HARDLY any city wanted them. Some thought they were too politically volatile for the divided Korean Peninsula. Yet the Seoul Olympic Games are about to begin (television coverage begins tonight. See box on right). And when the curtain rises on the Games of the XXIV Olympiad at Olympic Stadium here, a record 160 nations will march in an opening ceremony brimming as much with hope and anticipation as with color and pageantry. Seoul lies only 25 miles from North Korea and a tense demilitarized zone. To ensure that it will be a peaceful playground for the world's athletes, a huge security force is in place. Even United States ships are reportedly at the ready to discourage disruptive activities.
Though such precautions are a fact of current Olympic life, the greatest force for harmony should be the sense of global participation. For the first time since 1972, practically every nation is showing up, which means that the level of athletic competition could reach a new high.
In 1976, many African nations stayed away from Montreal in protest over the presence of New Zealand, which maintained athletic ties to South Africa. In 1980, the United States led a Western boycott of the Moscow Olympics following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And in 1984, the Soviets and most of their Eastern bloc allies returned the favor, citing reservations about security in Los Angeles as their reason for staying home.
The challenges involved in holding a modern mega-Olympics, including how to pay for them, scared off most would-be bidders. Eventually, only Seoul and Nagoya, Japan, sought the '88 Games. Now Seoul will be host at a time of renewed enthusiasm for what the Olympics are and can be.
With three key communist players (the Soviet Union, East Germany, and China) eager to take part, the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee (SLOOC) had the needed leverage to withstand communist North Korea's far-fetched demands to be an equal partner.
North Koreans will be no-shows
Many negotiated compromises were attempted, including a plan to let the North Koreans hold five events, but North Korea ultimately rejected all of them. Though the door remains open, the North Koreans will be no-shows, as will six other nations with membership in the Olympic community - Cuba, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Madagascar, the Seychelles, and Albania. Of these, only Cuba was expected to be a contender for medals.
The list of acceptances, however, is so extensive that an atlas, not a program, might be the best companion for watching the opening parade of nations, which will include countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, with little-known nations such as Chad, Rwanda, and San Marino sandwiched in between.
Both Iran and Iraq will participate in what the organizers have billed as the Olympics of ``Harmony and Progress,'' and which carry a $3 billion price tag. Despite the latest cease-fire between these adversaries on the battlefield, the teams will be quartered on opposite sides of the Olympic Village.
If friendships blossom, that would be progress. Whether other developments at these Games will be seen as progress is uncertain.
Tennis the focus of debate on amateurism
The issues of what defines an amateur athlete, for example, could engender much debate over the next 16 days. Much of it will focus on tennis, one of 23 medal sports on the agenda. To some, the return of tennis to the Olympics for the first time since 1924 is viewed as a daring move toward an open Olympics, in which the distinctions between pros and amateurs are completely ignored.
In 1984 at Los Angeles, when tennis was a nonmedal, demonstration sport, any player aged 20 or under was eligible. This time even the age restriction has been lifted, and many of the game's well-established, well-heeled stars have signed up, including West Germany's Grand Slam winner, Steffi Graf, and America's Chris Evert.
The rules require a modest financial sacrifice in the form of a short suspension of endorsement income, but that's a minor point that only gives tennis the appearance of belonging with such unmonied sports as field hockey, team handball, and water polo.
Nevertheless, if money was once a dirty word in Olympic circles, it now is almost fashionable. Even the Soviet Union has gone public with a plan of cash incentives, with $19,000 rewarded for winning a gold medal, $8,000 for a silver, and $4,700 for a bronze.
Looking to coax its own athletes to new performance heights, South Korea is reportedly dangling some of the juiciest financial carrots. A gold-medal-winning cyclist would collect $138,000 and each member of the soccer team would win $69,500 for a first-place finish. Lifetime pensions have also been mentioned as goads for South Korean athletes, many of whom have undergone grueling training in a secluded training camp.
As only the second city in a developing country to put on this quadrennial sports spectacle (Mexico City in 1968 being the other), Seoul would obviously like to make a statement about the strides being made in all facets of South Korean society.
Signs of this were evident at Los Angeles in 1984, when the South Koreans turned in their strongest Olympic showing to date, finishing 10th in the final tally with 19 medals. At the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul, they trailed only China in medals, slipping ahead of Japan.
This time the 480-member South Korean team has its best chances in judo, wrestling, archery, boxing, taekwondo, and table tennis. Taekwondo (pronounced tye-kwahn-doe), a martial art that is practiced extensively here, is a nonmedal demonstration sport.
NBC, which is providing 179 hours of television coverage in the US, reportedly expects that table tennis (known in America's basement rec rooms as Ping-Pong) may be the surprising viewing treat of the Games. The game is played with incredible speed and power by world-class players.
NBC is shelling out $300 million for the US TV rights, a bargain considering the $309 million that rival ABC spent to telecast 90 hours of last February's Calgary Winter Games, which were smaller in scope and had far less variety.
The dates of these Olympics - from Sept. 17 to Oct. 2 - hardly fit what many inaccurately call the ``Summer Olympics.'' There are the Olympics and the Olympic Winter Games, so Seoul never felt beholden to the calendar, only to 30 years of meteorological reports that indicated the autumn dry season offered the best conditions for the outdoor sports.
