Korea and the Olympics: Grilled Doves, Foul Play and PR Mishaps

The Olympics. A time for the world to unite, rejoice, and celebrate each country’s greatest sportsmen and women, under the banner of peace and humanity.

It is also a time for scandal and PR mishaps. Both North and South Korea will be participating in next month’s Pyeongchang Olympic Games, a scene that will no doubt garner many headlines or even controversies; in the run-up, let’s take a look at some of the finest hiccups over the years.

Red Flag for Mismatched Flag

South Korean flag wrongly displayed during football match at 2012 London Olympics between North Korea and Colombia (Credit: James Crossan via Flickr, cropped from the original, CC BY 2.0)

London 2012. A women’s football match between North Korea and Columbia almost turned into a political nightmare as the South Korean flag appeared alongside North Korea’s women’s football team on stadium screens as players warmed up. The North Korean team left the pitch in protest, coming back more than an hour later after the displays were corrected and the team had received an official apology.

Cry and Decry

Shin A Lam, the South Korean fencer who controversially lost in the semifinals of the women’s individual épée at the London 2012 Olympics, was pushed into the South Korean media spotlight for taking to the floor of the arena and crying her eyes out. At the time, the scene went viral and became headline news in her home country, where many accused the organizers of bias in favor of Shin’s German opponent.


Foul Play

Another controversy at the London games was that of the badminton match in which eight women’s doubles competitors from China, South Korea and Indonesia were disqualified for appearing to play poorly on purpose.


Fowl Play

And who could forget the pigeons that caught fire during the opening ceremony of 1988? At the Seoul Summer Olympics that year, a flock of white doves — the ultimate symbol of peace — met their own peace by being grilled alive as the Olympic flame cauldron was lit in front of a TV audience of more than a billion.


It’s You, Pyeongchang

Enter Pyeongchang: The 2018 host county has become known for its “It’s You, Pyeongchang” slogan — but no one knows what it really means; Pyeongchang has had its fair share of disastrous PR videos released prior to the games, many of which have been criticized for being, well, embarrassing. All-time favorites include:


The above video (the official link has been removed) faced a severe backlash from the public. The video, created under the previous South Korean government (and said to have been linked to the Choi Soon-sil scandal that brought the impeachment of now-ousted President Park Geun-hye), featured K-pop band SISTAR’s Hyorin and other South Korean celebrities. In it, they are infected by a “CSM (Can’t Stop Moving) virus” which makes all of them, who are in Pyeongchang, break into song and dance.


More recently, another government video was released depicting a female cyborg from the year 2045 who seeks to understand human behavior and why artificial intelligence cannot surpass humankind.


With a roofless Olympic stadium, lackluster ticket sales, nightmare tales of accomodation and (no doubt) train travel, and a North Korean contingent composed of athletes and cheerleaders that has bargained for its own presence, Pyeongchang 2018 is bound to be dramatic, to say the least.

So let the greatest show on the planet begin, on Feb. 9. We’ll be sure to keep you posted with all the drama… and snafus. Watch this space!


Cover image: The Olympic flame cauldron at Seoul 1988 Olympics, the scene where a flock of white doves were grilled to death in front of the entire planet (Credit: Ken Hackman via Wikimedia, cropped from the original, public domain).



Raphael is a journalist and freelance fixer. He has an MA in Korean Studies at Korea University, and worked at Edelman Korea for three years, representing some of South Korea's biggest conglomerates.