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Playing for Keeps

1.

For the second time since its opening in 1987, I visited the Independence Hall of Korea, a huge patriotic monument south of Seoul; and I was struck by the same thoughts as during the first visit: Was my revulsion a sign of decadence, of Western flabbiness? Were Spengler and Toynbee perhaps right? Is there something to the idea of the rise and fall of national, even racial vigor? Intellectually, one rebels against such notions. But still the place overwhelms by its sheer force; it has the fascination of Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries. One notes the kitsch, the absurd mysticism, the sentimentality, the brutal aesthetics, but one cannot deny the power.

Unlike before, the place was virtually empty. People were either at work or watching the Olympics on TV. I examined at my leisure the great Patriots Memorial, the Patriotic Poems and Quotations, and the Grand Hall of the Nation, an enormous temple with large stone groups of patriots, nude, Nordic-looking and vigorous, their lantern jaws and outstretched arms pointing toward a glorious future. The effect of histrionic power was heightened by Wagnerian music and sounds of drums and neighing horses. The hall commemorates the struggle against Japanese colonialism. The style owes a great deal to Arno Breker and Stalin’s socialist realists. The purpose, according to the official guide, is “to awaken Korean national consciousness and promote patriotism.” The method is quasi-religious.

Inside the exhibition halls I noted some of the anthropological information. On the physical characteristics of Koreans (in English): “Their arms are rather short. Their heads tend to be flat in the back and their foreheads are rather broad, suggesting large brain capacity.”

In the history section there was a nineteenth-century stone with an inscription that read: “Western barbarians invade our lands—if we do not fight, we must appease them. To urge appeasement is to betray our nation.” A rebellion by the Righteous Army against the Japanese in 1907 was said to have “sent a signal to the world that the Koreans were prepared to unite to fight for their national sovereignty, justice and world peace.”

At the end of the exhibition, as a kind of climax after all the heavy oil paintings of battle scenes, pictures of Japanese atrocities, and relics of Korean martyrdom, we get to the Olympic games. There is a model of the Olympic stadium, there are photographs of Korean medalists at the 1986 Asian games in Seoul, and, in a panoramic film, entitled Korea, My Motherland, we see a thousand young Taekwondo fighters in identical martial gear punching the air in unison while letting out a piercing battle cry. This is followed by images of steel furnaces, followed by more pictures of Korean athletes winning gold.

Welcome to ‘88 Olympics, and the Land of Ginseng,” says a ginseng-root drink commercial: “Ginseng for over forty centuries has symbolized power and youth throughout Asia.”

Korea’s Economy Outpowers Japan’s at Time of Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964,” said a headline in the Korea Times on the day before the opening ceremony.

We must say we are proud that the miracle-maker of the East, Korea, has done it again,” said a columnist called Rhee Chong-ik in the same newspaper, commenting on the games.

Power, miracle, power, power! One cannot escape it: these are the expressions of a country that is either superbly confident or racked by anxiety. Whenever one assumes it to be the former, evidence of the latter tends to break through. When a Greco-Roman wrestler called Kim Young-nam won Korea’s first gold medal, the Korea Times was in ecstasy: “He did it. He turned the entire nation wild with enthusiasm, quenching their thirst for the gold.” But whenever I felt the inclination to sneer at this thirst, I was held back by a hint of anxiety too: How will countries that lack this thirst, that scoff at notions of national vigor, that take the good life for granted be able to compete with people who are so hungry for achievement and recognition, for power and gold medals?

Many times during my stay in Seoul I was reminded of an athlete who was the antithesis of all this power and glory: Eddy the Eagle, the bumbling British amateur high-jump skier, who endeared himself at Calgary this year by his clownish performances. Part of his charm was his complete indifference to finishing last. He exemplified Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic ideal (which, incidentally, was far from the ideal of the highly competitive ancient Greeks): just to take part was enough, winning was irrelevant. Apparently, Eddy got on the nerves of his more pugnacious rivals, particularly, I believe, the East Germans. The Koreans would not have understood Eddy either. To them he would have seemed typical of Western decadence. And perhaps they would have been right. Is there not something flabby and complacent about the British indifference (some might even say attraction) to failure? Or is it a sign of higher civilization? Or is it perhaps both?

