Kim Un-yong, left, vice president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), is with IOC President Antonio Samaranch in this undated photo. The two, now deceased, played a key role in bringing the 1988 Summer Games to Seoul. / This photo was taken from Google.
By Mike Weisbart
Spare a moment for Dr. Kim Un-yong, former vice president of the International Olympic Committee and founder of the World Taekwondo Federation.
Dr. Kim, who passed away on October 2nd at the age of 86, was Korea’s leading light in the world of “sports diplomacy,” as it is often called here. For four decades starting in the 70s, you would be hard pressed to find a national-level sports administrator anywhere around the globe who did not know him personally. Amazingly, he was still working into his 80s; still organizing, still making his rounds, networking internationally and advising, helping Korea in his own quiet way as it prepares for the games next year.
It was tremendously sad that he was not with us this past weekend as the curtain rose on the inaugural taekwondo tournament bearing his name. I spoke with him a few months ago and his voice was buzzing with excitement about the cup, a creation he brought to life at a time when it is harder than ever to raise funds for amateur sports.
But his spirit was with us, and you could see it in the eyes of the young athletes warming up for the competition outside the Olympic stadium at Hanyang University under the bright autumn sky.
This is what he did throughout his life: bringing people from around the world together in the spirit of sports and peaceful competition. And he did it so well. For this tournament, 2,500 athletes from more than 60 countries are taking part. The opening ceremony hit all the right Olympic notes, from the beautiful opening performance by the Hanyang University dancers and musicians, to the grand walk-in by all the athletes behind their countries’ flags.
The tributes poured in, with Singapore’s IOC member Ser Miang NG summing it up precisely: “While we grieve Dr. Kim’s loss, we must celebrate his life and remember his many contributions to society, his country, and the world.”
It is equally sad that he will not be with us in 100 days when the flame is finally lit in PyeongChang. He surely would have taken a place of great honor because, it can be said with no exaggeration, no one did more than Dr. Kim to bring the 1988 games to fruition in Korea, or to advance the cause of Taekwondo, both as a national sport and an Olympic discipline.
It was Dr. Kim who, in 1974, rolled the dice on a bid for the 1978 World Shooting Championships. Korea defeated heavily favored Mexico for its first opportunity to play host for an international event. It was Dr. Kim who, in 1981, drove the efforts behind the winning bid for the ‘88 Olympics, stealing away what was supposed to be a sure win for Nagoya.
This was no mean feat. Remember, Korea was still in the dark economically at that point, and did not even have diplomatic relations with half of the UN. Not to mention the Olympic boycotts being traded between the democratic world and the Soviet sphere. Of course, Korea managed something incredible, putting on an amazing Olympics ― the largest, most technically advanced games to-date ― that placed Seoul on the map and truly made this great country proud.
I asked David Miller, a UK journalist who has covered 24 Olympics and who chronicled the Seoul games in detail, if the Olympics could have come to Korea in 1988 without the efforts of Dr. Kim? “No, without question, no,” he said. “It was a truly astonishing achievement by a very quiet but strongly determined man.”
Dr. Kim poured his heart and soul into his work, and all of it was done on behalf of this great country. Let’s remember this national hero and use his legacy of achievement to inspire others to follow in his footsteps.
The writer is a former columnist for the Korea Times.