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Put quite simply, the Olympic Games Seoul 1988 had a transformational effect on the host city and the Republic of Korea as a whole. As well as boosting the country’s global standing and improving international relations, the Games of the XXIV Olympiad showcased Korean culture to the wider world; triggered significant and lasting urban regeneration in the country’s capital city; and engendered a renewed sense of civic and national pride, creating a spirit of confidence that can still be felt today, 30 years on.
Sporting first

The first major sporting event to be held on the Korean peninsula and the last Olympic Games to be staged before the collapse of the Communist bloc in eastern Europe, Seoul 1988 was a pivotal event for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), helping to heal old wounds and reunite the Olympic Movement.

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A success story in every respect, Seoul 1988 provided a platform for improved diplomatic relations between communist and non-communist countries at a transitional time in world history, with the Republic of Korea being recognised by the international community as a key player in smoothing out global relations.

Catalyst for trade

A catalyst for international trade also, the 1988 Olympic Summer Games led to new commercial and diplomatic ties being established between the Republic of Korea and eastern European countries such as Hungary, the former Yugoslavia, and Poland, and latterly the former Soviet Union and China.

The positive effects of Seoul 1988 were also felt by the people of the Republic of Korea, who seized the opportunity presented by the first major international sporting event to be staged in the country and embraced the slogan of the Games (“World to Korea, Korea to the World”) and the core principles of Olympism. This enthusiasm found expression in the widespread interest among housewives, women’s groups and students in becoming volunteers, and led to the creation of civic bodies such as Council for Pan-national Olympic Promotion.

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In also assuming their role as global citizens, the Korean people openly celebrated their culture, displayed both a sense of inclusiveness and belonging, and gained a greater understanding of cultural diversity around the world, as reflected by the fact that the number of Koreans travelling abroad has increased significantly since 1988.

Pride of a nation

A source of great national pride, Seoul 1988 also put the host country on the global tourism map, with foreign visitor numbers going past the two million mark for the first time in 1988 and increasing significantly since then. The Games also showed the world that the Republic of Korea is a very safe pair of hands when it comes to staging major sporting events. The award of the 2002 FIFA World Cup to the country (jointly with Japan) and the XXIII Olympic Winter Games to PyeongChang is proof of that.

“Korea was globalised along with economic growth, and the government encouraged sports as a means of leisure,” said Sung Baik-you, a spokesperson of the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (POCOG), assessing the legacy of Seoul 1988. “Building facilities and hosting mega events were a means of achieving that.”

Cultural shift

Seoul 1988 was also a pivotal event in cultural terms, giving the Republic of Korea a platform to present its distinctive identity to the world – not least through the spectacular Opening and Closing Ceremonies, which harmoniously combined traditional forms of Korean artistic expression with modern Western elements – and providing the catalyst for the development of the nation’s cultural industry. With the introduction of significant domestic reforms, the country’s artistic community gained increased international recognition, which took shape with the emergence of the “Korean Wave” in the late 90s.

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Discussions on broadcasting rights for the Games led to the country’s state-controlled broadcasting and film industries opening up to the rest of the world, while the global pop-culture phenomenon known as K-Pop has its roots in Seoul 1988 and its official song, “Hand in Hand”.

New museums and cultural institutions were also built for visitors to Seoul, while others were renovated and improvement programmes introduced, transforming the city into a cosmopolitan cultural destination. One of its many jewels is the Seoul Arts Centre, the country’s leading arts and culture complex, which has attracted more than 40 million visitors.

Urban revamp

Yet another of Seoul 1988’s most important legacies, and one that is still very much evident today, is urban renovation. Built for a cost of approximately USD 191.8 million and completed in May 1986, the Olympic Park remains a living, breathing part of the city and is very popular with its residents.

Located on the eastern edge of Seoul, it was modelled on Munich’s Olympic Park. Home to the Olympic facilities, many of which are still used to stage concerts and cultural events, it also contains a recreational park, a cultural art park comprising the SOMA Museum of Art and a large permanent outdoor sculpture exhibition, an eco-park, and the History Experience Park, which is dedicated to the area’s rich historical heritage.

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The Olympic venues are run by the Korea Sports Promotion Foundation, which started life in April 1989 as the Seoul Olympic Sports Promotion Foundation. Given the brief of raising funds for the promotion of sports at all levels across the country, it is also responsible for safeguarding the sporting legacy of Seoul 1988 and continuing the sporting projects the Games gave rise to.

Light and spacious, the apartments that formed part of the Olympic Village were sold to the city’s residents after the Games, helping to alleviate Seoul’s long-standing housing shortage, while improvements made to the transport infrastructure continue to benefit the local area.

A river runs through it

Long-neglected prior to the Games, the Han River, which runs through the centre of Seoul, saw extensive renovation along its southern bank. The USD 1.09 billion regeneration programme brought numerous lasting benefits for the city and its people, including improved transport links – the centrepiece of which is a 37-kilometre Olympic Highway – increased park and leisure space, and a cleaner environment, thanks to the clean-up of the river and the building of sewage treatment plants.

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Proving a force for good at both a global and local level, Seoul 1988 is still making its positive mark three decades on. 

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