British athletes did not do very well at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Germany did best, and both Italy and Japan did better than Britain. One Rev. F. Brompton Harvey wrote a letter at the time to the conservative Daily Telegraph, observing that “the failure of Englishmen in the Olympic Games should give a jolt to our national complacency…. What are the reasons for this decline in athletic prowess—in skill and will to win?” The answer, in the reverend’s opinion, was democracy, which encourages mediocrity and does away with virility. “And we need not wonder if this failure in manly sports on the world stage is interpreted by our rivals as another proof that England has ‘gone soft.”’1

2.

Sports of one kind or another have a long history of being used to fend off decadence. Richard D. Mandell, in his highly engaging study of the first modern Olympics held in Athens in 1896,2 writes that sport “was an integral part of many educational schemes advanced by Greek philosophers to improve or reform their society.” The Romans, with the exception of a few philhellenes, found sports—particularly when indulged in without clothes on—bad for the character. But gory gladiatorial spectacles, which were sports of a kind, were approved of. According to Mandell, some Roman moralists recommended this type of blood sport as a way of accustoming effete youths to the sight of carnage.

Medieval knights were kept out of mischief by staging jousting tournaments. And the common people found their pleasure through the ages in games of various kinds. But sports as an exercise in national character building, the philosophical foundation of the modern Olympics, came much later. That belongs to the nineteenth century, when national consciousness was, to use a twentieth-century expression, raised all over Europe.

There were two distinct European sporting traditions: sports, specifically athletics and team games, as a way to test individual skills and character; and sports as a mass spectacle, to forge unity and promote a cultish kind of beauty, often involving pagan rites—torchlight parades and so on. As one might have guessed, the former was Anglo-Saxon in origin, the latter German. The British were cricketers and athletes, the Germans preferred gymnastics, or, as they called the art of body contortions, Turnen. Turnen was an expression of Germanness (Deutschtum). The word Turnen was coined by the so-called Turnvater, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778–1852).

The Turnvater was a patriot spurred into action by Napoleon’s occupation of Germany. His Turnbewegung was part of an effort to unify the German nation. Clubs were formed and eventually great festivals held on special Turndays, when turners demonstrated their loyalty to the Second Reich in the form of mass calisthenics. Turners were contemptuous of the kind of sports enjoyed by decadent Anglo-Saxons. The turners, writes Mandell, “claimed that sport was an alien infection that might damage the integral structure of robust German culture.” Jahn, apart from being responsible for the physical torture of generations of continental children (my father’s back never quite recovered from his childhood contortions), has left his mark on sports to this day: he was the inventor of the rings, the pommel horse, and the parallel bars.

Turnen was closely linked to a wider movement in Germany, a neoclassical cult of physical beauty called the Nordische Freikörperkultur (NFKK), which reached its apotheosis around about the time of Hitler’s Olympics in 1936. Body culture involved much healthy nudity and well-oiled heroic posturing. Leni Riefenstahl’s films, of the Berlin Olympics especially but also Triumph of the Will, about the Nuremberg rally, are the perfect documents of this sort of thing. Riefenstahl, inspired by generations of German romantics, was big on harmony with nature, in woods or on lonely mountaintops, preferably at dusk. When the young men in her films are not harmonizing with nature, they march, perform great physical feats, or indulge in healthy horseplay, yodeling with pleasure as they beat each other with twigs in the sauna bath. Riefenstahl’s employers liked these young men to be blond, but the film-maker herself was as much drawn to the physical perfection of Jesse Owens as to “healthy SA men” of the Third Reich.

