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Grad shares insight into how Olympic Games changed a nation
Man Lip Choy returned to campus to speak about the 1988 Seoul Olympics and its significance in international politics and the Korean economy (Photo by Rebecca Kendall)

Grad shares insight into how Olympic Games changed a nation

UCLA Center for Korean Studies and The Korea Times-Hankook Ilbo Endowment for Contemporary Korean Studies launches new lecture series that aims to bring prominent speakers to campus to share their expertise on current issues of great interest to both Korean-Americans and non-Koreans.

Hosting the Olympics can be a game-changing opportunity for any nation, but in 1988 it helped pave the way for positive change in a nation still feeling the impact of recent war, political unrest and martial law. 

The 1988 Seoul Olympic Games and its significance in international politics and the Korean economy was the focus of a talk given by UCLA double alumnus Man Lip Choy on March 14 at the Charles E. Young Research Library. His presentation, which was sponsored by the UCLA Center for Korean Studies, marked the inaugural lecture in a new series created in partnership with The Korea Times-Hankook Ilbo Endowment for Contemporary Korean Studies that aims to bring prominent speakers to campus to share their expertise on current issues of great interest to both Korean-Americans and non-Koreans. 

Choy, an expert in sports diplomacy who earned a BA in international relations from UCLA in 1958 and a master’s in political science in 1959, said that not only did the 1988 Seoul Olympics garner greater participation of nations than any previous Games; but it was the first time the event had turned such an enormous profit. At $300 million in the black, the Seoul Olympics remain the highest-earning Games in history. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics are ranked second with a $250 million profit.

“From then on it got very competitive,” said Choy, of countries vying to host the Games. “The Olympic Games are symbolic of moral character, peace, fraternity, solidarity and fair game,” he said, adding that he thinks this foundational concept has since been destroyed in favor of commercialization and corruption.

Choy said that the impact of the Olympics on South Korea has been staggering. In 1950, the country’s GDP was a mere $62. Thirty years later, while trying to pay to host the Olympics, it was about $1,200. Now, after a successful Olympics, last year’s South Korean GDP was $22,000, he said.

This is a “tremendous,” said Choy, as far as the country’s economy is concerned and the nation’s position in the international sphere. Olympic television deals, corporate sponsorship and tourism all greatly contributed to the economic boon, as did the job creation initiated by the building of infrastructure and sports venues. Additional benefits of the Olympic Games included the expansion of amateur and professional sports in South Korea and the growth of South Korea as an international business and global trading partner.

In 2002, South Korea co-hosted soccer’s FIFA World Cup. In addition, the country will host golf’s President’s Cup in 2015 and the 2018 Winter Olympics in the city of Pyeongchang.

A recipient of the Distinguished IOC Pierre De Coubertin Medal from the IOC and two Distinguished Service Medals from the Korean government, Choy has held a number of roles within  the Korean government and international institutions related to international sports events, including secretary general and vice president of the Korean Olympic Committee, delegate for the North-South Sport Dialogue organized by the IOC, the president of the International Assembly of National Organization of Sport and member of the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup Organization Committee and the vice president and advisor for the 2010, 2014, 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Bidding Committee.

He followed his talk with a question-and-answer session, and his shared memories as a UCLA student at a time when only 16 Korean students were enrolled, including his brother and his wife. He also spoke of his pride in UCLA and in the Center for Korean Studies, noting his involvement with supporting the alumni association and in seeking donors to advance the study of Korea at UCLA.