nationwide public opinion poll that proves citizens of South Korea felt the Olympics positively effected democratization. “56% of respondents thought the Olympics had stimulated democratization; 53% agreed they had helped improve human rights; and 50% said that they had contributed to freedom and fairness of the press.”

Manheim contributes his own evidence for how the Seoul Olympics helped inspire democracy in South Korean politics. “As is clear from my interviews, it was the presence of the press, the negative image of South Korea it conveyed to the world, and the legitimacy it conferred on demonstrators and opposition politicians that ultimately forced the ruling party to make significant political concessions.” Olympic competition is an event that generates visibility and political awareness, and according to Manheim, is both a “prism through which the outside world viewed the Republic of Korea, and a focal point for domestic political attention.” The pressures of global scrutiny that naturally accompanied the Seoul Olympics presented such a heavy political weight, that the government was powerless to control its impact on changing the current political system.  

The movement of democratization in South Korea catalyzed by “unusual outside attention” brought by the international news media “led to political change in South Korea in advance of the Olympic Games.” Manheim suggests that governments have better success improving their “portrayal in the news media of other states” when “low visibility strategies” are used, but are less likely to succeed when media coverage is highly visible. “As such, the act of hosting the Olympics entails not only a set of potentially attractive opportunities for any government contemplating it, but a set of readily predictable and appreciable political risks as well.” Black and Bezanson quote Manheim about the difficulty a government faces when confronted with the international scrutiny of hosting an Olympic Games. “Manheim suggests that the advent of the Games effectively forced the government to confront the basic questions of political development.” In the case of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the political development that surfaced was the movement towards democratization. Black and Bezanson summarize, “The connection between the Olympics and the process and timing of democratization in South Korea—if not the fact of democratization itself—is thus quite certain.”

Anticipation of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, the presence of the press in Korea, and the negative images it portrayed to the world, “compelled the ruling party to make significant political concessions” (Black and Bezanson, 2004). Winning the bid to host the Olympics created an influx of international publicity that exposed a need for South Korean political policy to change. By placing South Korea on the international stage, the Olympic Games were a significant factor in resolving social and political crises. This resolution came in the form of democratization. “This anticipation, and the widespread desire not to taint the games with a military dictatorship, street riots and tear gas, gave impetus to the transition of South Korea towards democracy” (Black and Bezanson, 2004). The threat of national humiliation during the hosting of the Seoul Olympic Games guaranteed that South Korea’s political policy changed to ensure civility, cordiality, social freedom, and human rights. This consensus asserts, thus, that a major impact of the 1988 Seoul Olympics was the eventual democratization of South Korea.

This literary review is interesting to me personally as it may apply to the upcoming 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. How will the Olympics impact the Chinese people? New infrastructure that is being built in Beijing to accommodate the Games means many older buildings have been demolished and replaced with state-of-the-art athletics facilities. Also, how will the Games affect the politics of democracy in China? A review of the Olympics in Seoul infers that an unusual influx of media attention could put China under a microscope for international observation. Already the Chicago Tribune has published articles like, “Ahead of Olympics, China puts human rights on table” by The Washingon Post’s Edward Cody. This article presents the case of “Human rights groups increasingly accuse China of being unfit to host the Olympics because of rights abuses.” What affect this dialogue or the Olympic Games will have on political policy or a shift in Communism has yet to be seen, but it is a question I am sure will be studied once the Games have concluded.


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