[OUTLOOK]For World Cup, a sort of dry runA friend from the United States recently wrote me to inquire how Korea's World Cup plans were going. I'm not sure, I wrote back, so on Sunday I went down to Yeouido Park to see if I could find some indications.
I went to Yeouido Park to compete in the Seoul Marathon. This five-year-old race is hardly the international event that the World Cup soccer tournament is, but the marathon nonetheless draws several thousand entrants, including many foreigners.
The Seoul Marathon, I decided, would be a way for me to grade how Korea handles a major athletic contest.
Arriving at the park in search of the foreigners' registration table, I was immediately beckoned by a volunteer who stepped forward and, without a word, steered me toward a row of light- green buildings. Evidently, the volunteer had been instructed that all aliens come to Korea to look for one thing: a bathroom.
I eventually found the registration table. "Racing Head Quarters," said a banner hanging above the table. As evidenced by Seoul's "Worldcup" Stadium, signage continues to be a problem for Koreans. Another banner at the race site read "Gather Area."
I love it that Koreans enjoy their banners so much. Indeed, give a Korean a long sheet of that slick plastic or cloth and two sticks, and he's as happy as a karaoke singer who keeps hearing the word "Encore!"
Banners were draped everywhere at the Seoul Marathon, and most were written in Korean, which is understandable. But I didn't always understand them.
"What do all those banners say?" I asked a Korean friend at the race.
Studying some of the rectangular strips for a moment, she said, "Not much."
A loudspeaker plays a prominent role at most activities in Korea. In fact, Koreans appreciate loudspeakers nearly as much as they do banners. At the Seoul Marathon, an amplified voice chattered nonstop.
"What is that man saying?" I asked my friend.
Listening a moment, she said, "Not much."
When another voice, a female's, came on speaking English, some confusion resulted. At first the speaker announced that 11,000 people had entered the four races that make up the Seoul Marathon. A moment later she said there were 15,000 entrants. She next said there were 400 foreigners; then 300. Finally, she gave the weather report ?for Sunday night.
The 5-kilometer race, which I had entered, was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. At 11:15, we 5K competitors were still milling about the "Gather Area." Finally, we inched toward the starting line, holding high our banner.
At about 11:20 or so, the starting gun sounded. It wasn't actually a gun, but a drum. The drum, which I couldn't hear, was followed by the loudspeaker's ubiquitous voice, which I really didn't care to hear. Discarding the banner, the mob sprang forward, and I went with them.
The race was pleasantly uneventful. The 5K course was well-laid out, with volunteer marshals along the way smiling broadly and exhorting "Fighting!" to spur on competitors. Yes, someone ran with a cell phone, but what did I really expect? I once entered a footrace in Romania, where physical exercise is looked forward to with the same eagerness as spinal surgery. As they waited at the Bucharest event's starting line, several runners furiously puffed cigarettes.
Crossing the Seoul Marathon's finish line, I was disappointed that a large digital clock that was supposed to give runners their times in the race wasn't working or hadn't been turned on, I didn't know which. I do know that a World Cup game would never be played with a balky scoreboard.
In the "Ending Area," another volunteer handed me a little carton of milk and an Arnold Palmer golf towel.
Taking a seat on the grass at Yeouido Park, I gulped the milk, then picked up the golf towel.
"What's this for?" I asked my Korean friend.
Glancing at me a moment, she said, "To wipe your mouth."
And what of my report card? I gave the Seoul Marathon an "A" in enthusiasm and a "C+" in details. For a final grade, I assigned it a solid "B," which bodes well for the World Cup, starting in less than 90 days.
Bring on those banners!
The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.
by Toby Smith