Seoul Notebook--Hosts Earn a Thumbs-Up

Times Staff Writer

According to eyewitnesses, an American was robbed here Sunday. But there was some consolation. People of Seoul stopped Americans on the street near the city’s sports complex to apologize for the decision that cost boxer Roy Jones of Pensacola, Fla., a gold medal.

There were similar reactions from Korean Broadcasting System commentators who criticized as unfair the 3-2 decision by non-Korean judges that Jones, 19, had lost to Korean boxer Park Si Hun in the 156-pound class.

Spectators at the match, most of them Korean, also seemed stunned when the referee raised Park’s hand.


It all seemed to underline a point South Koreans had been trying to make for two weeks: They are not anti-American. But they are anti-bad judging.

And much of what had been perceived as anti-Americanism during the Seoul Olympics was also anti-NBCism. This was not the year of the peacock in South Korea.

It started at the boxing arena on the sixth day of the Games, when South Korean coaches, trainers, the team manager, spectators and perhaps even security personnel--incensed when a decision went against one of their fighters--charged into the ring and assaulted the New Zealand referee. He was punched, grabbed and kicked for several minutes before he was rescued.

Many South Koreans were embarrassed. The president of the Korean Olympic Committee, Kim Chong Ha, resigned, explaining that the actions of South Korean boxing officials in the incident caused him to lose face. But others blamed NBC, arguing that the network’s coverage should have focused on the judging, which they contended was unfair, instead of the melee.

Irritated by Mask Theft

South Koreans were further irritated a few days later, when they felt that NBC paid too little attention to the theft of an $860 decorative mask from the wall of a Hyatt Hotel disco by three Americans, including two swimmers from a gold-medal-winning relay team.

After that, NBC could do little right in the eyes of South Koreans.

Early last week, unidentified NBC employees tried to have T-shirts made that read, “We’re Boxing, We’re Bad” on the front and “Chaos Tour ‘88” on the back, along with a sketch of two boxers superimposed on the South Korean flag.

The shopkeeper refused to serve them, arguing that, besides degrading the flag, the NBC employees insulted the host country by using the words “bad” and “chaos.” He reported the incident to a Seoul newspaper.

Kevin Monaghan, an NBC spokesman, apologized on Korean television.

Fearing reprisals, NBC officials warned their employees to maintain a low profile for the remainder of the Games.

If an NBC employee had suffered bodily harm, he or she might have been treated less than cordially, if at all, by medical personnel. An American reporter visiting the first-aid station at the Main Press Center was asked if he worked for NBC. When he said that he didn’t, he was treated.

“I no treat NBC people,” the attendant said. “They excite passion of Korean people.”

Another American reporter, trying to gain access to an arena without the proper credential, was told by the woman at the door that he could enter on two conditions.

The reporter had to give the woman six lapel pins from his newspaper and also promise to flatten the next person from NBC he met.

“You punch out,” the woman said emphatically.

Signs on some stores in Itaewon, the most popular shopping area for Western tourists, said, “NBC Not Welcome.”

All others were welcomed to Itaewon as long as they had South Korean currency in their pockets. Among the most popular items for Western shoppers were $12 Reeboks (known as Koreeboks), $25 Rolex watches and $15 Vuitton bags, all as artificially produced as Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s muscles.

Many Americans felt at home in Itaewon, a favorite nighttime haunt for U.S. soldiers, where they were most likely to find a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a Pizza Hut or a Baskin-Robbins. There also are music clubs catering to heavy metal, rock, jazz or country and western fans.

Americans were greeted warmly in other areas of the city as well. Perhaps it was because many South Koreans couldn’t tell Americans from other Caucasians. “You all look alike,” said a businessman who mistook a Los Angeles newspaper reporter for a National Geographic photographer. “Big noses, small faces.”

One young Korean woman on an outing at Olympic Park suddenly hooked her arm in the arm of a passing American and had her boyfriend take a picture of them together. A child, no more than 3 years old, stared at an American pedestrian from a bus window while stopped at a red light for several moments, then bowed very formally. Another American was approached on a sidewalk by teen-agers who asked him to sign their autograph books.

A taxi driver, speaking very deliberate but clear English, asked his American passenger if he were in a hurry. When the passenger said that he wasn’t, the driver withdrew a journal from his glove compartment and asked the man to write his name, his hometown and his impressions of Seoul.

“I am 54 years old,” the driver said. “I will live maybe 10 more years. The Olympics are the most important thing ever to happen in Korea. I drive many important people these two weeks. I want to give this to my son, and he can give it to his son.”

Another taxi driver, aware that he had Americans in his back seat, began humming the “Star Spangled Banner.”

It could have been because he believed that the Americans had not heard it enough during the Olympics, at least not in comparison with the Soviet Union and East German national anthems. Obsessed with the medal count, South Korean sportswriters could not understand why their American counterparts were not humiliated because their athletes finished in third place.

“U.S.S.R. Number One,” a South Korean reporter told an American reporter.

When the American nodded in agreement, the South Korean frowned.

“No,” he said. “U.S.A. Number One.”

Then he gave a thumbs-up sign.

That’s all that most South Koreans seemed to want in return for their efforts to make the Olympics a success, a thumbs-up sign.

They knew beforehand that they would receive raves for their sports facilities, called the best ever built for the Games by International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain.

