Virachai Tanasugarn in Yokohama
Virachai Tanasugarn in Yokohama

 

The Indonesians and the North Koreans were in Tokyo. They were only one day away from setting foot in the National Stadium and parading before 70,000 cheering spectators at the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on Saturday, October 10, 1964. But on Friday, October 9, the national teams of those countries, hundreds of athletes, coaches and administrators, abruptly turned around and went home. Many cried as they waited to board the trains away from Tokyo, and their chance at competing at the highest level.

Virachai Tanasugarn was on the Thai national Olympic team, a guard on his country’s basketball team. He was in Tokyo to play in a qualifying tournament with nine other national teams, with the chance to play in the beautiful Kenzo Tange Gymnasium Annex, and the hope of competing in the Olympics. And like the Indonesians and the North Koreans, he did not stay in Tokyo long enough to participate in the Games. But unlike the Indonesians and the North Koreans, he left with a sense of adventure and excitement.

Thai basketball team in Yokohama
National Thai basketball team in Yokohama; Tanasugarn is #13.

From September 25 to October 4, ten teams vied in the qualifying round for four spots, in order to be a part of the 18 national teams to play in the Tokyo Olympics. Tanasugarn was on the Thai team, a spot player on the bench, who was simply excited to be in Japan. Despite starting off well, defeating Indonesia convincingly 85-50, the team proceeded to win only 3 of their 9 matches.

Tanasugarn, like his teammates, did not expect to make the cut. They were there to get experience, like so many of the other athletes from Southeast Asia. This was actually Tanasugarn’s second Olympic qualifier as a basketball player. When he was in Rome with hopes of helping the Thai team make the Olympics, he remembered looking at the spaghetti, cheese and ketchup and having no idea what they were or how to eat them. But when they came to Japan, they were happy to see more familiar food. They walked around Yokohama, went to Kamakura to visit the Big Buddha, and played lots of basketball against much better teams.

Tanasugarn was so confident that the Thai team would not qualify that he had already bought an airplane ticket for California to leave before opening ceremonies. After graduating from Thammasat University, he was encouraged to go to the United States by a cousin who graduated from the University of California Berkley, and was practicing as a medical doctor in California.

IMG_0172(Edited)

(TOP) Tamarine Tanasugarn, Virachai Tanasugarn, Monica Seles, (BOTTOM) Rose Tanasugarn, the mother of Monica Seles

So unlike the Indonesians and North Koreans, Tanasugarn was excited to be leaving Japan just prior to the start of the Games. At the age of 26, with essentially no English ability, he was embarking on a new life in a new world. He went to a high school in San Francisco that had an adult education program where he learned English, and met his wife to be. He got his JD at the University of West Los Angeles School of Law, but could not find work in the legal field. Eventually, with his wife and mother, he opened up a Thai restaurant in Hollywood named Thai House, which he ran for 8 years.

Through a friend’s introduction, Tanasugarn was able to put his first daughter, Rose, in the Jack Kramer Club, where some of the best tennis talent was being groomed: Tracy Austin, Lindsey Davenport and Pete Sampras. Their coach was Robert Lansdorp, and Rose showed progress as a tennis player. However, after 6 years Rose decided she did not want tennis to be the primary focus in her life, and left competitive play.

While in the United States, Tanasugarn had divorced and re-married, having a daughter with his second wife that they named Tamarine. In 1982, he returned to Bangkok with Tamarine, then just 5-years-old. Tamarine began to focus on her tennis with her father as coach until she was 20, and then proceeded with professional coaches and increasingly competitive tournaments.

Tamarine would go on to become Thailand’s most successful female tennis player ever, reaching the quarter-finals in Wimbledon in 2008 and the Wimbledon doubles semifinals in 2011, climbing as high as #19 in the world, and competing in four Olympics, from 1996 to 2008.

IMG_0178

The writer and Virachai Tanasugarn at Rama Garden Hotel

Her father, Virachai, utilizing all the wisdom and insight he learned from observing Lansdorp and some of the best up-and-coming talent in the world at the Jack Kramer School in the 1970s, and watching first hand his daughter Tamarine rise to world-class levels, embarked on a career of tennis coach. At the Rama Gardens Hotel in Bangkok, he continues to coach tennis at the age of 80.

Little did he know in Tokyo what future lay before him as he embarked the Pan Am flight for America in October, 1964.

He looks at the tennis courts with pride, knowing that his daughter Tamarine, and the success she had, helped build the foundation for tennis in Thailand today.

