Philip Barker ©ITG

Almaty and Beijing are entering the home straight of the contest to the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. The election in Kuala Lumpur will be the first two-horse race in an Olympic host city election for 34 years.

Back in 1981, the vote for the Summer Games also came down to a straight fight between two Asian cities, Japan's Nagoya and South Korea's capital Seoul.

At the time, many felt that the very future of the Olympic Games was at stake. In 1980, American President Jimmy Carter demanded a boycott of the Moscow Games in protest at the Soviet Union incursion into Afghanistan. Both Japan and South Korea responded to his call and stayed away from Moscow. The 1980 boycott set an unhappy seal on a decade of disturbance.

A year or so before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had chosen the host city for 1984. Los Angeles had been the only candidate. Concern for the Olympic Movement was such that Greek Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis renewed calls for the Games to be staged permanently in his country. At a highly charged session early in 1980, Greece's IOC member Nikolaos Nissiotis had stressed that this was a "non-political" move.

The IOC President at the time was Irish Peer Lord Killanin. He set up an IOC Commission chaired by Ivorian Louis Girandou-N’Diaye. A few months later came the Commission’s verdict. "There is clearly a substantial segment which disapproves of the idea of permanent site for the Games as it contravenes the universal nature of the Games."

As it was, the IOC needed some discussion before they were even able to agree on when the decisions for the 1988 Games would be taken. Eventually it was decided that the vote would take place on September 30, 1981.

South Korea's capital Seoul had a straight fight with the Japanese city of Nagoya for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games
South Korea's capital Seoul had a straight fight with the Japanese city of Nagoya for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games ©Seoul 1988

At first a number of cities expressed interest in hosting the 1988 Olympics. London commissioned a feasibility study but an estimated cost of £750 million ($1.2 billion/€1.1 billion) was the key factor in their decision not to proceed. Rio de Janeiro’s early enthusiasm also cooled quickly. Both cities were all too aware of the spiralling costs incurred by Montreal in staging the 1976 Games.

Melbourne was the first to make a serious play. The Victorian Minister for Housing Sport and Youth, Brian Dixon, visited IOC headquarters in Lausanne in early 1980 to meet President Killanin. The IOC’s own magazine made encouraging noises. "The chances of a second Olympic celebration taking place 'down under' are by no means remote," it wrote. 

One of the IOC members in Australia at the time was David McKenzie. An Olympic fencer, he threw his weight behind the idea, but the Australian Government refused to bankroll the enterprise. In a tragic postscript, McKenzie did not even make it to Baden-Baden to see who would host the Games. He was found dead in Hawaii in mysterious circumstances a few weeks before.

Nagoya’s bid did get the backing of the Japanese Government in November 1980. The overall cost of staging the Games was estimated at $4 billion (£2.6 billion/€3.6 billion) for which the cost would be divided between national and local Governments. Their major problem was opposition from a vocal environmental lobby.

Seoul were the last city to formally enter the race. They had been encouraged by their success in staging the 1978 World Shooting Championships, the first time they had ever staged such an international event. Park Jong Kyue, who led Korea’s Shooting Federation, started to lobby for an Olympic bid aimed at 1988. Approval from President Park Chung Hee was forthcoming but in 1979 the President was assassinated. Such was the political turmoil which followed, everything Olympic was put on hold. It was not revived until desperately close to the deadline for submissions to the IOC. Roh Tae Woo, a man who later became his country’s head of state, was credited by Korean sport insiders with persuading the new Government to go ahead.

Korea could also call upon Dr Kim Un Yong, later to become an IOC vice-president. An experienced civil servant man, he had served at Korean diplomatic missions in the United States and had also developed the sport of taekwondo. Even he described himself as “an operator”.

Kim Un Yong was the power behind Seoul's 1988 Olympic bid
Kim Un Yong was the power behind Seoul's 1988 Olympic bid ©Philip Barker

It helped that Kim was highly regarded by the new IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who called him “the perfect mediator and a very apt negotiator with a broad knowledge of the sporting world”.

Even so, most observers in the media cast Nagoya as the favourites and they were certainly fast out of the blocks.

“It is my heartfelt conviction that the Games of the Olympiad represent the most precious cultural legacy in the entire world,” said Nagoya’s Mayor Masao Motoyama. “The Olympic Movement seeks to further the great goals of brotherhood among peoples, peace on earth and the cultivation of healthy youth. And it is precisely to fulfil these auspicious aims that I respectfully and earnestly request the privilege of hosting the Games in our city of Nagoya.”

The Tokyo Olympics of 1964 and Sapporo’s Winter Olympics in 1972 were both fondly remembered by many within the Movement. 

The President of the General Assembly of Sports Federations (GAISF), Thomas Keller, invited both cities to make a presentation at his Congress, an event now rebranded SportAccord). Nagoya duly arrived but Seoul were notable by their absence. Keller was furious and demanded that the IOC drop Seoul from the bidding list. Kim had to act fast.

“I talked to Samaranch explaining how Seoul was seriously bidding,” said Dr Kim. “Samaranch saved Seoul saying that two cities would be better than one.”

