282 days to goSeoul 1988 and the South Korean Telecommunications Revolution.Seoul ’88 is probably best remembered for Ben Johnson’s yellow eyed, steroid propelled, 100 metre dash to Olympic infamy. However a very different, but just as enduring legacy of the games is its role as a catalyst for South Korea’s emergence as a Technology Super Power.
South Korea is one of the world's most hi-tech societies. Citizens enjoy some of the highest speed broadband connections on the planet and have access to advanced mobile technology long before it hits western markets. The government is also well known for its commitment to future technology. In fact South Korea is so advanced that they even have an ethical charter to protect robots from mistreatment by humans!
But it relative terms, in wasn’t so long ago that South Korea’s telecoms and information technology infrastructure lagged behind that of their international brethren. For example, In 1981 there was only 3.5 million telephone circuits available for a population of over 40 million (80% of Korea’s existing telephone and telegraph systems were destroyed in the Korean War) and the electronics and computer industries were very much in their infancy. Such was South Korea’s relative technological backwardness that when Seoul was announced as the host city of the 1981 Olympic Games, concerns were raised about its ability to support the information needs of a modern Olympics. Within the next 15 years South Korea’s would experience a ‘Telecommunications Revolution’, in the process, establishing them as not only a world leader in the technology industry, but also as an ‘information society’.
Seoul 1988 would prove far more than just coincidence in this technological success story.
The official slogan of the 1988 Olympics was ‘The World to Seoul, Seoul to the world’, it was an opportunity for South Korea to broadcast to the world their cultural, political and economic achievements and maturity since their separation from the North. Information Technology and TV would be the medium through which South Korea could showcase their achievements, but also, as their leaders soon realised, it had the potential to dazzle as centrepiece.
The 1988 Olympic Games were the largest of all time with 160 nations and a total of 8391 athletes competing. This placed a huge demand on South Korea to build an infrastructure capable broadcast the games to more nations than ever before and to satisfy the appetite for rapid dissemination of games results and Olympic information.
The South Korean Government would spend 10 years preparing to ensure their broadcast and information systems could capture and transmit the games in high tech ways like never before. Crucially, they also used this opportunity to combine games preparations with an overall Telecommunications Modernisation plan.
The games galvanised the broadcasting and telecommunication companies in South Korea to create state of the art information systems, to develop their own software rather than borrow from abroad ( the WINS systems in particular were created which allowed for world wide email) to merge computers and telecommunication platforms, to use new fibre optic transmissions and electronic switching systems. They did this all in almost accelerated time and fundamentally put in place the building blocks of the modern communications network.
From that moment of impetus, provided by the demands and opportunities an Olympics presents, South Korea would never look back.