The groundwork for Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Sukarno’s, Mussolini’s, Kim Il Sung’s, and, yes, South Korean monuments, in stone or in the flesh (the difference is not always easy to detect), was laid by eighteenth-century neoclassicists, such as the artist Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825). This propagandist for the French Revolution reacted against the effete rococo style of the ancien régime. Riefenstahl’s marching men in their high boots (or athletic singlets), and their expressions of steely determination, are the heroic neoclassical images come to life. The aesthetic, then, was not uniquely German in origin. But the link with mass sports events was certainly German. And the peculiarly Teutonic link with the Olympic idea is suggested by the title of a book, first published in 1924 but reissued in an expanded version in 1936: Mensch und Sonne, Arischolympische Geist (“Man and Sun, the Aryan Olympic Spirit”). It was written by one Hans Süren, the inventer of a special rubber penis-holder. Süren liked to be photographed in the nude, slapping boxing bags or engaging in other such manly gestures. His inspiration, he wrote, was Hitler’s Mein Kampf.3

The British concept of sport during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was less absurd than Germany’s nudism and synchronic calisthenics, but no less patriotic. English games go back to two sources, often linked: village festivals and upper-class schools. Cricket was played by village boys in the sixteenth century and later taken up as a gentrified adult game. The special national ethos of cricket was, however, like the Olympics, a nineteenth-century phenomenon. “Mark me,” wrote a hearty headmaster of Uppingham School, “cricket is the greatest bond of the English speaking race, and is no mere game.”4 Sports, at exclusive schools as well as in working men’s clubs, were an expression of what Dr. Arnold and other eminent Victorians termed “muscular Christianity.” Sport built character, specifically the character of empire builders.

The empire was built on the belief in racial superiority. Just as the Germans did later, British sports enthusiasts often identified themselves as the true heirs of the ancient Greeks. And just as the Greeks confined their Olympics to athletes of pure Greek blood, Englishmen in the 1890s talked of holding an “Anglo-Saxon Olympiad.” This scheme, wrote the main promoter, J. Astley Cooper, “ought to act as an antidote to the debilitating effects of luxury, wealth and civilisation, for, should it be carried out in its full conception, the honors which it affords should be those for which the flower of the Race would chiefly strive.”5

The seminal work on Victorian English sports was Tom Brown’s School Days, written by Thomas Hughes, a worshiper of Dr. Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby and father of Matthew. The book begins with a description of Tom’s native village in Berkshire. In an aside, Hughes laments the loss of native village loyalties: “We were Berkshire, or Gloucestershire, or Yorkshire boys,” he writes, addressing his young readers,

and you’re young cosmopolites, belonging to all counties and no countries. No doubt it’s all right, I dare say it is. This is the day of large views and glorious humanity, and all that; but I wish backsword play hadn’t gone out in the Vale of White Horse, and that that confounded Great Western hadn’t carried away Alfred’s Hill to make an embankment.

Here we have a quintessentially nineteenth-century sentiment. Railways, empire, cosmopolitanism, large views, and glorious humanity—I dare say it’s all right, but…what about native values? What about moral discipline? How about community spirit? This is where sports came in, to restore such morals and values. When Tom first goes to Rugby, alma mater of many a moralist from Hughes himself to Salman Rushdie, he helps to win a football match for his house against “the School.” The hero is a sixth form boy known as Old Brooke. On the day of victory Brooke gets up to give a speech to the boys of the house. His theme is why the much smaller house beat the school:

It’s because we’ve more reliance on one another, more of a house feeling, more fellowship than the school can have…. We’ve union, they’ve division—there’s the secret—(cheers). But how’s this to be kept up? How’s it to be improved? That’s the question. For I take it, we’re all in earnest about beating the school, whatever else we care about. I know I’d sooner win two School-house matches running than get the Balliol scholarship any day—(frantic cheers).

Union versus division: this was the overriding obsession of nineteenth-century pedagogues—and authoritarian leaders. The Germans turned to turning, the British to the public-school spirit, and the French…? They were of two minds. Some admired the German spirit. But after the bitter defeat by the Prussian armies in 1871, this became a rather indefensible position, and so a large number of Frenchmen, including Pierre de Coubertin, turned to England, in the baron’s case specifically to Tom Brown’s school.