IMG_6275

The Olympians is three years old! Thank you all for your support!

I was happy to attend the Olympics for the first time at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. And what an amazing time I had. I felt like a newspaper reporter again, and generated close to 30 articles while I was there from February 8 to 18. I hope you like these select articles from 2018.

USA House 24_Michelle Kwan
Michelle Kwan at USA House.

North and South Korean leaders are talking. The momentum today is in part due to the opportunity the PyeongChang Olympics presented to the Koreans. Fingers are crossed for future talks of peace.

Chance Meeting with the North Korean Cheering Squad
Chance meeting with the North Korean Cheering Squad at the end of the Opening Ceremonies

And of course, it’s all about the athletes.

Savchenko and Massot 4
Massot and Savchenko in their amazing long skate to win gold

IMG_5903

It’s only 80 kilometers away. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is as far away as many of your car commutes, and yet in the gaiety of the Olympic Games, you forget that military on both sides of the DMZ are at the ready just in case.

And like the DMZ that separates North and South Korea, there is a social DMZ that separates those in Korea who seek reunification, and those who seek to destroy North Korea. That drama played out on Friday, February 9, 2018, hours before the commencement of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

DSC_0153

From the morning, demonstrators carrying flags of South Korea and the United States played loud music and made strident speeches, denouncing the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, and very specifically requesting the United States to give a friend a hand. As the poster says:

“We, the South Koreans urge the United States to conduct an immediate preemptive strike on North Korea!”

These anti-North Korean demonstrators were dressed in heavy down jackets, and the average age was easily over fifty.

Also from the morning, about half a kilometer away, demonstrators sporting the blue-on-white reunification flag of Korea were advocating for unity and peace. These group was decidedly younger, many of them appearing to be in their twenties, most of them synchronized in matching white down coats and blue hats. Their posters were decidedly more conciliatory in tone:

White poster: We support peace (between N and S Korea), and joining under one-Korean flag. Welcome North Korean team! Congratulations on the Joint North-South entrance in opening ceremony! This is the Realization of the Peace Olympics.

Blue poster: We enthusiastically welcome our North Korea family.

Pro United Korea Protest_PyeongChang_posters

And so, a little over three hours before the 8 pm start of the opening ceremonies, the two sides were drawn irresistibly together. As I turned to leave the anti-North Korean protests, which featured impassioned ripping apart of images of Kim Jong-un, I noticed up the path I was walking the blue hats of the pro-unification supporters. I did a 180, wondering what would happen….the scene from West Side Story as the Jets and the Sharks approach each other for their rumble, coming to mind.

When the blue hats reached the rotary, the younger members in their white coats gathered in the middle rotary….and did what they do best. Sing and dance. The rumble was on.

Thankfully, this was a peaceful rumble. People on both sides stayed on their own side. The Opening Ceremony started on time without controversy, and athletes from both South and North Korea entered into a raucous stadium together, waving the blue-on-white.

On the whole, surveys indicate that slightly more South Koreans are against the unified team, than for it. The emotions run deep.

But for one night, there was unity.

PyeongChang Winter Olympics Newsletter KTX

I’m sitting in seat 5A of the third train in the KTX and after kilometer of kilometer of open spaces, ice-pocked rivers, massive housing blocks, we’ve entered darkness. And it’s a long darkness.

But that’s OK, because I have my handy dandy PyeongChang Winter Olympics Newsletter in the pocket in front of my seat, and it has the facts I need. The KTX is the new high-speed train line from Seoul to Gangneung, which will make it fairly easy for Koreans and visitors alike to get to the Olympic venues. And in answer to the question “Would you introduce the newly launched KTX railroad line connecting Seoul with Gangneung?” there is a nugget of trivia that I needed at the moment I read it – that part of the engineering marvel of the new KTX line is a 22-kilometer-long tunnel in Daegwallyeong. That’s the longest tunnel in Korea, and the eighth longest in the world.

This newsletter is intriguing, at least to me. There is a bit of the normal evasive mumbo jumbo that bureaucracies spin. For example, in answer to the first question – “What do the Korean people think about Korea’s hosting of the Olympics, the world’s premier sporting event?” the answer starts off with a 90 degree turn.

KTX

Let us begin with a brief introduction to the Republic of Korea. The country became a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1996, and its economy now ranks near the global top 10. Surprisingly, however Korea was the most impoverished country in the world 70 years ago. It gained independence in 1945 but went into war in 1950……

It goes on like that for another three paragraphs without answering the question. Maybe the attitude of the Koreans towards the Olympics are like citizens in so many countries – mixed to negative.

