Whenever the Summer Olympics approach, my mind always goes back to when my family and I had the rare opportunity to attend the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea where we had the time of our lives making Olympic-sized memories!
My brother Craig was a member of US Team Handball, a relatively new sport to America, and they qualified to play in the Olympic Games by placing in the Pan Am Games held in Cuba of 1987.
Craig’s the one on the left whose got his arm around Fidel Castro. Craig’s a jovial fellow who can make friends with anyone, even dictators!
Seagram’s Liquors was extremely generous and sponsored athletes’ family members’ flights to Korea. My brother Brian was married and living in New Jersey and flew out separately. My mother upgraded our flights and we went first class all the way!
Flo Jo (Florence Joyner) was on our flight out of New York. She boarded all decked out in designer clothes and had her talon-like fingernails painted like the American flag. It was exciting to meet her and wish her luck. She would soon set new Olympic and World records in Korea.
Mom arranged for us to have a two-day layover in Hawaii before heading on to Korea. I know; life’s a beach! A funny blogger friend of mine, Penny Watson of Penelope’s Romance Reviews, recently vacationed in Hawaii and mentioned drinking Blue Hawaiians and attending a luau. One of my fondest memories ever included Blue Hawaiians, a luau…AND a Hawaiian king!
I put up all kinds of a fuss when my mother wanted to go to a luau because I considered it too “touristy.” She insisted we go, even after the entire bus had been boarded by paunchy men in floral-print shirts and dumpy women in mumus and fanny packs! I however was armed with a tip from the hotel bartender. He informed me that they served Blue Hawaiians at the luau but said it was just watered-down punch. Armed with this inside information, I tipped big beforehand and we drank the good stuff through the rest of the evening. Needless to say, the luau became a lot more fun!
I got on stage and learned the hula. I threw spears and won a shell necklace. I rhythmically swung two balls on the end of a string but can’t remember what the heck it was called but it was fun. The topper was spending the evening hanging out with the luau ‘King’! *wink, wink*
I bid the king farewell and we then flew off to Japan where I nearly had us miss the flight to Korea because I just had to have a cigarette after the long flight. Thank goodness, the airline hustled us off in a van and drove us out to the plane to board. Whew, that was close!
Korea was a magical place and its people were spectacular. The opening ceremony was exciting and a feast for the eyes. I was over the moon to be experiencing it first-hand with a brother in the Games, and I got it all on video!
**Click to tweet**
Athletes were relegated to their ‘village’ so they could be protected by security, thus we didn’t see Craig until his competition was over the last week we were there. However, Mom, Brian and I did get to see all of Track and Field to watch Flo Jo, Jackie Joyner-Kersey, and Carl Lewis win medals and set records. We were up on our feet when the Water Polo team won the gold medal.
(That’s my brother Brian kneeling, and what the heck was up with my hair?)
We also got to witness the now-infamous fight where Roy Jones Jr. got ripped off of the light-middleweight gold medal he earned in boxing. All of the boxing events were fixed in the home country’s favor and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know we were rooked. Jones retired from the sport for many years before he fought again. Micheal Carbajal ‘lost’ to the Koreans as well.
In the time between events we occupied ourselves with several fun things to do…
The beer garden in the family village was our meeting spot and refuge after sports, shopping or sightseeing. Ever do a ‘shoe beer?’
The NBC Pavilion, was our beloved oasis of American food. Brian and I would eat at the family village cafeteria but my mother couldn’t go in the building. Kimchi, a fermented cabbage dish, was a Korean staple but my mom couldn’t take its pungent smell which, by the way, was the scent of the land. My brother and I liked it and ate all the local fare (when in Rome). Luckily; NBC saved the day for my mom by providing little slices of home every night for the US team’s family members.
Last but certainly not least was I Tae Won, a shopper’s Mecca for leather goods, custom-made eel skin shoes, furs, designer handbags, and custom silk suits to name a few.
We bought custom-made eel skin shoes for only $25 a pair. I had leather pants made and provided a page I tore from Vogue magazine of a designer leather coat that was made for me for a mere $200.00. My mother paid $17,000.00 for a Blackglama mink coat that retailed for $75K in the states. I plunked down practically nothing for a stone martin stole and a mink head wrap. (Now I wouldn’t think of buying or wearing fur!)
If you walked one block off the main drag of I Tae Won, you wouldn’t be in tourist town any longer. This was the real Korea and we immersed ourselves in its culture in every off path we took. We even learned to pee in holes in bathroom floors, figured out the money (Wons), and picked up pieces of phrases. The only phrase I remember now is “sugo hamshi nida” which meant “You’re doing one heck of a good job.” We said that all the time because the folks there were so great.
The people were friendly, honest and fair. The family village in which we stayed was guarded by soldiers with machine guns, and our passports were checked by Korean college students upon entering and leaving. Mom and I got to be very friendly with them all. It was hysterical to notice that the student-checkers called everyone else in our building Mr. or Mrs. or Miss but we were Kalan (Karen) and Donna!
I ran out of money only a few days into our stay so I came up with a way to earn more. There was a T-shirt kiosk at one of the sport venues selling shirts with the Hodori mascot (a cute little tiger fellow) playing each one of the sports at this Olympics. I approached the seller and told him I wanted to order 200 team handball shirts and would pick them up the next morning. He didn’t ask for a deposit or payment of any kind and simply said, “Okay, see you tomorrow.”
We wondered whether the shirts would be waiting the next morning or if the fellow just blew me off. P.S., I showed up the next day to have 200 printed, folded and bagged shirts waiting for me. The seller operated on trust, and I was blown away.
I wrote a big “USA” and Seoul ’88 on the shirts and sold them to the entire team handball entourage and everyone wore them to all the team’s games. I paid $1.00 each and sold them for $10, so I was once again packing greenbacks and ready to go back to It’aewon!
Craig was #7. The team did not fare too well but I don’t think anyone really minded because they got to the Olympics and we all got to visit Korea. They also were now free to be with their families.
Then my two brothers and I went out nights with the team and the real fun began because all athletes were treated like royalty! The only bad thing that happened to me was that I left my coveted pin-clad USA jacket in a booth to go dance and when I came back it had been stolen. Damn; that was stupid!
Soon the Closing Ceremony came and the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea were over. None of us wanted to leave and none of us would ever forget the time of our lives!
Have any of you attended the Olympics? I’d love to hear your experiences.
If you ever have the chance to attend the Olympic Games, do yourself a favor and go. It’s the experience of a lifetime where you’ll make your own OLYMPIC-SIZED MEMORIES!
GO TEAM U.S.A.!