Olympism and the Unifying Spirit of the Korean Mountains

The Olympic idea originated in the hilly region of Olympia, a sanctuary of ancient Greece on the Peloponnese peninsula. Every four years, from the 8th century BCE until the 4th century CE, the Olympic Games of the classical antiquity were organized here, at the base of the revered Mount Kronos. The Korean peninsula, like Greece, is a landscape that consists of hills, mountains, valleys, woodlands, springs, rivers, coastlines and islands. Traditionally, the mountain areas of the Korean peninsula have been places with spiritual sanctuaries, with many Buddhist temples and shrines – in many cases repaired, rebuilt and conserved after the Korean War – still present in these meditative places.

The Olympic Charter states that “…the goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind…” (Olympic Charter 2017). While part of the Korean people celebrated and participated in the proud moment of PyeongChang 2018, others on the Korean Peninsula were not able to follow or join the Games.

Deogyusan National Park (Photo:Jan Haenraets).

The Olympic Movement certainly advances the idea of “building a peaceful and better world”, but there is still a way to go before we can feel that “without discrimination” has been achieved. The momentum of PyeongChang 2018 can hopefully grow, and the Korean people that could not freely choose to join the rest of the world in PyeongChang were hopefully somehow in our minds, and in that sense, symbolically someway there.

Seoraksan National Park (Photo:Jan Haenraets).

Inviting a message for “a peaceful and better world” to the Korean peninsula, through organizing the Olympic Winter Games in these mountains deserves some contemplation. With that objective in mind, this page is composed as a photographic ‘homage’ to the Korean mountain landscape and its genius loci (the spirit of a particular place). The text of the Fundamental Principles of Olympism from the 2017 Olympic Charter by the International Olympic Committee is included below for reflection.

Soyosan National Park (Photo:Jan Haenraets).

The ancient site of Olympia had a classical sanctuary (Altis) and features including: temples, a stadium, a sacred enclosure (temenos), the hippodrome, the gymnasium, a palaestra with training grounds, and statues. Olympia followed the classical Grecian philosophy of building at such sites, while respecting its genius loci, the spirit of place. It is philosophies like these that teach us that in classical Greece “…the essence of intuitive Greek site-planning was that all architecture … was subsidiary and composed to natural landscape….” (Jellicoe 1996).

Deogyusan National Park (Photo:Jan Haenraets).

The result of this Grecian manner of building is very significant and it has been argued that “…the genius loci, the recognition and expression of the spirit of particular places has been the most enduring legacy of Greece in landscape design….” (Jellicoe 1996). Even nowadays respecting the genius loci of a place is still seen as an essential design philosophy in landscape design and planning. All too often though, this is being overlooked in contemporary planning, as is respecting the spirit (and their rights) of the inhabitants of a region that are an essential part of the spirit of a place, of the land.

Halasan National Park, Jeju Island (Photo:Jan Haenraets).

Ancient Koreans are said to have enjoyed living close to the mountains, streams and woodlands, and took pleasure in singing and dancing (Hanʼguk and Hakhoe 2007), their philosophy being that people had to live close to nature, to become one of it. Or in other words, “…only when human-centered thinking is abolished that people can live naturally….” (Hanʼguk and Hakhoe 2007).

Shall we go live there?

Lets live in the green mountains!

With wild grapes and thyme.

Let’s live in the green mountains!

Yalli yalli yallaseong yalları yalla

(Cheongsan byeolgok, Song of the Green Mountains, Goryeo era) (Hanʼguk and Hakhoe 2007)

Soyosan National Park (Photo: Jan Haenraets).

As the Olympic Games take us to these mountainous regions, it is of interest to note that the historical Buddhist temples in Korea’s mountains also mostly recognize the spirit of place. In developing their ‘sanctuaries’ they aimed to make the most use of the place’s qualities and work to construct harmonious sites perfectly suited for spiritual contemplation. In that sense the mountainous regions of Korea are a very suitable place to reconnect with the ancient philosophies of Olympia and its sanctuary, and with the fundamental principles of the modern-day Olympic Movement.

Deogyusan National Park (Photo:Jan Haenraets).

