Seoul 1988 - This is the 4th of nine Summer Olympic Games Keith Quinn has attended

Seoul 1988 - This is the 4th of nine Summer Olympic Games Keith Quinn has attended

The goodbye letter written in Seoul. We have shifted house since then. The address no longer applies.

18 June 2016

When I think back to the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea, a number of images jump immediately from my old memory bank. Yes there were crowded streets of the great Korean city and locals staring at us visitors. Probably because of our pale faces and funny freckles.

But the overall recall is one of a very happy time and a Games held without the major boycotts and political interference of the previous three. Such matters had interfered with organizational matters from the previous three events at Montreal, Moscow and Los Angeles.

I was the TVNZ swimming commentator in Seoul, working in a massive indoor pool with my old buddy Lincoln Hurring. It situated out near the main Olympic Stadium. One day I remember rushing from the swimming stadium over to the track and field to make sure I was in place to see the flying feet (and backside) of Florence Griffith-Joiner go rushing past on the way to her 200-metre victory. She won her gold medals in super-spectacular style. It was truly a shame that she was later tainted by drug-taking accusations and was dead at the age of 37.

I also remember the shock of hearing that a press conference was going to be held about four days after Ben Johnson’s epic 100 metre gold medal for Canada. That was the signal that there was a big problem ahead for Johnson. Sure enough he was thrown out for the taking of banned substances.

What a dozy bastard, we exclaimed, on hearing the news. He had the world at his feet one day, but rubbished out of sight the next.

On a personal level I remember that my old touring buddies from past games; Brendan Telfer, Lincoln Hurring and I squeezed into an apartment on the 28th floor in the press village. We enjoyed our time together though once and only once did, we venture onto the tiny balcony to look downwards. None of us preferred heights of that narrow building.

Our apartment and its many floors backed onto a field in which vegetables were growing. From our lofty perch we could see, on each and every hour of every day security guards sitting there with their rifles among the high rows of vegetation. They were hidden from ground level view. At night it was somehow comforting to come home and see their cigarettes glowing in the dark. I hope the same blokes didn’t sit there 24 hours for the whole of the Games.

Even though these were very friendly games there were some tensions. To the point where the English-language daily The Korea Herald ran a front page denial from the local head of police that they were gearing up for prevention of a rocket attack into the main stadium on opening ceremony day. Someone started an Olympic rumour that North Korea was aiming weapons of mass destruction (though we didn’t use that term then) at the stadium.

Of course the “story” swept through the media like fire through a fern. It even got me waking up the night before the opening ceremony and finding myself tossing and turning. I got up and wrote a “farewell” note to my family and left it on the bedside as I left to go to the stadium a few hours later. A bit like the Battle of Britain pilots did I suppose?

Seem silly now doesn’t it? Yes of course it does. But back then the rumour nagged away at me. Actually, nearly 30 years later, I still have the letter. It sits at home here in my study. It is unopened. I cannot remember how I worded my impending departure from this world. Someone in the family might read it one day when I am long gone. I won’t ever bother.

In the end the rumour was forgotten. Nothing happened to distract us from a wonderful opening day. The South Koreans laid out a marvellous show for the entire world to see.

For their own reasons North Korea chose not to attend the Games; neither did Cuba, Albania, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Nicaragua or the Seychelles.  So there was a boycott of sorts I suppose. Some of those who didn’t show up were sorely missed as competitors but if the principal of the Olympic Games is that it is a gathering to show full global unity then the absence of any country was a cheerless thing.

There were a couple of other things I recall about the opening ceremony. One was the impeccable preparation for the events. There were fully three days of full dress rehearsals of the ceremony. All that was missing was the march past of teams.

Local kids stood in for the various national squad-sizes. Each dance and cultural routine was flawlessly staged and a full attendance of 100,000 came each night. For one night of the dummy run men and women, boys and girls were transported in from the far south of the country.

On that first night I remember I walked into and out of the stadium with Kathrine Switzer. (She was the famous American who had been the first female to officially run the famous Boston Marathon) Katherine was working with us at those games as a colour commentator. She had her hair coloured then, and it was reddish in shade.

Teenaged boys and girls, all of them with Korean jet black hair, rushed to get close to Kathrine for a look at her. The crowd around us was a little taste for us of what a Hollywood stars must go through every day! Kathrine walked regally through it all!

In the ceremony the first highlight for me was the demonstration of Taekwondo. Fully 1000 boys and girls sprinted onto the infield to show the world their national sport. Their lines were faultlessly straight and their childish cries of martial arts efforts echoed in unison around the vast arena. They cracked pieces of wood with their sharp yells and slashing hands but within seconds the flying chips had been spirited out of sight under their jackets. It was totally impressive.

On the fourth night the world TV audience tuned in and the same ceremony went ahead with the perfect precision we had already seen in the rehearsals.

By 1988 I had relinquished the role of Southern Editor which TVNZ had had for me in Los Angeles four years earlier. I was back fulltime as a reporter/commentator and I relished being back doing what I preferred. Lincoln and I were at the swimming again and we watched in awe as Kristin Otto and Matt Biondi took home great personal hauls (six gold medals for Otto in three stroke events and five gold’s, one silver and one bronze for Biondi)

In the diving there was a gasp of horror one day when the great American Greg Louganis cracked his head on the board as he executed one of his dives. The pool ran with blood for a few seconds. Not a good sight.

If there was one light moment I recall from Seoul it came when, as in Montreal years earlier, I wandered into our TV studio one night just to see how things were going for the crew. I had the evening off or something like that.

But like some other times at previous Olympics on entering the studio I was immediately grasped, this time by Kevin Cameron, and pushed towards an off-tube commentary booth.

Kevin, the overall Games Producer told me told that the fellow who had been originally assigned to do the women’s table tennis final was in another booth commentating on a lengthy volleyball 5-setter. So I was given the task. Kevin said the commentary was to go to a massive world English-language audience across Asia and the Indian sub-continent.

I gulped. And despite saying that “I don’t know anything about table tennis,” the job was mine.

So what was I to do? It was only ten minutes till the great final game started. I had no knowledge of who was who of the personalities in the final. The two combatants were Chen Jing and Li Huifen.

But every half-good commentator has to have his wits about him at all times. I remembered that our Aussie mates from Channel Nine had their studio next door to ours and they had a fully staffed research office. I knew that because I had noted the smashing looking blonde behind the desk of that office.

So I rushed down the hall to see if she was there.

She was and I’ll never forget her. She batted her baby-blue eyes at me and said, “Sure Keith, Of course you can borrow our whole table tennis file. We’re not doing that final, so why don’t you take it with you?”

I should have vaulted the desk and hugged her. Instead I uplifted her large, bulging folder of files and papers which was a veritable goldmine of background on the two finalists. There was a swag of background notes, research, profiles and even a glossary of colourful table tennis terms.

Minutes later I spread out the pages in front of me and launched into my very first commentary on top world table tennis! And all done with about nine minute’s of research time.  

The final touch came months later back in Wellington when I was playing cricket for our local suburban club team. In our team of mates was a man called Merv Allardyce. He mentioned the table tennis commentary I had done from Seoul. “You did a great job Keith; I never knew you had such great knowledge of table tennis.”

I was really chuffed. You see, at the time Merv was the CEO of Table Tennis New Zealand!

It was another example of people from the various news media all helping each other for the common good. And part of what made the Seoul Olympics of 1988 so much fun to do.

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