[personal profile] niori_1709
Just over sixty years ago, Korea was a devastated country. By the time the Korean War ended in 1953, much of the land, both city and rural, had been practically razed to the ground because of fighting. There was so much to do in the shattered country, a rebuilding effort that should have been near impossible. But, through sheer determination, Koreans managed to do it. It's called the Miracle on the Han River- the way that Korea was able to not only rebuild so fast, but how quickly it modernized in the wake of the war. Sixty years later, Seoul is one of the biggest metropolitan cities in the world and the country itself a technological and pop culture hub. Korea has thrived, and it's not only recently. Where there has been a surge in popularity in the last decade, thanks to the huge demand for ESL (English second language) teachers and a growing appreciation of K-Pop (everyone remember Gangnam Style?) and K-dramas. However, the past decade is not the first time a modern Korea has been showcased to the world. That would be back in 1988, when the Olympics came to town. This is where today's travel guide, focusing on one Olympic Park, comes in.

While the Summer Olympics wasn't the first event to take place in the park (that honour belongs to the 1986 Asian Games), it's the '88 Olympics that have left a lasting impact. While Olympic Park isn't the only area of Seoul that had facilities for the games, it is the place that had the most of them. The venues for gymnastics, handball, fencing, weightlifting, bike-racing, swimming, and tennis were all built here, not to mention it also housed some of the competitors. While it might sound like a tight fit, this park is huge. Like really, really big. I wandered around for hours, and still had to come back another day to see the other sections I wanted to see (fun fact- the park was built on the grounds/remains of an old Baekje (Korean kingdom during the Three Kingdoms Period) fortress, but much more on that next month. Thankfully, unlike some unlucky cities to host the Olympics, the city of Seoul has found ways to use these leftover buildings. They still host sporting events of various kinds, including major competitions. There's sports classes and groups that use the spaces. They've also been converted into new spaces, like turning the old bike racing stadium into a multiple football field. They're used for both cultural performances and concerts. Olympic Park is such a happening place that new additions have still been made right up to recent years. In 2000 Olympic Hall was built, which is now used to focus on training athletes. One of the massive newer buildings (well, not that 1990 is all that new...almost thirty years ago, and boy does that make me feel old) is probably the most interesting. That place is the Seoul Olympic Museum.

The Seoul Olympic Museum is a museum that, you guessed it, is all about the Olympics. Not just the '88 Seoul Olympics, but the games in general. There's exhibits that trace the history, all the way back to the beginning in ancient Greece (776 BCE was the first Olympic games, held at Olympia at the base of what was thought to be Mount Olympus, home of the gods...and they say you'll never remember anything from History class). It then picks up right at the beginning of the modern Olympics in Athens, Greece, in 1986. It continues all the way up to London 2012, which was the most recent Summer Olympics at the time I visited the museum. The museum was actually much bigger than I anticipated (to my almost shame, I kind of waltzed into that museum thinking 'how much could they even put in a museum about the Olympics?'. Boy was I proven wrong, and cringe worthy as it was, I can admit it). It was also much more impressive. Again, I wasn't anticipating too much, and I was completely off the mark. Not only were there a wide range of interesting artifacts and a treasure trove of information, but it was well designed too. There was a shine to the place, a 3D vibe that made everything stand out. This is also where I made another mistake- I didn't give myself nearly enough time. There was a double whammy on this one. First, I decided to tackle the museum at the end of the day, where I was bone tired from walking around for at least three-four hours (again, thought it would be smaller). By the time I reached the museum, I wasn't going to last on my feet very much longer. The second is that I came way too close to closing time (which is 6pm, if you're ever looking to go yourself. You've been warned). It made me hustle through the museum more than I would have liked, but I did make sure to appreciate all that it had to offer. It offered a lot.

While a good chunk of the museum is devoted to the Seoul Olympics, each of the summer Olympics sites (and a few winter) from the past century of so gets an exhibit. The museum itself is divided into four main halls, each of them themed. The first room was called Place of Peace, and it is the area that traces the origins of the Olympic games. It not only traces the history of the Olympics, but the meaning of it as well. Brace yourselves- I'm about to go history major on you. Ancient Greece was divided into numerous city states, not consolidated under one country. These city states fought a lot. They soon discovered that there was more than one way to prove yourself better than others, and they settled on a sporting event, held once a year (they went back to fighting once it was over). In the time leading up to it, the Olympic Peace was enacted, which let competitors travel freely through any of the city states to get to Olympia. This was actually a huge deal, because a number of these city states really, really hated each other. The museum does a pretty good job explaining all this, and I was impressed by how simply they laid it all out (ancient Greek politics could be a mess). I also really liked the artifacts that they have on display to go with it. There is Greek pottery done up in the classic style, showcasing participants partaking in some of the ancient games, especially wrestling. My favourite, however, had to been the laurel leaves. Instead of medals, the ancient winners were awarded crowns made of laurel leaves, which were far less gaudy and far more symbolic (the plant means victory). The history section doesn't end there, but instead picks up in 1896, at the beginning of the modern Olympics. The revival of the Olympics came after Greece won it's independence from the Ottoman Empire as a way to create Greek pride. It worked wonderfully, as you might have realized by now. Along the wall are dioramas to explain the evolution of the games, and they are both well organized and very informative. They pick great pictures to help highlight the most important bits, and an excellent use of smaller artifacts, including the evolution of the medal design, to pretty flawlessly link it all together. This is a well designed hall, to say the least.