These range from equestrian events and archery to soccer, cycling, and athletics, as track and field is known internationally. A majority of sports, however, will be held indoors - swimming, fencing, wrestling, gymnastics, all the way to the demonstration sports of badminton and bowling.
Whatever the sport, spectators will surely spend some of their time being impressed with the magnificently designed new stadiums and arenas Seoul has built. Whereas Los Angeles made extensive use of existing facilities, Seoul has built virtually everything from scratch, giving the structures clumped at the two major sites - Olympic Park and the Seoul Sports Complex - a fresh-from-the-box quality.
The decathlon: ultimate test of athleticism
As at most Olympics, much attention will be focused on the track-and-field events held in the main stadium, which have their roots in the ancient Games. Among them, the decathlon remains the ultimate all-around test of athleticism. Britain's extroverted Daley Thompson will be out to make history in this two-day, 10-event test, as he seeks to become the first person to win a third Olympic decathlon.
An abundance of other terrific athletes will bring tremendous excitement to the track, including Britain's current 1,500-meter star, Steve Cram. Cram is an archrival of Morocco's Said Aouita, a potential gold medalist in both the 800 and 1,500, which he is running this time after winning the 5,000 in Los Angeles four years ago.
Two other prominent members of the 1984 British team will be absent. Zola Budd, in the midst of continuing controversy surrounding her distance running, returned earlier this year to her native South Africa, where she has enrolled in a university and become engaged. And Sebastian Coe, winner of the 1,500 at Moscow in 1980 and again at Los Angeles in 1984, simply failed to qualify for the British team.
Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the International Olympic Committee, couldn't perceive of the Games without the defending two-time gold medalist in one of the traditional showcase events, and tried to encourage special consideration for him. British officials rejected making him a ``wild card,'' however, and Samaranch didn't pursue the matter.
The United States is loaded with stars. Carl Lewis, who equaled Jesse Owens's 1936 feat of winning four gold medals in 1984, will try for an unprecedented repeat, with Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, a fierce rival, hoping to waylay the bid. Edwin Moses, virtually unbeatable in the 400 meters during the past decade, will attempt to capture the event he won in 1976 and again in 1984. Mary Decker Slaney, whose '84 Olympics ended in tears after a collision with Zola Budd kept her from completing the 3,000 meters, will battle the Soviets for the Olympic medal that has eluded her throughout a brilliant career.
Other Americans expected to grab the spotlight are Jackie Joyner-Kersee, her sister-in-law, Florence Griffith Joyner, and Butch Reynolds.
Kersee should win the women's heptathlon, the seven-event counterpart to the men's decathlon, and battle East Germany's Heike Drechsler and the Soviet Union's Galina Chistyakova in the long jump, where all three have held or shared the world outdoor record in recent years. Joyner and Reynolds have been the summer's most notable record breakers.
Joyner set a new mark at 100 meters wearing an avant-garde running outfit of her own design. Reynolds shattered the 400-meter world record that Lee Evans had put in the books at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
Setting records usually takes a back seat to winning medals at the Olympics, so unless the conditions are absolutely perfect, most athletes will concentrate on beating the competition, not pushing out the envelope.
One of the largest medal totals by any single athlete could occur in swimming, where American Matt Biondi, known as ``El Torpedo'' in Europe, could match Mark Spitz's record seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Janet Evans, the mighty mite of the US women's team, will see if she can hold off a tidal wave of victories expected from the powerful East German squad. Though 5 ft., 5 in. and only 105 pounds, Evans could tower over some of the would-be Nadias and Mary Lous who will be tumbling their way into public's heart at the gymnastics arena. These demitasse dynamos are a joy to watch, no matter what their nationality, and this year it may be back around to Romania's turn, with 15-year-old Aurelia Dobre, the all-around world champion, and teammate Daniela Silivas among the favorites.
On the men's side, spectators will find the strength and agility of Soviet Dmitri Bilozerchev a feast for the eyes, and awe-inspiring, given the recovery he had to make from a serious auto accident.
Just about everywhere one turns there will be athletes and rivalries of interest. In archery, 14-year-old Denise Parker of Utah is a US hopeful, while in yachting, Denmark's 60-year-old Paul Elvstrom, a four-time gold medalist, can help show others the ropes, especially daughter Trine, his crew in the Tornado-class races.
In synchronized swimming, defending champion Tracie Ruiz-Conforto of the US has come out of retirement to match aquatic maneuvers with Canada's Carolyn Waldo.
American Greg Louganis, perhaps history's greatest diver, will try to defend the two gold medals he won in Los Angeles against a group of Chinese aerialists who are masters of the splashless entry.
African runners are ready to harvest medals in the distance events and perhaps hint at some of the potential for a third-world emergence.
The basketball competition, in which the Americans are favored, could provide the first US-USSR matchup since the still-controversial last-minute Soviet victory in Munich 16 years ago.
The potential for intriguing new Olympic chapters goes on and on. The typing fingers and golden throats of some 11,500 print and broadcast journalists are poised to record the moments. Now it's simply a matter of unleashing 9,300 competitors before the world's eager eyes.