Coubertin, a restless aristocrat in search of good deeds, was deeply shaken by the French debacle in 1871 and sought to put some backbone into the French, or, as he put it, to “rebronze” them. Following the ideas of Hippolyte Taine, another Anglophile, Coubertin believed in Progress, the kind of progress celebrated in world’s fairs, the ethos of which was akin to that of the Olympics. The conditions for Progress were Harmony and Patriotism. These values, so essential to rebronzing the demoralized and enervated French, were to be found in British public schools, particularly at Rugby, where Coubertin literally worshiped at Dr. Arnold’s tomb. Coubertin, himself a product of a strict Jesuit college, where sports would have been the last thing on the curriculum, admired the likes of Old Brooke, who would rather win a football match than get a Balliol scholarship. Thus the sporting baron began his crusade for la pédagogie sportive. And thus the Olympic idea was born.

In fact, Dr. Arnold’s muscular Christianity stressed Christianity more than muscles. Coubertin’s patriotism was more secular. Olympia, he said, was “consecrated to a task strictly human and material in form, but purified and elevated by the idea of patriotism.”6 Like many nineteenth-century men, he loved ceremonies and hated politics. Olympia, to him, was a “cult center.” Men who dream of perfect harmony always hate politics. (But they are usually deeply moved by pagan rites and torchlight parades.) Ever the true aristocrat, Coubertin believed in patronage, dispensed by a noble elite, which chose its own members, not for their politics or the interests they might represent but for their devotion to the “idea” of Peace, Harmony, and Progress. Voting, interests, ideology—these divide men; religious or pseudoreligious ceremonies, service to common ideals, and great rallies—not to mention great leaders—bind them together. What Coubertin hoped to achieve with his Olympic idea was to emulate the union of Old Brooke’s house on a massive scale, first in France and then the world.

It is of course a deeply antidemocratic idea. And there are few less democratic institutions than the International Olympic Committee, which appears to operate a bit like a Freemasonry lodge—there is the same addiction to ritual, the same secretiveness, self-righteousness, and humorless pomposity. This is not to say that Coubertin himself was a proto-fascist. He was no doubt a genuine idealist. But antidemocratic ideas, however well-intentioned, are ripe for the plucking by more cynical manipulators. Coubertin believed that pseudoreligious incantations about Peace and the Brotherhood of Man could solve political conflicts. He took his own slogans about sports transcending politics seriously. He really thought that by holding vast jamborees we would all learn to understand and respect one another, and that this would lead to world peace.

Coubertin was an internationalist, under attack from French nativists, who were equally interested in staging jamborees, but they favored pageants involving French games, French ceremonies, and French traditions such as revived medieval French student festivals. Coubertin’s enemy was Charles Maurras, a reactionary royalist who loathed Dreyfus, democracy, and all foreigners, though not necessarily in that order. While Coubertin saw no contradiction between promoting patriotism through the competition of nations and the ideal of international brotherhood, Maurras saw the contradiction all too well. But he was all for it. Let the races mix at international competitions, he thought, and they will learn to hate each other. True Frenchmen, when confronted by the barbarian Americans and other unspeakable peoples, would recognize the superiority of France.

So while Coubertin was an enemy of the Action Française, Brown Shirts, and analogous fascist movements, his political naiveté contributed to their cause. The removal of politics can be the first step toward totalitarianism. Those that seek to solve political problems by turning to cults or romantic ideals of harmony are the first to end up as victims of tyranny. There is an interesting link between Coubertin and Marxism-Leninism. Communist countries are the most successful Olympic contenders and the true heirs of Coubertin’s ideals of Patriotism, Peace, and International Brotherhood. In this, as in so many other ways, Communists are the last Victorians.

The baron’s saddest defeat was perhaps perceived by himself as a victory. He was too ill to attend the Berlin Olympics in 1936. But he had praised Germany’s efforts in staging the grandiose games, and the Nazi organizers praised the old baron in return.7 After the German team had entered the stadium for the opening ceremony and 100,000 arms were raised in the Hitler salute, after the last words of “Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles” and the Horst Wessel Song had been sung, silence was requested, and the frail voice of the baron spoke his recorded message: “The most important thing at the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not to conquer, but to struggle well.” Hitler in his uniform, Goering in a flamboyant white outfit, Speer in an impeccable suit, and Goebbels, grinning grotesquely, applauded these sentiments with glee.

