Most professional athletic stadiums in the U.S. — the kind I grew up with on humid Midwestern summer days — stand removed from the city, looming where freeway exits truncate, surrounded by acres of asphalt parking lots. Sprawl and the endless parking lots that accompany it are generally two of my least favorite characteristics of life in America, but when it comes to stadiums and arenas, I tend to make an exception. There’s something energizing and communal about the improvised park that gets created before a game — people tailgating, picnicking, playing catch — and about the long march across the blacktop, as a trickle of people wearing the same colors becomes a flow, and eventually, as you near the stadium, a mass, gathered for a common reason and feeling common emotions. It’s the only scenario that I can think of where suburban sprawl actually serves to bring people together.
Nothing quite like that exists in Seoul, and when Liz and I visited Sports Complex Station on a Sunday afternoon, and happened to time it almost exactly with the start of an LG Twins baseball game, we emerged from the subway facing not acres of parking spaces, but the actual stadium about 30 meters away. The station, on the green line, provides access to Olympic Stadium and Jamsil Baseball Stadium (잠실야구장), in the latter case almost dropping you off directly in the box seats. We came out of Exit 6 into the thick of the crowd getting ready for the Twins’ game against Gwangju’s Kia Tigers. Right outside the exit ajummas stood behind folding tables, stacked high with typical Korean baseball snacks: kimbap and dried squid, fish, and octupus. Just off to the right at the Stadium Shop (스타디움 샵), not much more than some more folding tables in front of a small storage room, workers inflated and sold Twins thundersticks.
The scene outside the stadium was a swarm of people, some wearing Twins apparel, some wearing Tigers apparel, some sporting the colors of their favorite MLB team. One area outside the stadium was set aside for kids, and a very bored-looking attendant operated a mini-train that ran in a circular loop and a very tame version of the Viking ride common at many amusement parks.
Many of the fans heading into the game carried bags of fried chicken, the Korean ball game equivalent of hot dogs and hamburgers in the U.S. All around the stadium KFC and Burger King restaurants occupied store fronts facing the walkway outside, and everywhere outside the stadium were employees of practically every fried chicken company in Korea hawking bags of pre-packaged fried chicken family dinners.
A bit peckish, but not hungry enough to split a greasy family-size meal between the two of us, we stopped into one of only three or four Korean sikdang squeezed in between the American fast food franchises. We sat at a plastic table outside to take in the weather and the crowd, and ordered some overpriced tteokbokki for 3,500 won. At the table next to us was a guy in a suit, looking like he’d just gotten off of work, and his much more appropriately dressed girlfriend, sporting a Twins jersey and hat. Even though the game had already started and they’d finished their food, they continued to sit outside, watching the game on the businessman’s cell phone. As a roar rose from the crowd inside, the guy, still holding his cell phone, jumped up out of his chair and, in English, started yelling, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ in the direction of his tiny digital screen.
Without tickets (And without much interest; I’m a Doosan Bears fan.), we headed toward Olympic Stadium (주경기장) from Exit 7. A long road runs from the subway exit through a parking lot (ah, there it is) up to the concrete stadium, which, frankly speaking, looks rather uninspired after seeing the Bird’s Nest that Beijing wowed the world with a couple years ago. In truth, all of the facilities in the park — including the Students’ Gymnasium (학생체육관), Swimming Pool (실내수영장), and Indoor Gymnasium (실내체육관) — look like they’ve seen better days and could use a touch of paint. Their architecture too lands with a bit of a thud: very concrete-y, very utilitarian, though considering that Seoul hosted the Games in 1988, when Korea was only just establishing itself as a developed country, it would be unfair to level too much criticism at decades-old buildings, especially after facilities in other former host cities have fared far worse.
The most interesting feature at the park is the Star Walk along the east side of the main stadium, which commemorates past Korean Olympic champions, year by year. At its entrance stands a statue of Korea’s first medal-winning athlete, 손기정, who won the gold medal in the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Games. Born in Sinuiju, on the Chinese border in what is now North Korea, 손 was forced to compete for Japan under the name Son Kitei, as Korea at the time was occupied by the Japanese. When Seoul hosted the Summer Games in 1988, 손 was given the honor of carrying the Olympic Torch into the stadium at the opening ceremony.
If a respite from all the competition is needed, you can pop across Olympic-ro (올림픽로) to Asian Park (아시아공원), accessible from Exit 1 or 2. About 20 meters from Exit 1 is a plaza that contains an enormous sculpture and fountain. Created by 오휘영 in 1986, the work is titled ‘자연과 빛’ (‘Nature and Light’). The huge iron and steel scultpure looks a little something like coarsely pixellated trees, and stands above the fountain, which consists of a pool in the shape of one half of a yin yang symbol, above which water trickles down a black pyramid. Relaxation, however, was hampered by the industrial construction equipment on the corner that was pounding into the ground. As Seoul’s subway expansion continues, Sports Complex Station will eventually become a transfer point, crossing paths with the extending 9 Line.
Jamsil Baseball Stadium (잠실야구장)
Olympic Stadium (주경기장)
Asian Park (아시아공원) and ‘자연과 빛’ (‘Nature and Light’)
Exit 1 or 2