From global sporting events like the Olympics Games and the football World Cup to regionalised events like the Commonwealth Games, east Asian Games, Major Baseball League (LBL), La Liga etc. – all attract large audiences irrespective of age. It involves people from various countries and  as Hazan says, “emotionally, vocally and physically” charged to successfully translate nationalistic elements and themes (flags, uniforms) into high- level competition involving countries and thus, involving international politics, relations and diplomacy.

From Ping- pong diplomacy to the infamous football war between El Salvador and Honduras, the 2010 Taiwan Taekwondo controversy, Israel becoming part of the Asian Football Confederation, role of Rugby in South Africa’s government transition, boycotting of 1980 Moscow Olympics by Western countries and their allies post the Soviet’s invasion into Afghanistan, the killing of the Israeli Olympic team by Palestinian Black September in 1972 are all indicative of  how intertwined sporting competition are with international politics.

With diplomacy gaining currency, and more importantly public diplomacy, sports offer the right balance of public and media opinion where the latter can be influenced by the government in case of the production elements, building of nation image globally, construction of a suitable nationalistic narrative for the locals, establishment of the State in global power hierarchy etc.

From this point on, I will be analysing briefly the public diplomacy practiced by South Korea through the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

In 1789, President Park Chung Hee was assassinated causing sudden power vacuum at the top political position. It was followed by violent conflict between military forces under General Chun Doo Hwan and student demonstrators (in Kwangju) causing a lot of domestic political instability. In 1980, the U.S. dispatched a naval force to help South Korea in forming a new government with Chun Doo Hwan as President.

The new de facto government had many eminent problems. Firstly, the expansion of the Korean economy from agrarian to industrial had caused a discrepancy in the labour force and increased the standard of living rapidly  for some members of the Korean society (the rise of the affluent middle class). Secondly, with the economic boom, people had started to ‘generate’ political expectations and discourses on the future direction of Korean political system had started to emerge.Thirdly, there was a widespread unwillingness, especially among the younger population in recognising the Chun government as legitimate. And lastly, the North Korean regime continued its acts of hostility against their South Korean counterparts (1983 bombing and assassination attempt of South Korean officials in Burma, 1987 bomb attack on a Korean Air flight) which added to further pressure.

The above scenarios influenced the Chun government for the bidding of hosting the 1988 Olympics as it was seen as the answer to all problems.

Let us explore why the decision to host the 1988 Summer Olympic was critical for the Chun government and of course, South Korea’s future.

The miracle on the Han river was real and substantial. (I have mentioned supporting data under end notes.) There was impressive growth in terms of the country’s Gross National Product, per capita income, the value of Korean exports especially the automobile manufacturing sector  which rose substantially. In this context, hosting the Olympics was for gaining global visibility, establishing itself a new status and image from once being impoverished but now being an industrialising country with influential role in international trade nonetheless.

It was the perfect platform for South Korea’s coming out party (to the outside world ) after a struggling past.

Now this was not only for the international audience but also an attempt to raise nationalistic pride in the domestic scene, and gaining the legitimacy the Chun government lacked.  It took care of credit- claiming on domestic grounds, broadening of their much lacking political support and hope for overcoming the political instability or at least mitigating it. Additionally, another point to note is that “it followed from this economic success story that increasing numbers of Korean citizens were acquiring an economic stake in political stability” (Manheim, 1990) .

The South Korean government realised early on that its stability and continuity depended  on North Korea’s actions. It was therefore important that the global community also view and perceive the North Korean hostility as a threat. For this, South Korea decided to turn to the international community for its support, aid and insurance.

The effort in seeking the hosting of the summer olympics changed the South Korean economic and political context radically. Economically, it had a robust industrial sector, it was backed by a hardworking workforce, heavy investments in education and technical skills had given rise to a rising middle class, the standard of living had risen dramatically, high exports lead to efforts in keeping the Korean won depreciated against the U.S. dollars, Japan had implemented import barriers (Korea was recognised as a serious competitor by Japan). All in all, it was South Korea’s time to shine.


Politically, there were protests, violent clashes, and most interestingly, there was pressure for democratisation. It thus began the course of Korea’s political reform.

To conclude, the 1988 Seoul Olympics gained South Korea visibility and credibility internationally, it forced the government to introspect its objectives, agendas, policy and interests, it influenced in its political reform for democratisation and lastly, created international political awareness about its tricky relationship with North Korea.


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End Notes

  1. Table 1-1 shows the economic transition from agrarian to industrial. It is also marked by the dramatic fall in imports and rise in exports which is in accordance to its adopted Export- oriented economic policy. Screen Shot 2016-12-02 at 21.08.36.png
  2. Table  2-1 gives the sectoral break up of the South Korean economy from 1954 to 1986. It is in accordance with the economic transition where agricultural sector has decreased to 13.5% (1982-86) from 44.6% (1954- 56). The contribution of manufacturing and mining sector witnesses an increase from 12% to 30.2% from 1954-56 to 1982- 86. South Korea was known for its strong global market share for durable products and automobile manufacturing.  Screen Shot 2016-12-02 at 21.08.44.png
  3. Table 2-4 is indicative of the rise of sources of income for the government. Through this, it was able to invest in infrastructure projects, education and provide capital for businesses.
    Screen Shot 2016-12-02 at 21.08.57.png
  4. Table 4-1 and tale 4-2 illustrate the robustness of the Korean won against the U.S. dollars in the backdrop of increased export value of Korean products and the trade. Screen Shot 2016-12-02 at 21.09.33.pngScreen Shot 2016-12-02 at 21.09.22.png


  1. Ḥazan, B., 1982. Olympic sports and propaganda games: Moscow 1980. Transaction Publishers.
  2. Manheim, J.B., 1990. Rites of passage: The 1988 Seoul Olympics as public diplomacy. The Western Political Quarterly, pp.279-295.
  3. Kang, J., Kim, J.O. and Wang, Y., 2015. Salvaging national pride: The 2010 taekwondo controversy and Taiwan’s quest for global recognition. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 50(1), pp.98-114.
  4. Close, P., 2010. Olympiads as Mega-events and the Pace of Globalization: Beijing 2008 in Context. The International Journal of the History of Sport, 27(16-18), pp.2976-3007.
  5. Lee Junewoo (2014) [1/3] opening ceremony – 1988 Seoul Olympic games. Available at: (Accessed: 2 December 2016).
  6. Olympic (2013a) 2020 Olympics – Istanbul, Tokyo and Madrid promotional candidate videos. Available at: (Accessed: 2 December 2016).
  7. Olympic (2013b) Best bits of the Beijing 2008 Olympics | highlights. Available at: (Accessed: 2 December 2016).
  8. Kim, K.S., 1995. The Korean Miracle (1962–80) Revisited: Myths and realities in strategies and development. In Asian industrialization and Africa (pp. 87-143). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

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