OVER the past 20 years, international sports festivals have taken on the character of national security events. Extreme security measures, including roundups of potential demonstrators, have become a familiar prelude to these ``festivals of humanity.'' The Seoul Olympiad, which began over the weekend, will be history's most ``secure'' international festival. As months of spectacular publicity have made clear, the South Korean authorities have stopped at nothing to forestall any conceivable terrorist assault upon the Games. Electrified fencing, computerized profiles of 6,000 international terrorists, electronic stethoscopes to detect bombs, and intensified surveillance by American satellites and aircraft are in place. On a smaller scale, official food tasters will serve as potential human sacrifices to the security of Olympic athletes.
The elite security forces themselves have been presented to the world as selfless military athletes. Training in black pajamas and ski masks, sliding one-armed down ropes while firing their rifles with unerring accuracy, they send a dramatic message from the government to would-be disturbers of the Olympic peace.
Never before has a government identified its own legitimacy with the successful staging of an Olympiad. The feverish campaign to equate national legitimacy with the Games was carried on for years by the now-discredited former President Chun Doo Hwan. His successor, former Army Gen. Roh Tae Woo, was formerly chairman of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee (SLOOC). Never has an Olympic functionary stepped into so powerful a political role.
Mesmerized by the security extravaganza, by rumors of terrorist plots, and by local exotica like the now famous dog-meat restaurants, the American press has chosen to present this Olympiad as an entertainment while ignoring the darker side of the Olympic project.
Lost in the stories about taxi drivers struggling with English phrase books is the fact that South Korea's inchoate democracy is also a police state which holds hundreds of political prisoners and which, according to Amnesty International, continues to torture some of them. As of last June, South Korean police claimed to have rounded up 15,617 gangsters, burglars, pickpockets, and other criminals in a pre-Olympic sweep. As the North American Coalition for Human Rights in Korea commented in July, ``at least 480 persons are known to be currently in hiding and under police search for having expressed their opposition to the government's policies.'' Almost all of Seoul has been declared a ``demonstration-free zone'' for the duration of the Games.
In a move reminiscent of the pre-Olympic repression that swept Moscow in 1980, 4,000 beggars and blind people have been removed from Seoul to improve its appearance for foreign tourists. That these fraternal festivals should require such inhumane measures is a paradox that rarely gets the attention it deserves.
Apparently unknown to the American press and its public is the fact that all of this happened on a much larger scale before and during the Seoul Asian Games of September-October 1986, which were intended as a dry run for the 1988 Olympic Games and were virtually ignored in the United States.
The Asian Games were attended by the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Juan Antonio Samaranch, and other top Olympic officials who expressed complete satisfaction with both the spectacle and the security arrangements. It is unlikely, of course, that any of these men went looking for human-rights violations, since the IOC makes a principle of never inquiring into the moral standards of its clients.
Similarly, when hundreds of thousands of South Koreans took to the streets in June 1987 to bring down the Chun regime, the executive director of the US Olympic Committee stated: ``I'm not sure a martial law situation should have an impact on the Games.'' Both Mr. Chun and Mr. Roh have correctly concluded from this that ``Olympic security'' can be just about anything they want it to be. At the same time, President Roh knows that the worst human rights abuses of his former mentor must be avoided to preserve the image of the Games.
The naivet'e of most American reporting on the Seoul Olympiad was recently exemplified by the New York Times's description of Kim Un Yong, a top member of the SLOOC, as `` a respected IOC member.'' Mr. Kim is, indeed, South Korea's delegate to the IOC, but he is also more than that. In a previous life he was known as Mickey Kim, an officer of the notorious Korean Central Intelligence Agency who maintained ties with the Unification Church operations of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
A 1978 report by the US House of Representatives on Korean-American relations said his activities included a failed attempt to solicit a payoff from Colt Industries to the 1971 election campaign of dictator Park Chung Hee. Kim is not the first unsavory character to have found new respectability within the ranks of an international sporting federation. He is a perfect example of the public relations success of the Seoul Olympiad.
John M. Hoberman, associate professor of Germanic languages at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of ``Sport and Political Ideology'' (1984) and ``The Olympic Crisis: Sport, Politics, and the Moral Order'' (1986).