Athletes and officials who have visited Seoul lately say concern over political unrest there is premature in terms of any potential impact on the 1988 games - or as US Olympic Committee president Robert Helmick put it, ``Fifteen months in advance is pretty early to be panicking.'' The consensus of those contacted by the Monitor was that (a)news reports of demonstrations create an erroneous perception of actual conditions in the South Korean capital, (b)the country has too much at stake to let internal strife jeopardize the games, and (c)in any event it is all much too far over the horizon to be worrying about now.
``Korea needs the Olympics,'' said Brad Hawthorne of Oakland, Calif., who got a firsthand look at Seoul in April when he ran in the World Cup marathon on the Olympic course.
``They've built a great Olympic site,'' he said, noting expenditures listed at $3.1 billion for projects directly and indirectly related to the games. ``It's very impressive. It's all within eight blocks. I don't think they can afford not to have the Olympics.''
Tom Ratcliffe of Wellesley, Mass., who also ran in the World Cup marathon (he was the first American finisher and 15th overall), agreed.
``I spoke to a few students while I was there, and they were saying the same things you see in the media now,'' he explained. ``But they said they didn't think there would be protests during the games. They said the people there are drawing from a 5,000-year tradition of history. The Korean people stick together. They want the games to go on. They want Korea to come on in a positive light in the world view.''
Both runners also stressed the outstanding security provided by the South Koreans.
``There were literally thousands of police and military people lining the course,'' said Ratcliffe. ``Security was very tight, and I imagine it will be even tighter for the Olympics.''
Hawthorne recalled a halftrack with a mounted machine gun in front of his athletes' hotel, five security men on every floor, and guards ``every step of the way'' along the 26-mile, 385-yard course. But he also has fond memories of ``friendly, enthusiastic people,'' and says he felt perfectly safe during daily solo training runs on Seoul's back streets.
Both men consider themselves long shots to make the Olympic team, but both said they would love to return to Seoul if they did get the chance.
Some prospective Olympic athletes, though, remain a bit leery. Marathoner Dave Gordon of Eugene, Ore., who will represent the United States in this year's world championships in Rome, said he was ``skeptical they can pull off the games [in Seoul] now.'' Donna Lee of Randolph, Mass., a member of the women's field hockey team, has indicated she would have to know more about the situation before making any decision. And Bruce Bickford of Wellesley, Mass., one of the world's top 10,000-meter runners, was quoted recently as saying he wouldn't have gone if the games were being held next month - and that things would have to calm down considerably before he'd make such a commitment.
The general public also has doubts - at least according to a recent poll taken by ABC-TV in which 47 percent of those questioned said the games should be moved, as opposed to 30 percent who felt they should stay in Seoul and 22 percent who said they had no opinion.
But Helmick, just back from a tour of the city, thinks such attitudes reflect an erroneous perception of the actual conditions. He told the Monitor he saw ``no indication'' that the Olympics were jeopardized or that there was any potential security problem.
``Reports in the United States on the situation in Korea have set off a flurry of misunderstanding about whether or not the games will occur, and I think that's unfortunate,'' he said. ``It would be extremely premature to make any judgment about what the situation was going to be in Korea or anywhere else 15 months from now.
``I think it was very precipitous for people to talk about jeopardy, or alternate sites, or security,'' he added. ``We find we're much better off to take a careful look, not act in panic or haste.''
The USOC president, who is also a member of the International Olympic Committee, said that during his stay in Seoul he talked at length with officials from the US Embassy and the American business community, as well as Korean businessmen, political leaders, and sports officials - and that based on those conversations plus his own observations he was confident that everything would work out.
``I acknowledge that things can get out of hand any time you have an assemblage of people,'' he said. ``And certainly the situation in Korea bears watching carefully, just as it would anywhere. But reports in the United States that would indicate that there is a substantial security risk at the present time are simply not true. If we had a team planning to go there today, we would be very confident that there's no security risk. And that is backed up by our embassy staff.''
Helmick said that after trying for three days he finally found a demonstration, emphasizing that the ones he saw were just that - demonstrations - rather than riots.
``They're sort of a tradition there. The students come up from subway stations, then generally stand in one place and yell slogans. The police, who are also very young, form a line. They're unarmed, but they put up shields, and then the students throw rocks. Finally the police set off a couple of tear bombs about halfway between the two groups, and the students disperse.''
He also suggested that there might have been less concern in the United States these past few weeks if Americans had a better understanding of the system in South Korea.
``This confrontational method is part of their traditional way of effecting political change,'' he pointed out. ``And if you look back through the last decade, this is not an uncommon occurrence.
``Nothing has happened in the last two weeks, and nothing has come to our attention to give us any information that we did not have at least two months ago,'' he added. ``The situation occurring now was predicted, and nothing has occurred to change the information we had then.''
He further noted that two years ago when Seoul hosted the Asian Games there was similar unrest, but that a moratorium was effected during the competition.
``I would also point out that there are no demonstrations against the Olympics,'' he said. ``Everyone in Korea wants the Olympics to happen, and is going to do everything possible to ensure that the games take place. It's not like the demonstrations in Los Angeles, or Mexico City, or Montreal, or Lake Placid. All those were against the Olympics or using them as leverage. The Korean students, although they could, are not using them for leverage.
``I would hope now,'' he added, ``that what we will see is our press here ... giving more thoughtful analysis as to what's going on.''
Apparent agreement with this view came recently from opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, who was quoted in Seoul as saying, ``We have no intention of embarrassing the South Korean government by exploiting the Olympic Games.'' A less fully supportive position, however, was expressed by another opposition leader, Kim Dae Jung, who said the Olympics should be held under a new government and that ``if the nation fails to realize democratization, it will be very difficult to stage the Olympics.''
In the end, though, Helmick and other Olympic officials believe, all factions will work together to ensure the success of the games.
``There may be division on a political level, but certainly in their desire to bring Korea forward to the world through the medium of the Olympic Games they are entirely united,'' said Richard Pound of Canada, first vice-president of the International Olympic Committee, during a recent appearance on ABC's ``Sportsnite'' program. ``We are quite confident that either the poilitical diferences will be solved in time or that they will find their own way of having an Olympic truce while the games go on, much as they did for the 1986 Asian Games.''
Asked whether the IOC was nevertheless thinking about contingency plans, Pound said it was much too early for that, with the games not scheduled until Sept. 17-Oct. 2, 1988.
``If the situation is still very serious probably three months or so before the games you'd have to make a decision,'' he said, ``because at that point teams from all around the world would be considering when they should be going and whether they should be going.
``[But] we shouldn't seem to be vacillating in respect to the choice of an Olympic city this far away with no demonstrated probability that there will be trouble at the time of the games.''
A photo of Otto Jelinek, Canadian minister of state fitness and amateur sport, on Page 22 of yesterday's Monitor was incorrectly identified as Robert Helmick, president of the US Olympic Committee.