But I suppose that answer would be a downer at the start of a newsletter promoting the pride Koreans have in showcasing the biggest Winter sports event in the world.

This four-page document is not all sugar and spice, however. In companies I’ve worked, in the face of intimidating change, corporate communications will often suggest creating a set of FAQs called “Rude FAQs.” In this case, the effort is put into thinking of the most direct questions an ordinary employee would think of (the directness of which can seem rude in the genteel world of let’s-all-get-along corporate cultures.)

So after the first nine, rather bland questions in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics newsletter come three fairly direct questions, real questions:

  • Q9. South Korea’s “Peace Olympics Initiative” led to North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games. Is there any concern about the possibility of the North’s exploiting the Games as a propaganda opportunity?
  • Q10. Isn’t the North trying to gain time for its nuclear armament by participating in the Games, and doesn’t its participation constitute a violation of the sanctions imposed by the international community on North Korea?
  • Q11. Aren’t some South Korean media outlets and politicians worried about North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics?

And the answers were on the whole pretty solid. Here’s the response to the last question, #11:

Considering the fact that North Korea’s latest missile test was held just months ago, their sudden change in attitude is surprising, and indeed, voices of concern have been heard in some quarters.

The government is paying keen attention to these concerns out of the belief that they all emanate from a wish for the successful hosting of the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games. The government is convinced that the North’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics will contribute to the success of the Games for the following reasons:

  • First, the PyeongChang Olympics will aid the promotion of inter-Korean reconciliation as well as ease tensions and build peace on the Korean peninsula.
  • Second, there were concerns a few months ago over whether the PyeongChang Olympics could be peacefully held, but those concerns have now evaporated. Moreover, global leaders are supporting inter-Korean dialogue and the participation of North Kore in the PyeongChang Olympics.
  • Third, the North’s participation has further increased international interest I the PyeongChang Olympics, adding to its potential for success.
  • Fourth, efforts for detente on the Koran Peninsula will mitigate geopolitical risks, providing a boost to the Korean economy.

 

Unification flag Koreas
By Various – Outline drawn by Ksiom, Blue color from the Olympic rings., CC BY-SA 3.0,

It seems hard to believe that a nation would willingly drop usage of their flag to appease another nation, but that is what both North and South Korea are doing at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

The North Korean rocket tests in 2017 were raising tensions around the world, particularly in Asia, but South and North Korean leaders came to an agreement in January to unite the teams of the two border nations, so that they march together on opening day under the same flag.

The flag is starkly simple, a blue silhouette of the Korean peninsula on white. There are variations that include various islands, but the one that will be seen at the Winter Games will be one that includes the oval of Jeju Island near the southern tip of the peninsula.

North and South Korea have united under one flag at three previous Olympics: at the 2000 Sydney Summer Games, the 2004 Athens Summer Games, and the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. But since then, they have marched under their own flags, most recently at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.

North and South Korean Flags

There is precedent for this symbolic unity.

East and West Germany were put together under a single team at the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Winter and Summer Olympiads. Their flag was made up of the tri-colors black, red and yellow with the Olympic rings in white centering the flag. The national anthem was Beethoven’s Ninth – Ode to Joy.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in December, 1991, twelve nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union were banded together under the name “The Unified Team,” also known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). These countries were banded together in this manner because the now independent nations did not have enough time to establish National Olympic Committees with the International Olympic Committee in time.

At both the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics and the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, members of the Unified Team marched under the Olympic Flag, which was composed of the Olympic Rings on white background. Their national anthem was the Olympic theme.

It’s been eleven years, but North and South Korea will again march under the same flag. The Olympics of Ancient Greece were said to be about taking a pause in the political belligerence of mankind.

Of course, not everyone’s happy about it, as protests against North Korea’s role in the PyeongChang Olympics grow in South Korea. As this AP reports states:

Discontent has grown in South Korea in recent days over plans to include North Korea in high-profile roles during next month’s Games — complaints that prompted protesters on Monday to burn a North Korean flag and an image of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, in public.

May the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which will bring enemy brothers together, show us a better vision of ourselves.

protests against north korea
South Koreans burn a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in front of the Seoul railway station on Jan. 22, 2018. They were protesting a visit by Hyon Song Wol, head of North Korea’s art troupe. (Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)
Imnam Dam and Peace Dam
Google Maps view of the DMZ

It was 1986. Preparations were under way for South Korea’s coming-out party – The 1988 Seoul Olympics. And on the other side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), North Korean began preparations of their own, breaking ground for a dam to be built on the Bukhan River, a short 19 kilometers from the border. Completed in 2003, it is called the Imnam Dam.

