Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
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South Korean archer Kang Chae-young is one of her country’s leading medal contenders at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: World Archery Federation

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
South Korean athletes competing at the Tokyo Olympics have been urged to ignore diplomatic tensions between their government and the host nation, which have included calls for boycotts and threatened to disrupt preparations for the event.

“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.

However, preparations for the Games, which open on Friday, have been overshadowed by deteriorating relations after South Korean President Moon Jae-in abandoned plans to visit Japan, where he had hoped to hold a summit with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. A senior Japanese diplomat also courted controversy by making crude remarks to a South Korean journalist ridiculing Moon’s expectation of a summit with Suga during the Games.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Photo: AP
The countries remain at odds over historical issues including forced labour and the use of sex slaves by Japanese troops, stemming from World War II and the period of Japanese colonial rule. More recently, Japan imposed export restrictions on South Korean products, further straining ties.
In South Korea, acrimony surrounding the Tokyo Olympics has been building for months. After Japan refused to modify a torch relay map showing the disputed Dokdo islets as Japanese territory, several prominent South Korean politicians have called for a boycott.

“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.”

Lee Jae-myung, a front runner to succeed Moon as president, also said the government should consider boycotting the Games due to Japan’s “rapacious” territorial claims.

“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?”

Lessons in Olympic spirit from Japan’s ‘forgotten’ Korean gold medallist

Beyond the long-running disputes over forced labour and “comfort women”, the Games have produced new sources of friction between the South Korean team and their Japanese hosts.

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.”

Trickery’ by Tokyo? Calls grow in South Korea for Olympics boycott over island row

South Korean officials said the IOC had in return assured them Japan’s “rising sun” flag, which South Korea regards as a symbol of Japanese aggression and colonial rule over the Korean peninsula, would be banned from stadiums and other Olympic venues.

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.

South Korean athletes hung banners from their balconies while Japanese protesters gathered outside the Olympic Village. Photo: EPA

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.”

The rows with South Korea over the torch relay map and other issues are additional irritants for many Japanese conservatives
Professor Kim Yu-kyoum, Seoul National University
The ill will between South Korea and Japan has even intruded into the athletes’ dining hall. The South Korean team has made its own catering arrangements for its athletes, refusing to eat products from Fukushima, the Japanese prefecture devastated in 2011 by a tsunami and resulting nuclear meltdown.

“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.

In Japan, some ethnic Koreans identify as people of Joseon

Professor Kim suggested the unwanted focus on politics during the lead-up to the Games would be cause for resentment in Tokyo.

“For Japan, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were to declare its comeback from the defeat in World War II and the current Olympics were to celebrate its recovery from the Fukushima disaster, but this plan was ruined by the pandemic,” Kim said.

“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