3.

In Seoul I visited a man who had won glory at Hitler’s games, a bluff Korean called Sohn Kee Chung, gold medalist in the marathon. Sohn remembers Hitler as seeming “hard as a rock.” His handshake “was like an iron fist and his eyes were very clear. He seemed to stare through me and seemed very powerful and strong.” Those being the days of Japanese empire, Sohn ran as a subject of the Japanese emperor. When he received his gold medal, the Japanese national anthem was played. Sohn bowed his head. In respect? Or, as he now claims, in shame? Sohn, said a young Korean interpreter at the Seoul games, is not a sincere patriot. Perhaps that is why he was allowed to enter the Seoul stadium carrying the Olympic flame, but not to complete the final lap: Sohn may be a great Korean, but he had run for the Japanese.

Sohn struck me as a sad figure, the perfect example perhaps of a pure athlete, manipulated by political forces beyond his control. And yet, in his apartment, cluttered with trophies, this hero of the Berlin Olympics still insisted, more than once, each time more vehemently, that without the Olympics we would have wars. But what about Hitler and World War II, I asked. “That,” he answered, “was the fault of politicians.”

The greatest promoter before the war of Japanese marathon running was an odd professor called Hibino Yutaka. In his photograph he looks a stern moralist, dressed in a kimono, Japanase fan in the right hand, homburg hat in the left. Like Coubertin, Hibino believed in sports as a national tonic. After the Olympic games in Paris in 1924, he traveled all over Europe demonstrating his own new concept of the marathon. Hibino also wrote a book, Nippon Shindo Ron, or the National Ideals of the Japanese People, published in English in 1928,8 just as he was attending the Amsterdam Olympics. The professor was either terribly misguided or a thoroughly nasty piece of work. His book is one long hysterical paean to the Japanese emperor, whose power is unique in the world, divine and always benevolent; only absolute obedience to this sacred power will lead to perfect harmony and peace. Hibino, as did many men in his time (and as do many Japanese and Koreans still today), saw the family of nations in terms of a permanent Darwinist struggle:

National success in this contest waits upon unity of purpose in the hearts of the people. If unity of purpose in the hearts of the people is strong and vigorous the nation may face a myriad of foes without anxiety. The subjects of our Empire have never been lacking in this respect. May this immemorial jewel of our national glory be ever exalted in unparalleled effulgence, a lasting wonder to the startled gaze of foreign peoples.

It would be interesting to know whether Coubertin ever met his fellow amateur from Japan, and what he would have made of his ideas. What is more to the point, however, is the similarity in tone between Hibino’s writings and some of the sentiments expressed in South Korea today—particularly the bit about the startled gaze of the foreign peoples, but also the yearning for unity and national glory. This can be explained by Korea’s painful past, always at the mercy of stronger powers, who are blamed to this day for dividing the country in two. But bitter feelings are often inflamed, all too often literally, for political ends, by the government and by the opposition.

It was perhaps unfair to watch the opening ceremony in Seoul with Leni Riefenstahl’s films and books on prewar chauvinists fresh in my mind. Yet, with all the banners bearing Coubertin’s slogans, the uniformed athletes marching behind their national flags, the parades of folk dancers, the sacred flame, the thousands of children drilled to form gigantic flags and Olympic symbols, the chatter about Peace and Progress, one realized how profoundly old-fashioned South Korea (not to mention the North, of course) still is. This is one of the few countries that combine a capitalist economy with the militant patriotism and obsession with folk culture more often seen in Communist states. And more than once I imagined Friedrich Jahn watching the proceedings in Seoul with great approval from his great stadium in the sky. Much heavy weather was made in the Korean press about the bad behavior of American athletes who would not march in line (the Soviets gave the Korean riot policemen, dressed in natty white for the occasion, no such trouble). I found myself applauding American rowdiness, just as I applauded the Japanese in their events when the entire Korean audience was baying for Japanese blood.

