Remembering when North Korea boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics

As the Rio Games draws to a close, we look back at when conflicting nations North and South Korea provided the backdrop during a turbulent time in Olympic history

Seoul Olympics 1988

Image: Dick Fong / AP/Press Association Images

The 1980s was a tumultuous time in the history of the Olympic Games, amid international unrest and a current of underlying distrust between nations.

A time when capitalism and communism added to geopolitical lines and created deep divisions between even neighbouring countries. And what better what to exemplify this than the boycott of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul by some Eastern Bloc countries.

Boycotts were nothing new to the Olympics, certainly not in years previous when a number of communist countries boycotted the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. The reason, they claim, was because they feared for the safety of athletes competing in capitalist countries. However many believe it was in revenge for the fact that the US led a boycott of the 1980 Olympics in the USSR due to their involvement in Afghanistan.

So, in the midst of all these political manoeuvres, when the time came for capitalist South Korea to assume the role of hosts for the Games, it didn't pass without its controversy. 

The symbol for the 24th Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, 1988. Image: AP/Press Association Images

The Games were the legacy of the Park Chung-hee administration in the late 1970s. His successor Chun Doo-hwan, submitted Korea’s bid to the IOC in September 1981 in the hope of attracting international attention to the political situation in the country.

On 30 September 1981, the nation surprisingly got its wish by beating Japanese city Nagoya. Seoul would be the host city, making it he second Asian nation behind Japan in 1964 when Tokyo played host to the Games.

The International Olympic Committee moved to ensure there would not be a repeat of the Games of 1980 and '84, with IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch committed to keeping communist and Eastern Bloc countries involved.

At the Assembly of National Olympic Committees in Mexico City in November 1984, the "Mexico Declaration" whereby nations would pledge their participation and review the state of the Olympic Games as a whole.

East Germany and the USSR already agreed that they would take part in the Games, while North Korea were more demanding in order to guarantee participation.

They demanded a number of the events be held in the country and wanted its own opening and closing ceremony.

The request, in theory, seemed relatively reasonable. A shared Games could improve dialogue in the divided country and the proposition was met with enthusiastic backing from Cuba. 

When they were not granted a joint organising committee and a united team, while half of the events they sought to host were given to them, they called for a boycott. 

North Korea decided not to send a team, supported by Cuba, Nicaragua, Madagascar and Ethiopia.

Th boycott was seen by North Korea as a clear effort not to improve relations between the two nations and acted to further fracture relations on the peninsula. 

The Games did continue attracting 160 nations from around the globe and resulted in some of the most famous and infamous moments in Olympic history.

Canadian Ben Johnson set a new record in the 100m sprint but was disqualified after his sample tested positive for stanozolol, meaning that the result did not stand. 

U.S. diver Greg Louganis wins back-to-back titles in the 3m springboard and to the 10m platform. Perhaps the biggest controversy of the Games was the awarding of a gold medal to Korean boxer Si Hun Park against American Roy Jones Jr.