Summer is a washout, draining Seoul's pools

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Summer is a washout, draining Seoul's pools

Summer is no longer in the air. The mornings are growing cooler, and the sticky evening humidity is giving way to cool breezes that tell us autumn is just around the corner. It happened almost overnight, when the heavy rainfall season ended last week. Summer was cut short this year by the torrential rains that began in August and lasted almost three weeks. There has been no time for frolicking in the sun or playing by the pool.

"It's been a horrible, horrible season altogether," laments Jeon Dae-woo, general manager of Euro Leports, a company that manages four of the seven outdoor pools in the Han River Parks.

Indeed, August has been the cruelest month for Mr. Jeon and his Han River pools. Average daily attendance dropped to 250 in August from 1,500 in July. "This year, we've given up any hope of making a profit from the outdoor pools," Mr. Jeon says with a sigh. "August has been most devastating to us. The flood forced us to close Yeouido pool for several days."

The deluge began on Aug. 4 and lasted for more than two weeks. Only Aug. 15 and 16 saw a break in the weather. The rainfall was so intense that on Aug. 7 the Yeouido pool had to be closed as the Han River crested its banks. Water poured into the locker rooms, showers and stalls. Afterwards, Euro Leports and the Han River Park Administrative Office worked for days to shovel out the clay and residue.

"After the water receded, we were struggling to get rid of the little crabs, fish and even tortoises swimming in the pools," says Mr. Jeon. When Yeouido reopened on Aug. 14, there were high hopes that visitors would return to cool off during the final days of summer.

But the rain only paused before resuming. It came in torrents, then in piddling drizzles. We didn't see the last of it until the wee hours of Monday morning. Or was that the last of it?

Yeouido Park's outdoor pool, the largest among the Han River Parks' seven pools, actually fared better than the others, largely due to the help provided by soldiers and firefighters who pumped out the water and swept out the debris.

For Euro Leports, a private company that recently began operating the swimming pools, it has been a disheartening summer season.

July had seemed promising. More than 6,000 people visited Yeouido Park's outdoor pool on Constitution Day, July 17; and the following weekend, the pool took in more than 10,000 visitors.

A few days later, a visitor saw swarms of shrieking children and their guardians at Yeouido. There was a light drizzle that day -- who knew it was a harbinger of soakings to come? Bright swimsuits with matching caps, gaudy bikinis and florid swimming tubes, plastic balls and arm floats defied the gray sky. Because the afternoon was warm, it even seemed sensible to sunbathe.

Children ran around, splashing water and giggling with playmates. Mothers fed gimbap, grapes and biscuits to any of their brood who paused momentarily. A speaker system called for the mother of a lost child. Troublemakers waited until the lifeguards' looked the other way, and then made prohibited dives into the pool. Yeouido was like a crowded market, with approximately 3,300 persons in the pool.

What a contrast that was to last week. The two children's pools were practically empty; the adult pool appeared abandoned. It wasn't raining that day, but the atmosphere was morose.

Many of the food stalls had closed; the number of lifeguards had shrunk by half. Around noon, 100 or so kindergartners came to play in the pool. But the water was so cold that they did not stay long.

Two sisters brought their children. "I promised my kids that I would bring them to the pool this year," says Lim Seung-hee, 33. "But we never got around to it because of the rain. Now it's getting chilly and my kids refuse to go in the water." Fewer than 1,000 people came to the pool that day.

Yeouido Park's three outdoor pools have a capacity of 3,400. For Euro Leports to turn a profit, visitors must exceed the pools' capacity at least 10 days each month. There have been only two such days in August.

Will Euro Leports continue to operate the pools next year? "We have to," says Mr. Jeon. "We have to succeed next time around." He is praying for good weather.

The Han River Parks' outdoor pools are the only places where ordinary folks can swim in the heart of Seoul. Entrance fees are 2,500 won ($2) for adults and 1,500 won for children under 13. The Han River Park pools are Seoul's community pools -- affordable though somewhat run down -- with a view of the Han River.

What can you say? Summer was a washout. More than 252 millimeters of rain fell through the first three weeks of August, compared with 178 millimeters for the entire month last year, according to the Korea Meteorological Administration.

Our dreams of lying lazily in the sun or cooling off with a quick dip are dashed. While we grieve for the lost summer of 2002, we can only pray -- along with Mr. Jeon -- that next year's skies will be more merciful.

Han River Parks' outdoor pools close on Saturday. For more information, visit http://hangang.seoul.go.kr or call 02-3780-0801.

by Choi Jie-ho

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