Tokyo Olympics: South Korean athletes urged to ignore row with Japanese hosts
- South Korea aims to finish in the top 10 of the medals standings, but deteriorating relations with Japan have overshadowed the build-up to the Games
- Ongoing disputes over the legacy of conflict between the two nations have cast a long shadow – even athletes’ meals have become a source of friction
“We’ve been telling athletes to focus on achieving the best results, regardless of what’s happening in the rest of the world,” a senior official of the Korean Sport and Olympic Committee (KSOC) said, speaking anonymously. “We’re making our best efforts to ensure that athletes are not affected by things that have nothing to do with sports.
Athletes have also been instructed not to make any explicit statements about the political situation.
“As in the past Olympic Games, we’ve told athletes not to engage in any activities that may run against the IOC [International Olympic Committee] rules such as making political gestures at ceremonies,” the official said.
Team South Korea, which includes 232 athletes competing in 29 sports, is expected to win several medals in archery and could also contend in taekwondo, shooting and fencing. Administrators have set their sights on finishing in the top 10 in the overall medals tally.
“If the map is not amended, we should boycott the Olympics with people’s consent,” former prime minister Chung Se-kyun said earlier this month. “We must not tolerate their attempt to take Dokdo.”
“The three values of the Olympic movement are excellence, friendship and respect,” said Kim Yu-kyoum, a professor of physical education at Seoul National University. “But where do we find friendship and respect between South Korea and Japan at the current Games?”
South Korean athletes at the Olympic Village were ordered to remove banners hung from their balconies that spelled out the message: “I still have the support of 50 million Korean people.”
The message provoked a backlash among members of the Japanese public, who interpreted it as a reference to a 16th-century naval battle between the two countries, where the Koreans prevailed despite being outnumbered by Japan. Before the Battle of Myeongnyang in 1597, even though the Korean fleet had been devastated, Admiral Lee Sun-shin told the king: “I still have 12 battleships left.”
However, Japanese media reported that organisers would allow “rising sun” flags. Hardline Japanese nationalists have also spent several days protesting outside the Olympic Village, waving flags and chanting slogans through a loudspeaker.
Some Japanese media have also objected to South Korean banners depicting a roaring tiger in the shape of the Korean peninsula, bearing the phrase: “The tiger is coming down the hills.” It is a line from a traditional Pansori song but it has been criticised as a reference to the claim Japanese colonialists exterminated Siberian tigers on the Korean peninsula.
Although South Korean athletes have been banned from making explicit statements or protests during the Games, former hockey player Ham Eun-joo said athletes would undoubtedly draw motivation from their rivalry with Japan.
“They are always determined to triumph over Japanese, more than any others from other countries,” she said.
According to Professor Kim, it will be impossible for athletes to completely ignore the strained atmosphere.
“Athletes must be affected by the ongoing tensions but the impact can be either positive or negative,” Kim said. “The athletes may be more motivated or lose concentration due to the tensions.
“We can’t rule out the possibility of young athletes letting loose with rude remarks or engaging in activities during celebrations and post-match press interviews due to the current tensions with Japan.”
“To refuse this food is like trampling on the mind of Fukushima people,” said Masahisa Sato, a Japanese politician from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, according to the Yomiuri newspaper.
Amid the backlash against the South Korean decision, some Japanese commentators noted that Japanese athletes competing in South Korea during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics also ate their own food from home.
Professor Kim suggested the unwanted focus on politics during the lead-up to the Games would be cause for resentment in Tokyo.
“Under these circumstances, the rows with South Korea over the torch relay map and other issues are additional irritants for many Japanese conservatives.”
Additional reporting by Reuters