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An Olympic flag at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.
The 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.
Photo: NBC/Getty Images

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Vintage Olympics Merch Helps Connect Me to My Roots

As a child of South Korean immigrants, I’ve gotten addicted to collecting kitschy gear that commemorates my parents’ country.

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Eight years ago, my parents and I watched in awe as then 20-year-old South Korean figure skater Yuna Kim swept gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. I distinctly remember wanting Kim to take home the top prize in the competition even though I had typically cheered on American teams in years past — Kim’s performances were undoubtedly electrifying, but I also knew my parents would have been disappointed if they saw South Korea, their home country, drop to second place.

As it turned out, though, the evening ended with celebration. We were all probably wearing unremarkable outfits at the time, but in retrospect, it would have been stellar to wear a piece of clothing — something equivalent to a lucky sports jersey, for instance — that displayed our pride in South Korea.

For many of people of color or children of immigrant parents, the Olympics are a huge deal. Watching the Games with my parents throughout the years has been a crash course in understanding the insurmountable love they have for South Korea, the country they left behind in the early ’80s. They would unabashedly root for every South Korean team across all sports, even if those teams were tragically losing. But as a Korean-American, I inadvertently cheer for both the Korean and American teams equally, and I find that my other POC/first-generation friends tend do the same for their respective mother countries. While I share very few sentiments with South Korea itself — it’s as foreign to me as any other competing international country — watching the Olympics with my family was a foray into understanding my mixed cultural identity.

This revelation of cultural identity has fed into my ongoing (and now unhealthily expensive) obsession with buying vintage souvenir merch from the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. At the moment, my collection consists of two sweatshirts, two T-shirts, one jacket, and a gold keychain set — and I can’t stop adding to it. Not only are the bold graphics nonchalantly cool and retro in that late-’80s way, but wearing, for example, a XXIV Summer Games sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “SEOUL, KOREA” and “USA” is an easy statement piece that declares my Korean-American-ness though a piece of clothing. People who comment on the artwork alone think it’s a sweet vintage find. But others who further connect that I’m a Korean-American wearing a top that shouts out the South Korean capital know what’s up. I love seeking out designs that incorporate other important emblems too, such as the primary-colored version of the taegeuk (the yin yang-esque logo on the South Korean flag) or the smiley cartoon tiger who wears a traditional ribbon hat and an Olympics medal (his name is Hodori and he served as the official mascot for the ’88 Games).

There is major historical significance to the 1988 souvenir items I buy as well. For one, hosting the Games was a huge “coming out” for post-war South Korea. At the time, the nation wanted to shift people’s perceptions that it could become an economically prosperous country — this, of course, turned out to be true. Korean influences can now be detected across many industries, including beauty, entertainment, and tech. And the fact that the Games went off successfully — despite North Korea’s 1987 attack on a Korean Air flight, killing 115 passengers, in order to scare other countries from participating — was monumental in retrospect. (The fact that both nations are uniting for the forthcoming XXIII Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, is causing protests. Time will tell how this plays out.)

What I perhaps love most about the merch I’ve amassed is that the iconic Olympics rings logo — which of course is prominently displayed on the majority of souvenir items — is a global symbol that most everyone can relate to. The sheer magnitude of what the Olympics represents, which has peacefully brought together, at some point, all 206 participating National Olympic Committees from around the world (despite boycotts and disputes among some countries) to celebrate extraordinary athleticism is truly astounding.

Over the years, I’ve been enamored by various other Olympic fashions. Polo Ralph Lauren continues to design the US opening and closing ceremony uniforms, and many brands release their own Olympics-inspired capsule collections. In advance of the Pyeongchang Games, for instance, The North Face has debuted its International Collection honoring the US freeski team, which it is sponsoring; the brand also rolled out a black polka-dot print on white in honor of the host country. Nike’s Medal Stand Collection is a similarly technical capsule in celebration of American athletes.

A sweater from the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
A small portion of the author’s sizable collection.
A bomber jacket from the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.

But the merch that truly catches my eye is imbued with cultural identity or political messaging; new and contemporary collector’s items don’t seem to carry the same kind of sentiment (at least not yet). Of course there is a limit to what apparel and accessories are even available because of which countries and cities have had the privilege of hosting the Games. Africa is the only continent (in which participating teams originate) that hasn’t had a country host the Olympics. But search around the depths of eBay and Etsy, and you’ll still likely find various country-specific memorabilia from Olympics past for purchase. The small, woman-run contemporary brand Radical Dreams has captured two historical black American Olympic moments on vibrant pins for collectors: the “Black Power salute” from the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City with medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Wilma Rudolph’s triumphant sprint at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.

I’m very much looking forward to the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang — you’ll likely find me and my fellow POC/first-generation friends googly-eyed as the American teams and the teams of our parents’s countries parade through the opening ceremony. I’ll be wearing one of my 1988 Olympics sweatshirts for good measure.

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