It might seem perverse to call South Korea old-fashioned when its image in the world press is that of a superdynamic steel and glass economic miracle. But this is not necessarily a contradiction. Industrialization, nation building, and, to use that awful buzz word, internationalization formed the background in nineteenth-century Europe to world’s fairs and the Olympic idea, but also to world wars and totalitarianism. South Korea is not on the warpath, nor is it totalitarian, but it is still struggling with democracy. One often hears in Seoul that a political miracle followed the economic one, and that the Seoul Olympics will make Korean progress even more miraculous. Well, perhaps. It depends on what one means by progress. Politics are not the result of miracles and international rallies have nothing to do with democracy—or even, in my opinion, with peace.

The ideals of unity and patriotic harmony were not only, as is so often assumed, the natural aspirations of a people cast adrift by rapid industrialization. They were an integral part of political propaganda. Park Chung Hee, the father of Korea’s Economic Miracle, enforced a military dictatorship in the name of harmony to achieve economic progress. Dissent was called unpatriotic. Dissenters, for their part, called the government unpatriotic for making deals with foreigners. Both sides claimed a monopoly on patriotism. The Seoul Olympics were used by Park’s successors to lend legitimacy to yet another dictatorial regime. One of the major promoters was Roh Tae Woo, then a minister without portfolio, now president of the republic. Now that South Korea finally has achieved a more liberal political system, in which politicians are taking over from military strongmen, the ritualized patriotism of the Olympic games may be good for what Korean columnists, students, and scholars call “the Korean identity,” but not so good for the budding democracy.

The gradual opening up of Korean society is not helped by a process of nation building that is not only anachronistic, but encourages xenophobia instead of openness. Nation building can be good for sports—which explains, perhaps, why the US is one of the few non-Communist nations to do well; it is in a constant state of nation building. And the dynamism, optimism, and faith in progress of South Koreans are exciting, even inspiring. South Korea indeed astonished the world by organizing the largest games ever, under great provocation from their belligerent northern neighbors and some of their own students. That the games went off smoothly for the most part—some unpleasantness about drugs and boxing decisions aside—testifies to Korean efficiency and goodwill.

I was there when Ben Johnson streaked past at such speed that I had to watch it again in slow motion on a giant video screen to realize what I had seen. As the whole world now knows, he was later disqualified for taking muscle-building steroids and sent home in disgrace.

No doubt he—or his doctor—shouldn’t have done it. But the storm of self-righteousness elicited by Johnson’s deed was sickening. The IOC has a way of taking up moral issues, but these are always subject to political expediency, remarkably political in fact for a bunch of crusaders that prides itself on eschewing politics. Once, the great issue was amateurism. Money from commercial sources, it was thought, would sully the purity of the Olympic ideal. Money from Communist states, however, was different: alienating the Soviets, East Germans, or Bulgarians would have been a disaster for the games. But when competition from professional sports became too heavy, the rules changed. Since 1984, professionals have been allowed to take part.

Now the great issue is drugs. All athletes take drugs of one kind or another, from throat lozenges to pain-killers after injuries. Some of these drugs may or may not contain forbidden substances. Until 1974, drugs, or steroids at any rate, had not been an issue; they were allowed. They are clearly still widely used today (by up to 50 percent of the athletes, some say). In Mexico steroids are freely available without prescription. Now that sports have become such a huge business, athletes are under enormous pressure to win, and to ensure that they do, teams of doctors, coaches, psychiatrists, dieticians, and other mollycoddlers are put in charge of them. The average athlete may hardly know who is doing what to him or why. To pretend that, despite these pressures, the Olympics are simply about taking part in a celebration of peace and brotherhood is pure hypocrisy. Johnson, several Bulgarian weightlifters, and two British athletes were unlucky enough to get caught. This has deprived them of winning prizes—not to mention, in some cases, financial fortunes—which is fair enough, but there is no need to make them into unrepentant sinners. As the saying goes, all is fair in business.9

The pressure on the Korean athletes was even worse. Not to win gold was regarded virtually as a national disgrace. Several Korean winners of silver and bronze medals actually apologized for their failures. I watched the Koreans in action in several sports, among them women’s volleyball. They played Japan. The stands were filled with rival tribes, preparing for war: Japanese tour groups waved their flags and banners, while Koreans stamped their feet, banged their drums, the men howling, the women ululating. Every Korean point put the entire Korean tribe into a frenzy. But when it became clear that the Japanese were going to win, the audience went very quiet, then began slinking out of the stadium, as though embarrassed to witness defeat.

