by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SEOUL, South Korea — The door swings open on weak hinges, and we step inside, tracking mud from the empty lot.

“Excuse us. Is anyone here?” the translator asks. The house is old and silent and it smells of stale food.

“Excuse us. Hello? Hello?”


“Hello? Hel-

“Who is there?”

A man steps out from the front room. He is bare-chested and his pants are down because he had been sleeping. He is a young man, suffering from colitis, and he is attached to a plastic pouch that collects his waste. He quickly pulls up his pants and tucks the pouch inside, then bows and tries to rub the sleep from his eyes.

He expresses no anger that we have walked into his house. Once, dozens of dwellings stood here in Changshin-dong, a poor area overlooking downtown Seoul. They were destroyed to make room for new luxury housing. This one home remains because the family refuses to move.

“Will he show us his house?”

The translator repeats the question. The man whispers and bows his head.

“He says he is ashamed.”


“He says it is poor, and he is ashamed.”

After some coaxing, he waves meekly toward his room. We crouch to enter. It is very dark and very small and the walls are covered in blue plastic bags. The bed is simply a blanket on the floor. A Korean flag hangs from one corner, surrounded by faded pictures of Korean women. In the other corner, covered in dust, sits a color television set, its screen flickering silently.

It is a jolting sight. Here is a house with no hot water, a house with clay jars full of vegetable sauce sitting in the front yard. Bulldozers have left this family alone on a hill of dirt. A color TV?

“Ask him if he plans to watch the Olympics.”

The question is asked. The man touches the TV set and turns the channels back and forth. For the first time, he grins widely.

“I watch the Olympics,” he says, nodding quickly, “every day. Every day.” For the next few weeks, Seoul will be, to most Americans, a newspaper dateline, a radio blip, a three-second panorama before the TV broadcast begins. The 1988 Summer Olympics have arrived — the first all-out, non-boycotted Games since Munich in 1972 — and the drama of the competition will capture worldwide attention.

But the Olympics absorb the soil on which they are played, and here in Seoul, the fifth-largest city in the world, from the awful poverty of Changshin-dong, to the tinder-box campus of Yonsei University, to the tourist-jammed market of I’taewan and the chandeliered lobbies of the Intercontinental and Shilla hotels, the Games will begin as well. To be in an Olympic city when the torch is lit is to hear an endless heartbeat wherever you go: Olympics. Olympics. Olympics. Who won today? Who lost? Who was the story? Who has the glory?

And yet, just as Los Angeles lent its sunny, corporate tint to the 1984 Games, so, too, will Seoul cast a long shadow these next two weeks. The irony is not wasted on the people who live here; these are the Olympics that will finally bring the whole world together, yet they have come to a nation cleft in two.

North Korea, which broods 35 miles away from the Olympic Stadium, is not coming to play. Its anger and occasional threats have scared off tourists, fearful of an attack. Security in the athletes’ village is as heavy as concrete, with four separate checkpoints before you can enter and countless police officers in light green uniforms patrolling the grounds. Terrorism looms as the one uninvited guest who could ruin this party, and the past few years have been a tireless South Korean effort to lock all the doors.

This too, is part of the Games, as much as the athletes, as much as the TV cameras, as much as the crowds in colorful Olympic Park or the kimono-clad women who greet visitors at the Seoul airport. As a host city, Seoul is a giant stage rumbling with influence, ancient influence and modern influence and political influence. It is not uncommon for a taxi ride, in the course of five minutes, to pass a Korean palace, a gleaming new skyscraper, a temple, a laundromat, a street vendor selling fried cuttlefish, and a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store. Student protests are almost a daily occurrence at one of the Seoul campuses. On Wednesday, we pulled into Yonsei only to be stopped by a group of nearly 100 demonstrators carrying flags and chanting, “Let’s get rid of our enemies!”

The issue was reunification with the North, a big issue, a hot issue —
“Everyone in South Korea wants it,” the translator says — and the enemies include the current political regime, the United States, and anyone who advocates the continued separation of the two lands. The Olympic Games, the students say, because of their exclusion of North Korea, are a wrongful celebration of a wrongful situation. Things, they chant, must change.

“Why is this such an important issue?” we ask a bespectacled young man who is carrying a bullhorn under his arm.

He grins as if tolerating stupidity.

“You are not Korean,” he says. In the mornings here, you can see the mountains in the mist, and when it is quiet and the sun is just stirring you can understand where Korea earned the nickname “Land of the Morning Calm.” For the next 16 days, though, that calm will be interrupted by starters’ pistols and the roar of the crowd — mornings especially, because American TV wants to beam back the glory live and in color, and morning here is evening there.

It is typical of the brashness that Olympic powers display — particularly network television. But, it is a small price to pay for a city that has so vigorously pursued these Games — and wants so desperately to impress the world as a host. Many here see these Olympics as a coming-out party for Seoul, its entry, finally, into the society of Big Cities That Count. For this, taxi drivers are willing to smile and hotel workers bow and say thank you and the bulldozers and cranes have been halted and restaurants serving dog, a traditional dish, have been asked to abstain because it might upset Western visitors. With the exception of political activists — who see this as too good an opportunity to pass up — nearly everyone here seems intent on sending the world off with a good impression.

“I will continue to protest even if I am arrested,” says the student from Yonsei, “but I do not wish anyone to be hurt.”

And so the seconds tick away and the country holds its breath. It is still a remarkable achievement — a truly full- scale Olympics. When else does the entire world get together for anything? Certainly the Games are not as pure and unsullied as they once were; neither is the planet itself. The fact that 160 countries have sent their best, dressed in colors, luggage under their arms, to play and mix and race with the others, is still something that makes you shiver. As Roy Jones, an American boxer, puts it: “I’m living with people from countries I can’t even pronounce.”

And so we begin. Think of what it truly means to be best in the world on one given day, to climb the make-believe mountain and bang your chest and holler, “Today is my day! Today, I bow to no one!”

It is an intoxicating picture, one that attracts millions of dollars, countless advertisers, thousands of cameras and journalists and spectators. Seoul. Seoul. The word now is enough. From as far away as America and from as near as a lonely house on a dirt hill, we are tuned in together; everyone reaching for that soothing touch of glory.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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