The second hall in the Place of Harmony. This is the hall that focuses solely on the 1988 Seoul Olympics. It gives a good look at how the city won the right to host the games, and where they went from there. It showcases the major winners and losers, complete with equipment and even uniforms. All of those were set up along the wall of a room, displayed like they were some weird type of mannequins. It has everything you need to learn about what went down in 1988, and while it does deal mostly with Korea, it doesn't leave out the other nations who participated. Winners from around the world were acknowledged and given a space for their win. It truly does show a bit of that Olympic spirit- the one where people of all nations come together and celebrate kicking butt at sports. The design of this room is also crazy. The lighting is weird, casting everything in a blue tinge. There are giant blue neon letters that proclaim "1988 Seoul Olympics" that wrap around the wall in a fairly empty, circular room with pillars in the middle. It's like something out of a sci fi movie, to be honest. The 3D design of this room was intense. When it comes to that, it was hands down my favourite room. Walking through it was just a little bit surreal. For all that was my favourite room, it wasn't my favourite thing.

That honour goes to the contents of the last room I'm going to talk about, the Place of Prosperity (or, in laymen terms, the Olympic souvenir gallery). I'm pretty sure this room was made to find a place for all the extra Olympics memorabilia they couldn't fit in the other exhibit rooms. There was a little bit of everything from many games- medals, tickets, stuff from the opening/closing ceremonies, you name it. My absolute favourite, however, was the little statues of the mascots. I have a full confession to make- the mascots are probably one of my favourite things about the Olympics. I love them. I think they're creative and cute, and it's so telling when you see what animal/creature/whatever is considered important enough to a country/culture to get chosen. There were a ton of them here, from a ton of different games. The Korean mascots were two tigers, one male and one female, dressed up in the hanbok, or traditional Korean garb. They were adorable. There was a tiny little beaver from the Montreal Summer Olympics. It wasn't adorable exactly, but so very Canadian that it made me 'aww' anyway. There were the Sydney Australia mascots, cute versions of some of Australia's weirdest wildlife (here's looking at you Platypus). Calgary's mascots were freaking white teddy bears in cowboy clothes. So. Cute. There were the Vancouver mascots, which were just as cuddly looking as I remember them being when they were flashed all over the airwaves back in 2010. There were many more, and it ended up in an overload of cuteness that I am not apologizing about going on about.

This museum was built specifically to keep the Olympic glory alive, and to remind future generations that Seoul was about to get them once and they should really feel some pride from that. Besides the displays, there's also a lot of educational programs that go on to help that idea along. From my wanderings among the artifacts and displays, I can see how the museum is able to accomplish that task. Not only that, but by painting a focus on not only the Seoul games, but the Olympics in general, it's not just a Korean pride thing anymore. It's not only about Korean pride as well, anymore than the Olympics revival was solely a vehicle for Greek pride. It became world pride very quickly Much like the Olympics is meant to be, down at it's very core, it's a pride that can be shared by any country. I liked seeing the three Canadian Olympics showcased, and I loved seeing homage paid to the Canadian athletes who rocked their respective games. It's true when they say that the one thing to bring out Canadian patriotism is the Olympics, at least for me. It's all about all those Olympics (countries) coming together and, for a brief few weeks, putting aside differences and engaging in sports...just like the ancient Greeks intended.