Korean chauvinism was often hysterical, particularly when it involved Americans or Japanese. During the games, many ordinary Koreans went out of their way to be polite and helpful to foreign visitors. But there was a mean-spirited edge to comments in the Korean press. When the Japanese brought over for the first time since the end of the war an entire Kabuki theater troupe, the Korea Herald ran a headline saying: “Coarse Kabuki Show Fails to Impress.” The play, the story went on to say, “stirred up bitter memories of the Japanese samurai culture, or Japanese militarism…which clashes with Korea’s time-nurtured consciousness of literati.” I thought of the images I had seen in the papers of Korean athletes being drilled in boot camp, wearing full military gear, and screaming “Fight, fight, fight!”

There had been a disgraceful incident in the boxing ring. When the decision went against a Korean boxer, several people, including his coach and a security guard, jumped into the ring to beat up the hapless New Zealand referee. 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.

But that was not the end of it. NBC was accused by, among others, members of the ruling Democratic Justice Party of being anti-Korean, even of insulting the “Korean identity.” One wonders whether Bryant Gumbel even knows what the Korean identity is, let alone desires to insult it. But perhaps that was the problem: he should have been more informed about Koreans. I had lunch with a Korean government spokesman who did little else but talk about the crass attitudes of Americans. The American press, he said, had ignored the deep significance of the opening ceremony. They willfully refused to understand Korean culture. The Europeans, they were quite different. The Germans, especially: they understood the symbolic depth of the ceremony. Well, I thought with an element of spite (I must confess here that the Dutch defeat of Germany during the European soccer championship made me as happy as a Korean watching the Japanese go down): they would, wouldn’t they.

Some American commentators put the anti-American mood down to a clash of cultural values. Tony Kornheiser, for example, writing in The Washington Post, pointed out that Koreans were hurt because American journalists refused to obey the unspoken rule that they should only look at what Koreans chose to show them. If press censorship, self- or government-inflicted, is a cultural value, then let us help change the value or shut up about democracy in South Korea.

The rhetoric from the left, if one can call it that in Korea, was even more aggressive. When Carl Lewis appeared impatient with reporters on his arrival at the Seoul airport, the Hangyoreh Shinmun berated him the next day for his “shallow-hearted and haughty attitude,” which

clearly betrays the twisted racism among American black people, looking down upon the Asian people more than the white people…. Champions from Africa, where he should find his “roots” say that “the black people are not free as long as Mandela is in prison.” Carl Lewis is a degenerate American.

The tone of this article betrayed two things: the anxiety behind the swagger and the politics of this paper, which was set up by antigovernment activists as a result of more liberal press laws.

What is disturbing about South Korea is the way both government spokesmen and anti-government radicals often sound like members of Action Française. I couldn’t help feeling sometimes that Charles Maurras, even more than the woolly Baron de Coubertin, would have felt at home in Seoul. This is not a matter of being for or against the Olympics. The radical students seducing the TV news-makers with their daily demonstrations of firebomb throwing are every bit as antidemocratic as the authoritarian generals who wanted the Olympics to give them Face. They blame the division of their country on American imperialism. And they believe that America deliberately prevented North Korea from sharing the Olympics. The division of Korea is a political problem, which radicals think they can solve by violence, by prayer meetings, and by marching to the DMZ to meet North Korean delegations to discuss peace and unification. Like Coubertin, they proclaim that by cutting out politics and staging mass meetings, peace and brotherhood will naturally follow.