The Koreans had another prominent supporter in Mario Vázquez Raña, a Mexican newspaper magnate who was President of the Association of National Olympic Committees.

“Mario took out the list of IOC members and marked the names of the persons with whom he was on intimate terms,” recalled Seoul Olympic organiser Park Seh Jik. “The number of marked names was enough to win the election.”

When the delegations arrived in Baden-Baden for the vote, most experienced observers still expected Nagoya to win. Shortly before election day, however, reports from International Association of Athletics Federations President Adriaan Paulen suggested the matter might not be a foregone conclusion. Many were surprised to learn that the Koreans were already well advanced in building facilities. It was estimated that half the potential Olympic venues in Seoul were already complete.

“It was my impression that Nagoya had only sketches and plans without many existing facilities,” said Dr Kim later.

Many expected Nagoya to win the race for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games
Many expected Nagoya to win the race for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games ©Nagoya 1988

An anti-Olympic demonstration by some Japanese citizens in Baden-Baden did not help Nagoya’s cause. They carried placards saying “No Olympics”. In their presentation, the Bidding Committee dismissed these protests as “malicious” but many observers felt it had been a tactical error to even talk about them.

Though the group of protesters was small, some IOC members might well have remembered what had happened a decade before. They had chosen the resort of Denver in Colorado to hold the 1976 Winter Olympics, but then a local referendum forced the Organising Committee to hand the Games back. The IOC were forced to scurry around for replacement hosts. Thereafter they insisted on a more water tight contract with bidding cities.

Nagoya later made a more serious tactical error. A question asked about Seoul’s political and financial stability. Many suspected it had been “planted” by the Nagoya Bid Committee. Then as now, criticism of other bidding cities was discouraged.

Even so, many still had doubts about Seoul. South Korea did not yet have any formal diplomatic ties with many Eastern Bloc nations, including the Soviet Union. Vitaly Smirnov, IOC member in the USSR admitted: “I voted for Nagoya. I did not believe South Korea was possible.”

Meanwhile, the Koreans were working hard. “Seoul used every means at its disposal. It had to convince IOC members with its preparations, enthusiasm and capability. Baden-Baden was a total operation for Seoul,” said Dr Kim.  

Peter Ueberroth, President of the 1984 Los Angeles Organising Committee, later observed wryly that “Seoul gave away quietly to each member, two first-class air tickets. The free tickets turned the trick”.

It fell to IOC President Samaranch to announce the result. Seoul had won by a staggering 52 votes to 27. The veteran Olympic journalist John Roddawrote in The Guardian that “Seoul did not just beat Nagoya but wiped them out”.

The Seoul bidding team flew home in style by jumbo jet, specially flown in by Korean Air to collect them.

There were many problems on the road to 1988, not least a dispute with the Kellogg’s corporation when the Olympic mascot was unveiled. The Americans felt Hodori, a tiger, resembled “Tony the Tiger” from Kellogg’s Frosties packets.

Seoul 1988 mascot, Hodori the tiger, caused arguments with Kellogg's
Seoul 1988 mascot, Hodori the tiger, caused arguments with Kellogg's ©Seoul 1988

More seriously there was the problem of North Korea. The Demilitarized Zone separating North and South was little more than an hour’s journey from Seoul.

Mayor Park Young Su had spoken of his hopes for a rapprochement.

“We are a divided country but all Koreans speak the same language and they share 5,000 years of culture. The Olympic Games of 1988 will be a great event for all Korean people.”

Over the next three years, the North Koreans demanded co-hosting rights for the Games. Samaranch did his best to bring them the fold but although there were protracted negotiations these eventually came to nothing and North Korea were one of half-a-dozen nations who stayed away. But, following the American-led boycott of Moscow 1980 and the retaliation in Los Angeles four years later by the Soviet Union and its satellites, this was considered a major triumph. 

Samaranch had needed to call on all his experience gained in his days as Spain’s ambassador in Moscow to get the Eastern Bloc to compete, though. Even the official invitations were dispatched from Lausanne rather than Seoul to ensure there would be minimal pretext for refusal. The ploy worked.

At the end of the 1984 Los Angeles Games, a Seoul city dance troupe offered a taste of what was to come in 1988. Newspapers around the world also carried pictures of the now complete Olympic Stadium four years ahead of time.

In those days, Summer and Winter Games were held in the same year, but as Seoul and Winter hosts Calgary made plans, the price of television rights soared. Seoul expected over $500 million (£320 million/€453 million) from the American television network alone and, although this did not materialise, the figures were still eye watering.

As a result, the IOC took the decision to hold the Winter Games in a separate cycle from 1994.

Seoul successfully staged the 1986 Asian Games and then in September 1988, a seven-year-old boy - born the very day that the Olympic Games were won -rolled a hoop into the Olympic Stadium in a symbolic act as a spectacular ceremony began. A few hours later, Roh Tae Woo, now President of South Korea, opened the Games of the 24th Olympiad. Far from signalling the end of the Olympic Movement, they were acclaimed by IOC President Samaranch as “the most universal ever”. He later credited the Seoul Games with hastening the road to democracy in South Korea.

And it had all seemed so bleak in 1981.