Soviets sweep Americans in Olympic diplomacy as well as medals

By RUTH YOUNGBLOOD  |  Oct. 2, 1988
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SEOUL, South Korea -- The Soviet Union not only won the most gold medals at the Seoul Olympic Games, but also swept the United States in the propaganda war, employing tactics ranging from the Bolshoi Ballet to gifts of Lenin badges.

Despite the United States enjoying a 'home court' advantage derived from four decades of protecting South Korea, American athletes and television reporters enraged their Seoul hosts with their actions and words, leading to outbursts of anti-Americanism.

The Soviet Union, long the bogeyman in a country where the mere mention of communism is anathema, wallowed in the glow of good will.

'Let's meet in Moscow or in Seoul,' Sergei Smirnof shouted to his new Korean friends before boarding the airport bus. Laden with presents, the rower cheerfully distributed Lenin badges and T-shirts printed with a 'perestroika' emblem symbolizing the Soviet reform program.

The visit by the ballet, the Moscow Philharmonic, films on life in the Soviet Union and photo exhibits all represented firsts in Seoul which has no diplomatic relations with Moscow. The two countries explored the possibility of a major boost in trade.

In sharp contrast, there was no major cultural contribution from the United States, which has strong diplomatic ties and has stationed about 40,000 troops here ever since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Korean hearts were warmed toward Moscow by the courtesy demonstrated by the 520 athletes, the largest Soviet contingent sent to the Olympics.

'Not only did the best team win but also the nicest group,' said a Korean fan after the Soviet basketball team defeated the United States in a stunning upset. Holding up a basketball with the autographs of all the Russian players, he pointed to the spot where two American players merely scribbled X's.

No similar sentiments or scenes accompanied the final hours here of the 611 U.S. athletes. Some were embarrassed, others confused and many bitter over the anti-Americanism that escalated during the 16-day Olympic extravaganza.

It started with the opening ceremonies, when the athletes straggled in, waving and frolicking before the television cameras, hoisting signs reading, 'Hi Mom,' and 'We Love NBC,' the network that broadcast the Games.

The removal of a marble lion's head from a hotel bar by two gold medal swimmers and the arrest of a runner for attacking a taxi unleashed a deluge of criticism.

'It's so embarrassing,' said Juliana Yendork, a Waco, Texas, track and field competitor. All the U.S. athletes 'should have learned how to conduct themselves in another country.'

NBC's coverage of a melee that erupted after a Korean boxer lost his fight generated indignation. Members of the South Korean boxing team attacked the New Zealand referee and the team manager urged the largely Korean crowd to join in.

Korean television viewers said NBC anchorman Bryant Gumbel was 'smirking' while describing the outburst and the network repeated the account again and again to the annoyance of Koreans. NBC also ran features on the darker side of Seoul's economic miracle to the displeasure of many Koreans unaccustomed to critical coverage by the government-controlled press.

The final sting came when ace American sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner won a Korean award for best-dressed athlete. Fireworks soared, a band played and the crowd cheered when the master of ceremonies announced the accolade for the female star of the Olympics.

There was only one problem. Griffith Joyner didn't show up.

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