Perhaps the Korean belief in miracles is cultural. Korea is after all a nation of mass prayer meetings, new religions, the birthplace of the Reverend Moon, and a hospitable destination for the likes of Billy Graham. Russell Warren Howe, in his otherwise egregiously ill-written, misinformed book,10 is probably right to call Korean culture shamanistic. Filipinos often seem to be waiting for a national messiah, but Koreans have a tendency to take a messianic view of the nation itself. One of the more amusing spectacles at the Seoul games was the peddlers of many different sects and creeds lying in ambush outside the main entrances of sports arenas. I shall restrict my quotations to only two of the many pamphlets pressed into my hands by beaming proselytizers. One was from one Presbyter Park Tae-sun, of the Sun Kyung (Fairland) Development R&S Institution:

To All Mankind!—We proclaim that the Republic of Korea is the country where mankind was first created and civilization was cradled, and the parental country of all mankind. All mankind now participating in the ‘88 Olympic Games! We advise you to realize the fact that the Republic of Korea having about 5000 year [sic] long history, is your parental country.”

The Kingdom Gospel Evangelical Association had this to say:

The reason why the kingdom of God where our human body can live eternally comes true herein [sic] the Republic of Korea is that the Taegukki, Korea National Flag has the figure of glorious God, and the Republic of Korea has seen the Second Advent of Jesus Christ really coming to it. Now, all the world should recognize the fact that the Republic of Korea is the right place where the heaven of eternal life shall be realized.

One suspects something wrong happened on the way to modern nationhood in Korea. An unfortunate synthesis must have occurred between West and East. The West, usually via Japan in the 1920s and 1930s, gave Korea half-baked German notions of Blood and Soil;11 it also exported, mostly from America, the equally half-baked notions of vulgar evangelism. Korea contributed an emotional legacy of historical bitterness and a propensity for shamanistic rites. These are precisely some of the ingredients that went into Independence Hall, and were encouraged by the Olympic games. No doubt the sense of victimhood, of being ignored or worse by other powers throughout history, has contributed to the modern zeal to gain recognition, to win gold medals, to beat the Japanese, and ultimately, who knows, the Americans. The Koreans got twelve gold medals, an astonishing number for them, and for that they should be congratulated.

But as one casts one’s eyes on the list of the most successful sporting nations—East Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, the Soviet Union—gold medals are not necessarily the marks of great national progress (of any kind), let alone of civilized and open societies. South Korea wants, no craves, to be recognized as a great nation and a democracy. Less zealotry, less reliance on shamanistic incantations, and a greater willingness to let bygones be bygones would carry South Koreans a long way toward that goal. If that spells a little decadence, then so be it.

  1. 1

    Quoted in Duff Hart-Davis’s superb book Hitler’s Games (Harper and Row, 1986), p. 231.

  2. 2

    The First Modern Olympics (University of California Press, 1976).

  3. 3

    Süren’s work is discussed in an article by Boudewijn Buch in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad (August 22, 1986).

  4. 4

    Quoted in John J. MacAloon’s excellent study of Coubertin, This Great Symbol (University of Chicago Press, 1981).

  5. 5

    The First Modern Olympics, p. 33.

  6. 6

    This Great Symbol, p. 141.

  7. 7

    Hitler’s games should of course never have been held at all, but the president of the IOC, a Belgian aristocrat in Coubertin’s mold called Henri Baillet-Latour, insisted that Nazi policies were a domestic matter of no concern to the IOC. When the subject of the Nazi persecution of Jews was raised, the Belgian remarked that “the IOC does not go into such details.” Baillet-Latour was recently praised in The New York Times by George Plimpton as “one of the great heroes of Olympic history.” Well, no doubt he is.

  8. 8

    Cambridge University Press.

  9. 9

    And steroids, sold to gymnasts, body-builders, and other athletes, amateur and professional, throughout the US, are big business indeed; to the extent even of attracting organized crime syndicates. See The Wall Street Journal (October 4, 1988).

  10. 10

    The Koreans (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988).

  11. 11

    The influence of German romanticism on prewar Japanese thinking is a neglected subject, but that same influence on the old Japanese empire is almost completely ignored.

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