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Byun Jong-il | Seoul 1988

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Last night’s events on the fencing piste and a cascade of NBC’s failures recall a particularly unsavory controversy 24 years earlier. 

People criticize the Olympic Games for being showy and expensive, and indeed, their legacies are often mixed. Sometimes, they bring some benefits: in 1987, faced with protests calling for democracy, South Korea’s ruling junta gave in, to prevent spoiling the upcoming 1988 Seoul Olympics.

When the games came, however, this euphoria was dampened — not least by the opening ceremony conducted in scotching summer midday heat when doves released were burnt to crisp by the Olympic flame (yes that happened). Soon, more devastatingly, allegations of match-fixing swirled, culminating with the Korean boxer Byun Jong-il setting the dubious of Olympic records for a sit-down protest.

The bantamweight boxer lost a close decision when he was penalized two points for head butts. After the match, several Korean boxing officials entered the ring, threw chairs at and punched the New Zealand referee. But that was just the beginning of a 67 minute sit-down protest by Byun. He stayed there for so long that officials eventually turned off the lights and left him in darkness.

As tactful and considerate as ever, NBC followed the entire protest, even using split screens to show the boxer in the ring during other events. Their coverage, as well as those of American newspapers which termed Byun “petulant”, caused a huge uproar in South Korea, where relationships were already strained by the presence of American bases and by the US Olympians’ roudy partying. The Dong-A Ilbo, a leading daily, wrote “This is a bad omen for future Korean-American relations. The American press has to know that this kind of distorted reporting is hurting the dignity of Korean people”. Strong editorials denounced US and Japanese print media, while even the Korean government officials denounced the coverage as unfair and insensitive. Soon afterwards, the NBC staff ordered not to wear their logos lest they be attacked.

The Koreans insisted that Byun did the right thing by sitting down and protesting a decision he didn’t agree with, but it transpired that the protest had equally to do with surprise as with disappointment. He had been secretly promised a medal by the South Korean authorities who had many shady dealings in rigging boxing. In an equally shocking final of the light-middleweight division, Roy Jones Jr. lost to Park Si-Hun, even though Jones completely demolished the South Korean, who had arrived to the final with five(!) consecutive disputed victories.

(Seoul’s corruptions got an entire chapter in the go-to book on Olympic corruption, The New Lords of the Rings.)

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

July 31, 2012 at 12:02 pm

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