They knew that their city would be presentable, having been coated with more polish than Florence Griffith Joyner’s fingernails. Millions of flowers lined the streets and highways. Even the anti-terrorist barricades had built-in flower pots. Old women with brooms swept the sidewalks and gutters each day at 7 a.m. The Han River, once a favorite dumping ground for industrial waste, was dredged and cleaned.

They hoped that their people would behave in a manner inoffensive to visitors. Pushing and shoving, which seems to be the country’s most popular sport after tae kwon do, and spitting on sidewalks were discouraged. Volunteers for the organizing committee were ordered to brush their teeth after eating kimchi, a pickled cabbage dish heavily laced with garlic that accompanies virtually every meal.

A challenge that would have overwhelmed Emily Post, that campaign brought mixed results.

So did the effort to reduce traffic, which was snarled despite a temporary law that allowed people to drive their cars every other day depending on whether their license plates ended with odd or even numbers. Even with less traffic, taxi drivers still operated as if they were trained at the Mike Tyson Driving Academy.

Seoul also broke the Olympic record set four years ago in Los Angeles for foul air, causing some Americans to wonder whether they will be able to function once home in the emission-controlled United States without the daily overdose of exhaust fumes. Barcelona’s organizers admit that their city is likely to establish a new standard in 1992.

But the worst fears for the Seoul Olympics never materialized. North Korea, one of only seven non-participants out of the IOC’s 167-member nations, did not send its athletes, but neither did it send its troops.

Perhaps because the universities were closed during the Games, student demonstrations were minimal. Even when they occurred, they received little support. In a standoff with police, about 200 students at Seoul National University chanted anti-American slogans two days before the opening ceremony. Meanwhile, at least twice as many students pored over books in the library. The former scene received considerable media attention, but not the latter.

The organizing committee had a security force of 120,000, including police and military personnel, on alert. Many of them had nothing more urgent to do than stand by the metal detectors at the entrances to arenas, press and athletes’ living quarters and official hotels and inspect the bags, purses and briefcases of those entering.

The security guards usually smiled and said, “Good morning” and, “Have a nice day.”

One of the more adventurous security guards found that he always got a laugh when he said, “Merry Christmas.” Later, he began greeting women reporters with, “You movie star?”

The government encouraged taxi drivers, department store salespeople and others in the service industry to learn at least a few words of a foreign language, preferably English. Give them credit for effort if not accuracy. A flyer from the laundry in the press village asked customers to “misinform” them of any problems.

If there was one characteristic that annoyed most Americans, it was Korean inflexibility. As explained by a professor at Seoul’s Hanyang University, Koreans traditionally carry out orders from their superiors to the last detail no matter how sensible it might be to do otherwise.

One reporter asked if the bus driver providing transportation from the fencing arena to the press village could let him off at the next corner.

“No stop at the corner,” the attendant told him.

“But you could stop at the corner if you wanted, couldn’t you?” the reporter said.

The attendant checked the schedule, his brow furrowed.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said after a few moments. “No stop at the corner.”

But once those in command sent orders to solve a problem, the staff moved quickly. During the first day of track and field competition, the organizers had difficulty providing results to the reporters. A complaint was registered, and the only problem thereafter was that too much information was given reporters too quickly for them to absorb.

It was the same with the transportation system. As at all Olympics, there were not enough buses in the first few days to transport athletes or reporters to events. When that became apparent to the organizers, they added buses and also made sure that there were taxis available outside the athletes’ and the press village.

The Seoul organizers were more responsive to complaints than those at any Olympics in recent memory.

“It’s like breaking in a new pair of shoes,” Park Seh Jik, president of the organizing committee, said of the initial problems. “You have to walk around in them for a few days before you break them in.”

Korean men generally received low marks for equal rights.

Visiting the office of an American newspaper, a Seoul reporter said that he needed to speak with an expert on diving.

“I’ll get you her phone number,” a reporter told him.

“She is woman?” the Korean reporter said. “Woman expert?”

The concept seemed to befuddle him. He left without taking the number.

American women said that Korean men usually tried to ignore them. But, if that wasn’t possible, they insulted them. Or worse.

After an argument, a Korean newspaper reporter shoved a female sportswriter from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., knocking her off balance.

Admonished for hitting her, the Korean reporter denied that he had done so.

“I moved her,” he said.

When it was explained to him that the American woman did not like to be “moved,” considering such an act offensive, the reporter shrugged, attributing the disagreement to “cultural differences.”

Koreans were extremely interested in the medal count, but they did not seem particularly enthusiastic about the competitors. Except for the combat sports, particularly boxing, tae kwon do and judo, the crowds were silent, coming to life only when a South Korean athlete was in contention.

But the organizers, aware before the Games that Korean sports fans might not be as boisterous as those in other parts of the world, at least tried to do something about it. They provided cheerleaders, complete with pompons, at many of the competitions and enlisted volunteers to form pep squads for countries that weren’t likely to have many fans of their own.

So, all in all, how did the South Koreans do?

A questionnaire distributed Sunday by the Korean Broadcasting System asked foreign journalists to rate the Seoul Games.

It doesn’t seem likely that many people checked the “excellent” category. But “quite good” seems fair.

South Koreans believe they did well enough to be recognized as an advanced nation. No one can say that they did not make the effort.

As American Greco-Roman wrestler Dennis Kozlowski said after winning a bronze medal, instead of the gold that he wanted: “If you shoot for the moon, maybe you’ll only get to the street lamp. But at least you got off the ground.”

Times staff writers Tracy Dodds, Mike Downey, Bill Dwyre, Earl Gustkey and Richard Hoffer contributed to this story.