However, for all of that, Olympic Park isn't all about the Olympics. It's about the Park in the name as well, and what a park it is. It's a massive, lovely, green park full of excellent hiking trails and a pretty waterfront area. It's Seoul's version of nature at its finest. If you're not into the Olympics, then you need to visit Olympic Park just for that. I especially recommend the hiking trails. Granted, I'm not much of a hiker. I tend to dislike long walks, especially ones on steep terrain (and of course it's Korea, so there's some steep terrain), so me saying I really enjoyed one is actually a big thing. There are five different trails to choose from (or you can just wander to your heart's content, to be honest- I did a lot of that as well). I personally did the Trail for Youth (or at least part of it), which takes you around the edges of the park. A lot of it is up on the top of the hill, which makes for some spectacular views of the city around the park. If you're tired from your walk and want to sit down, Olympic Park has that for you as well. There are plenty of green areas, fields that many people were using to have picnics. There's a lake that is part of the ecological part of the park, where there's a possibility you'll spot some of the local wildlife. There are a ton of gardens, and depending on what time of year you go, the park might be painted in colours. Roses, wildflowers, tulips, you name it. Flowers, flowers, and more flowers. I got there at one of the points where the roses were in bloom, and it was beautiful. It was just row after row of pink blossoms, perfect for a nice stroll and even nicer pictures (there were at least two couples taking wedding photos there!).

If you're not just looking for a nice taste of nature, and art is more your style, Olympic Park has you covered for that as well. There is an outdoor sculpture park located throughout the park (statues are scattered through various locations, though there is a pretty big grouping of them in one area). It's not just any sculpture park either, but one that has been called one of the world's best top five. Given the amount of sculpture parks in the world, that's none too shabby. While I'm personally not exactly a fan of abstract sculptures (when it comes to art, I'm much fonder of both paintings and interesting colours), but there were some really neat ones. There is a giant bronze thumb sticking out of the ground in one of the picnic areas. There are copper cylinders with silver balls on top sticking out of the lake. There's one that has squiggly lines and circles intertwined and held up by wires so clear that it looks like it's floating. If abstract art made of all sorts of metals is your thing, this is the sculpture park for you. One statue I did genuinely like (though, to be fair, I did find the other ones quite interesting and neat to look at) was one that looked to be made of stone. It began as two giant standard looking busts (starting at the upper part of the body and up to the head)- you know, like the ones you see in museums all over the world, mostly of usually important people. The differences is that these two are leaning to the side towards the other, looking like they're getting ready to whisper secrets. The second is that there is a huge crack going up through their chest to the spot where their shoulder and neck meets, almost like they were dropped and damaged. The third is that their head ends just about the nose. They have no eyes, no forehead, no top of the skull. The top is uneven, almost looking jagged in places, once again looking like it fell and broke. There are so many ways to see this statue- is it a message about importance being broken? A message about something being broken doesn't end its worth? Two broken things coming together, or maybe coming apart? Or maybe I'm completely off and it's none of the above. This is the type of art I absolutely love, and I highly recommend you stop and try and figure it out yourself if you ever find yourself in Olympic Park.

Now I know I said I was putting the Olympics aside, but there's just one more thing. In the centre of the park, there is a giant square. This is called the Peace Plaza, and it's a wide area perfect for riding around on various wheeled objects, wandering along on a stroll, and even taking a seat to rest. At the end of this plaza, near an entrance to the park, is the Peace Gate. The Peace Gate is very obviously an ode to the Olympics. It's a massive structure, two long, deep walls that go very high up. A smaller band connects them near the top, and things that I can only describe as wings flare out on each end. Looking at it straight, they look flat, but they're actually curved down, making a perfect bend. It's a bright white (seriously bright- they must white wash that thing often) with the underside of the wings painted the vibrant blue and red colours. The paintings and carvings along the walls all come from the carvings on the walls of a Goguryeo tomb, giving it a uniquely Korean feel that mixes well with the use of Olympic colours. The Olympic rings run across the board in all their glory, completely the design. It's awesome to see, make no mistake. What's in the middle of it, however, is the most interesting part. You can walk through the gate through all four sides, but you can't go completely straight. You're going to have to go a little to the side to avoid the glass fence right smack dab in the middle. If you're close enough to look inside, you'll see a little torch sitting on top of a teeny tiny metal hill. The torch has a flame in it. It might take you a second, but then you realize what that flame actually is, and then it's super cool. It's the Olympic Flame, brought to Seoul from Greece back in 1988. It's burning there ever sense, but the Olympic Flame is eternal. It's never supposed to go out, because it represents the enduring Olympic spirit.

Which brings us back full circle, in a way. Another Olympic Flame is going to be finding its way back to Korea soon. Not in Seoul, but in a mountain a few hours away. Not in the summer, but in the winter. The Olympics are coming back to Korea, in the winter of 2018 to the city of Pyeongchang. Just like in the few years leading up to 1988, Korea is gearing up for its next Olympics. It's the winter this time, so consider me even more excited. I honestly have no idea if I'll still be here by that time, but I'm really hoping I am. If nothing else, visiting Olympic Park reminded me just why I love the Olympics in the first place. Besides, someone has to be there cheering for Canada.



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