The First Olympics in Korea, Thirty Years Ago

The First Olympics in Korea, Thirty Years Ago

With the recent kick-off of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, the whole world has its eyes poised on Korea as it hosts one of the most famous sports events in popular culture. However, Pyeongchang is not the first Korean city to welcome the Games: 30 years ago, from September 17 to October 2, 1988, the city of Seoul welcomed the 24th edition of the Summer Olympics.

Marking an important milestone in modern Korean history, the Seoul 1988 Olympics were seen as an opportunity for the country to gain a reputable international standing as an emerging nation, as well as a tool for the people to reinforce their national identity. Following the Korean War (1950-1953), South Korea entered an important rapid industrialization, quickly going from one of the poorest nations on the planet to an economic power that would soon rival Canada and Russia in the 21st century. For the country, at the time, hosting the Olympic Games was a matter of getting recognized by the world as the great emerging democratic nation it was hoping to be.

Seoul 1988: “Harmony and Progress”


The 1988 Olympics welcomed 159 nation delegations, amounting to a total of 8,397 athletes, competing in 237 events in 23 sports. It was the first Olympiad to see table tennis as a sport in the competition, as well as tennis, which had been absent from the Games for over 64 years, with its last appearance in the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics.

The official logo is a derivation of the traditional taegeuk (태극) symbol, the Korean variant of the Chinese taiji, or yin and yang. Its most common shape is the one seen on the South Korean flag, where a circle composed of interlocked blue and red semi-circles sits in the middle. The samtaegeuk symbol (삼태극) is comprised of three colors, adding the yellow into the mix, and was the one used for the Seoul 1988 Olympics. Red holds the meaning of earth, blue represents heaven, and yellow, people. The symbol was meant for an illustration of the motto of the Games, “Harmony and Progress.” Hodori, the Games’ mascot, is a tiger—the first syllable of his name, “Ho,” is also the first syllable of the Korean word for tiger, horangi (호랑이).

1988 and Its Legacy


The 1988 Olympic Games were a huge success, and achieved the goal the Korean administration was hoping for: by being put under the spotlight, Seoul raised South Korea’s international image, and helped lead the country towards the path that would ensure the development of its modern booming economy. The Games helped South Korea engage in various diplomatic relations with many countries in Eastern Europe, among others, and strengthened its ties with China.

Nowadays, there are still visible landmarks from the Games around the capital—notably the immense Jamsil Olympic Stadium, which also served to host the 10th Asian Games only a few years before the Games. It is also the largest stadium in South Korea, with a seating capacity of almost 70,000 people. Notable musical performers at the Olympic Stadium include Michael Jackson, H.O.T., Metallica, JYJ, Lady Gaga, and many others. More recently, EXO held their EXO’rDIUM encore concert at the stadium, in May 2017.

North and South, 30 Years Apart

News of the two Koreas marching together at the Pyeongchang 2018 Opening Ceremony made the headlines around the globe. However, while Pyeongchang seems to see a more compliant North Korea taking part in the Games, Seoul saw a completely different scenario unfold in 1988. North Korea, along with Cuba, its main ally, demanded that the Games be held in both Koreas in order for the country to participate. The refusal to do so both from Seoul and the International Olympic Committee led North Korea to boycott the Seoul Olympic Games, thus isolating itself even more from the world stage.

Now, 30 years later, the two countries stand in a strange gray area between reconciliation and conflict. Could the momentary collaboration of the two countries in the Olympics this year lead to further talks and negotiations between the North and the South, nuclear threat be damned? One can only hope as much—and watch, for the next three weeks, as all eyes will be set on Pyeongchang.


“Seoul 1988 - Highlights of the Games.”

“Seoul 1988 Mascot.”

Peter Horton & John Saunders (2012) “The ‘East Asian’ Olympic Games: what of sustainable legacies?”, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 29:6, 887-911.

Leavitt Amie. We Visit South Korea. Mitchell Lane Publishers, 2014.

John E. Findling & Kimberly D. Pelle. Historical Dictionary of the Modern Olympic Movement. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996.

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