Every time the Olympics rolls around, I think of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which was a milestone for immigrant Koreans like my parents, who could see Korea on TV even though they couldn’t visit it. We cheered for the Korean athletes waving on the TV screen, as we did in every Olympics, but the Seoul games felt more significant, closer to home. But a decade or so later, watching the independent documentary Sanggyedong Olympics by Kim Dong-won, I discovered a much more traumatic history to the Games and the urban transformations that Seoul went through to receive a global audience.
I wrote about the “Olympification” of Seoul for the New Republic – the hidden, often horrific history behind the beautification and modernization of the city landscape for the Games, and how we can see echoes of Seoul ’88 in the mass displacement and rights violations that took place in Rio and other host cities. I also reflected on what it was like to visit my mother’s hometown this year and learn how the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, coming up in two years, will affect the region and even my mother’s old childhood home.
An excerpt below:
Rio’s manic preparations for this year’s Summer Olympics have now become a familiar subplot to the sports themselves. More than 77,000 people have been displaced from their homes between 2009 and 2015 in Olympics-related redevelopment. Many found themselves not just out of a home, but pushed to remote peripheries of the city without access to social networks, public transportation, or employment opportunities. Entire communities, like the fishing village of Vila Autodromo, have been cleared, a faithful execution of the renderings presented in Brazil’s original bid to the International Olympic Committee, in which the settlement was conveniently airbrushed out. In favelas that are not cleared but subject to intense patrols, hundreds of residents have fallen victim to Brazil’s military police—or what Amnesty International called a “trigger-happy” force that seems to be conducting a “shoot first, ask questions later” strategy in its pacification campaign.
Some reporters have left the Olympic venues long enough to show us glimpses of the still-simmering unrest, from the Olympic torch relay, during which protesters lobbed stones and the riot cops retaliated with tear gas and rubber bullets, to the viral photos of children watching the Opening Ceremony’s glittering spectacle from their distant perch in the mountainside favelas. The popular anger against Olympic excess, which comes on top of the outrage displayed just two years ago during the World Cup, is compounded by a rolling national political crisis in which the presidency and the country’s future hang in the balance.
The IOC has stated that one of its criteria for site selection is to give the opportunity to countries that have never hosted before. In turn, nations selected as first-time Olympic hosts become consumed in the grand project of demonstrating their modernity and progress to visitors, whatever the cost. For many recent hosts, like Beijing, Sochi, and now, Rio, that cost has stirred serious domestic controversy.
However familiar the story of Olympics-related displacement may be, what often goes unremarked is the displacement yet to come. For many, the Olympics serve as a pretext for accelerated real estate speculation in areas settled by the poorest and most vulnerable. The speed and scale of the required construction often sets in motion a number of mechanisms that enable wholesale gentrification: massive land purchases, the state’s use of eminent domain to seize the private land of mostly poor residents, the relinquishment of public land to private entities, and the creation of non-elected private bodies to manage the process. The special procedures, bypassed laws, and closed-door decision-making all give the overwhelming impression that the Olympics is where the democratic process goes to die.
In Rio, for example, 75 percent of the Olympic Park will be turned over to private developers after the Games are done. The committee in charge of redevelopment was led by real estate scions, and unsurprisingly, the most apparent beneficiaries of the Games so far are the same industry players.
All these elements—and worse—were evident in the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988, which helped set the template for the modern “Olympification” of cities in the developing world. As we start to look toward the next Olympics—the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea—it’s worth looking back at the 1988 Summer Games to see what’s in store for other cities tempted to use the Olympics as a fast track to development.