Perhaps fears of North Korean terrorism during the South Korean Olympics were top of mind for South Koreans, so they began to imagine the worst. As the New York Times explained in an article in 2007, then President Chun Do-hwan did imagine a scary scenario – the new dam in the North producing a monstrous flood, pounding waters headed straight for the South.

In response to the so-called water-bomb scare, South Korean television networks broadcast artists’ conceptions of monstrous walls of water unleashed from the North Korean dam, wiping out most of Seoul, 120 miles downstream, with the impact of a nuclear explosion during the Olympics.

A year later, in 1987, the fears were too hard to resist, and the South Korean government gave the green light to their own dam project, today called the Peace Dam. Located about 16 kilometers from the border to the north, the Peace Dam took a while to build, and in fact was finally completed in 2005, seven years after the Seoul Olympics. But it stands today, 125 meters high and 600 meters wide. There is actually no reservoir at the Peace Dam. Its sole purpose is to be peace of mind – a wall just in case the feared flood from the North ever comes racing down the Bukhan River – peace of mind in this case that cost USD429 million.

Peace Dam
Peace Dam in South Korea

It actually seems like a bit of expensive folly, and to be fair, the South Korean government suspended construction work on the dam after a few years. But when satellite photos apparently showed signs of cracks in the Imnam Dam in the North, fears of the deluge arose anew in the imaginations of the leaders. Work resumed, and the Peace Dam was finished.

Actually, it is another dam in North Korea that is causing grief – The Hwanggang Dam on the Imjin River, which is 42 kilometers from the DMZ. Over the past several years, there have been 8 cases where North Korean officials released massive amounts of water, causing significant flooding in South Korea. It’s not the “nuclear explosion” impact that was feared in the 1980s, and yet 6 South Koreans were killed when water was released from the Hwanggang Dam in September 2009.

The South and the North have an agreement that the North would provide notice to the South when they intend to release dam waters, commonly after significant rainfall, but in practice, the North Koreans rarely do.

In the end, should they have bothered building the Peace Dam? I guess one could say that they were dam-ed if they did, and dam-end if they didn’t.

“Like the two Koreas, the two dams are twin brothers, born at the same time, facing each other across DMZ,” said Lee Tae-ik, an official at Korea Water Resources Corporation, which maintains the South Korean dam. “The Peace Dam is an inevitable child of a divided nation.”

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley

Members of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics Organizing Committee must be pulling their hair out.

On December 5, the IOC banned the Russia national team from the upcoming winter games. In reaction to losing representatives from one of the biggest and best national teams, president of the organizing committee, Lee Hee-beom, was quoted as saying, he didn’t expect the IOC “to go this far.”

Then on December 8, U. N. Ambassador from the United States, Nikki Haley, apparently raised the possibility of Team USA declining their invitation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics due to fears that North Korea will create such an environment of uncertainty about safety that Americans would not be safe in South Korea.

Haley’s comments prompted perceived backtracking by officials as White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was quoted as saying that “no official decision has been made” about America not going to PyeongChang.

What’s interesting is how the press kind of over-reacted to Haley’s comments, in my view, reading a bit too much into the tea leaves. According to SB Nation, Haley’s quote was actually a very indirect reference to the Olympics.

Haley saying that U.S. involvement is an “open question” was part of a larger quote — one that could hint at the topic never being raised in the first place.

“There’s an open question. I have not heard anything about that, but I do know in the talks that we have — whether it’s Jerusalem or North Korea — it’s about, how do we protect the US citizens in the area?”

By saying “I have not heard anything about that” Haley’s answer seems to imply that no discussion is taking place on whether the U.S. will skip the games. Her saying it’s an “open question” is making the rounds, however, and that’s what people are picking up on.

Earlier in the month, National Security Advisor to the US government, H. R. McMaster said, “Yes” to the question if Americans should feel safe about going to the Winter Olympics in Korea next year. But one word alone from McMaster will not diminish the fear.

McMaster tweet

In recent months, France, Austria and Germany have also expressed concerns about safety in Korea, and raised the possibility of not going to the Winter Games in February. And with Russia out and America hinting at an exit as well, the PyeongChang is looking, quite possibly, at winter of discontent.