[Viewpoint] Olympic, World Cup lessons endure

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[Viewpoint] Olympic, World Cup lessons endure

This year, July has special meaning as the quadrennial international sports extravaganza known as the Summer Olympic Games returns to London 64 years after the city hosted the first Games after World War II.

Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin was a disgraceful and tragic harbinger. The 1948 London Olympics, held amid post-war rubble and austerity, restored and refocused the world’s attention on a common goal of peace and shared prosperity.

The Berlin Olympics produced many indelible images, including a photo of marathon gold medalist Sohn Kee-chung, whose head lowered to hide “silent shame and outrage” and whose hands clutching an oak tree to his chest to cover up the Japanese flag emblazoned on his jersey.

The 1948 Games showed entirely different expressions on the faces of the 67 athletes who walked into the Olympic stadium for the first time holding a flag of an independent nation. Athletes as well as Koreans cheering for their national team had been genuinely true to the Olympics spirit that participating was more important than winning.

Korea was free from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, but it was a country in name only, with no established sovereign government. Following the May 10, 1948 United Nations resolution, the country held its first-ever election and organized a legislature. By the time legislators were putting final touches on the Constitution, Korea’s first national sports team was headed for London. The nation seeing off their first Olympics team with the taegeuk flag symbol on their chests shared an excitement and hope for a new era.

The people celebrated the London Olympic closing ceremony on Aug. 14 as a global blessing for South Korea’s founding on Aug. 15, Independence Day.

The South Korean team has competed in almost every Summer Olympics since then, including the 1952 Helsinki Games at the height of the Korean War.

In 1988, the Olympic torch came to Seoul, where the largest number of participating nations up to that time came together after the boycott-marred Olympics in Moscow and Los Angeles.

The Seoul Olympics theme song, “Hand In Hand,” set the tone for a world in the post-cold war era.

For Koreans, the 1988 Olympics were an unparalleled global showcase of the nation’s strength and determination in rising from the rubble of war and poverty to become an economic powerhouse and political example.

From the late 1970s, global currents swept past the cold war and produced a wave of democratization in the face of authoritarianism.

Korea’s nationwide democracy movement in June 1987 culminated in the June 29 Declaration, forcing the military regime to yield to popular demands for constitutional reform and direct presidential elections, as well as other civil liberties. Koreans demonstrated they were perfectly in tune with global trends in politics, economy and culture, and were ready and willing to lead the way to reforms and progress.

To Koreans, the 1988 Seoul Olympics was much more than medals, as the event built national confidence and helped provide the impetus to join the globalization movement.

Emboldened by newfound confidence and status, Korea cosponsored the FIFA World Cup soccer games with Japan in 2002. As cohost of the first-ever World Cup in Asia, the South Korean team was under enormous pressure to be competitive against the world’s most powerful 32 teams.

In fact, many football experts worried that the team would splash cold water on the pride and joy of the Korean people who had overcome - and successfully recovered from - a humiliating bailout by the International Monetary Fund in an unprecedented financial crisis.

The incredible strain, however, exacted miraculously positive force and fortune. The amazing run by the South Korean team to beat powerhouses Spain, Italy and Portugal to reach the semifinals awed audiences abroad and electrified Koreans.

Behind that miraculous performance was an unshakable and incredible belief in the team by local supporters, or Red Devils, that inspired players under great coaching by Guus Hiddink.

It is nearly impossible to determine precisely how national excitement and the force of popular belief can help produce national unity. But the national strength and unity that was outstandingly demonstrated during the 1988 Olympics and the 2002 World Cup Games should be celebrated as a unique legacy for future generations.

* The author is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Hong-koo

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