When Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Games, a reporter asked a famous Japanese judoka if he expected to win gold. The former gold medalist answered, smiling pleasantly, “I’m working at a bank. That is my job. Judo is merely my hobby. I will just do my best, but a gold medal is not my primary concern.” His answer was cool and impressive.
Then, the same reporter turned to a Korean judoka who was also a strong candidate for the gold medal and asked the same question. The Korean athlete told the reporter with a desperate, grim resolution: “I’ll rather die if I lose the gold medal.” Fortunately, the Korean athlete won gold that year and still lives. I was disappointed in his reply because it was the opposite of the Olympic creed that dictates the most important thing in the Olympics is not to win, but to take part; as the most important part of life is not the triumph, but the struggle.
At that time, however, many Koreans desperately wanted gold at the Olympics. To make matters worse, the Korean people valued gold exclusively; they dismissed silver and bronze medals with a sigh. They wanted the best of the best only, not the second or third best. To the Korean people, winning and conquering were the utmost goal. When a Korean athlete won a gold medal, therefore, all the people in Korea celebrated it in triumph.
Meanwhile, those who did not win a medal were a disgrace to the nation. Therefore, those who failed to win a medal had to return in shame as if they were defeated soldiers, even though they did their best. It was no wonder that Korean athletes were preoccupied with gold medals. Besides, a gold medal guaranteed the exemption of military duty for men, which was an invaluable gift from the government.
Today, the Korean people have changed. At the Tokyo Games, for example, Korean athletes won only a few gold medals. Yet, no one seemed to blame them for it. Instead, people cheered them on because the athletes did their best. Reportedly, there was a minor incident where a Korean athlete refused a handshake offered by a foreign winner. Perhaps the Korean man was too upset at the time. Nonetheless, other Korean athletes demonstrated excellent sportsmanship as if they knew the competition was only a game, not a matter of life and death.
Finally, Koreans seem to have realized that winning is not as important as participating. Indeed, it is not gold medals, but standing aloof from gold medals that makes Korea an advanced country. Today’s Koreans not only acknowledge the value of silver and bronze, but also embrace those who have won no medal. In that sense, South Korea has become an advanced country at last.
Considering the Korean people’s infatuation with sports and preoccupation with winning at a competition, I had never thought such a radical change possible. Yet, the day has come. In today’s Korea, people no longer think that sports supersede all other things, even though they remain popular national pastimes. Finally, they seem to have realized that there are other things more important than sports and more precious than gold.
Surely, the freedoms of the press and speech could be among them. The ruling party of South Korea has recently attempted to pass an amendment to the Press Arbitration Act in the National Assembly under the excuse of rooting out fake news. The problem is that the new law might seriously restrict the freedom of the press and the people’s right to know. Therefore, various foreign press associations and even the UN have expressed concerns about the enforcement of the new law. As the Diplomat put it: “Unlike Singapore’s ‘fake news’ law, which mandated action from Facebook, or Germany‘s zero-tolerance policy for social media hate speech, South Korea is going after large, traditional media companies -- the very outlets many in other countries see as bulwarks against disinformation.“ That is why journalists call it the “press-gag law.”
Of course, we need to regulate wayward slurs, personal insults and malicious slander on the internet that all too often have led to a victim’s suicide. We might also need to ask reporters to refrain from writing on dubious conjectures rather than concrete facts, because it could be a serious defamation of the person concerned. Nevertheless, we cannot enforce a law if it might infringe upon the freedom of the press in a democratic country.
South Korea seems to have moved from the era of “Give me a gold medal or death” to “Give me freedom or death” these days. Surely, it is a characteristic of an advanced country.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.