Mountains can be found throughout the whole of Korea, with ranges stretching from the north to the south, east to west. Mountains remain an essential part of the Korean identity and spirit of place. The word pungnyu means the “enjoyment of nature itself” (Hanʼguk and Hakhoe 2007). In (South) Korea’s contemporary livestyle the mountains are constantly used for places of exercise, reflection, friendship and solidarity, all of which are also key values of the Olympic spirit (Olympic Charter 2017). While civilizations can create boundaries and borders, the mountains and land speak for themselves and here continue to bind the Korean peninsula and its people together.

Deogyusan National Park (Photo: Jan Haenraets).

Autumn comes to the river village; the fish grow fat.

Weigh anchor, weigh anchor!

Leisurely hours spent on broad waters.

Jigukchong, jigukchong, eosawa!

I look back on the world of men; the farther off the better.

(“Autumn” Eobu sasisa, The Fisherman’s Calendar) (Hanʼguk and Hakhoe 2007)

Gyeryongsan National Park (Photo:Jan Haenraets).

With the unbreakable spiritual strength of mountains in mind, with the principles of the Olympic Movement at hand, and with the knowledge of the ancient Grecian philosophy where building was subsidiary and composed to natural landscape, we can believe in a civilization that achieves a more peaceful, unified and better world.

Bukhansan National Park (Photo:Jan Haenraets)

The Fundamental Principles of Olympism

(Source: All text of the Principles comes from the Olympic Charter 2017)

1. Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

Gyeryongsan National Park (Photo:Jan Haenraets).
2. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.
Haeinsa Temple, within Gayasan National Park (Photo: Jan Haenraets).

3. The Olympic Movement is the concerted, organised, universal and permanent action, carried out under the supreme authority of the IOC, of all individuals and entities who are inspired by the values of Olympism. It covers the five continents. It reaches its peak with the bringing together of the world’s athletes at the great sports festival, the Olympic Games. Its symbol is five interlaced rings.

Deogyusan National Park (Photo: Jan Haenraets).

4. The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

Gyeryongsan National Park (Photo: Jan Haenraets).

5. Recognising that sport occurs within the framework of society, sports organisations within the Olympic Movement shall have the rights and obligations of autonomy, which include freely establishing and controlling the rules of sport, determining the structure and governance of their organisations, enjoying the right of elections free from any outside influence and the responsibility for ensuring that principles of good governance be applied.

Bukhansan National Park (Photo: Jan Haenraets).

6. The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Gyeryongsan National Park (Photo: Jan Haenraets).

7. Belonging to the Olympic Movement requires compliance with the Olympic Charter and recognition by the IOC.

Gyeongju, South Korea (Photo: Jan Haenraets).


감 사 합 니 다. Kamsahamnida. Thank You Korea.


Text and photography by Jan Haenraets

 Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada, and a Professor in the Preservation Studies Program, at Boston University


Jellicoe, Geoffrey Alan, and Susan Jellicoe. 1996. The landscape of man: shaping the environment from prehistory to the present day. London: Thames and Hudson.

Hanʼguk, Chŏntʻong, and Hakhoe Chogyŏng. 2007. Korean traditional landscape architecture. Elizabeth, NJ: Hollym.

The International Olympic Committee 2017. ‘The Olympic Charter, In force from 15 September 2017’. Lausanne: The International Olympic Committee.

The PyeongChang 2018 Olympics and Paralympic Winter Games, Official Website.

Bosan (Photo: Jan Haenraets).


  1. Prachtige natuur, Jan. Spijtig dat voor het aanleggen van de ski-evenementen er een woud van 500 jaar oude bomen moest sneuvelen en mensen verdreven werden van de plek, waar ze zo graag woonden. Groetjes uit Houthalen

    • Jan Haenraets says:

      Hi Steven, a great comment, much in line with what also Acadia on my Mind mentioned (see my reply above). Groeten!

  2. Thank you for this reflection on Olympism, and reminder of how far we still have to go.

    Didn’t realize that “Olympia followed the classical Grecian philosophy of building at such sites, while respecting its genius loci, the spirit of place,” as you write.

    But in thinking of some of the modern-day cities that have built Olympic stadiums, displacing residents, and then unable to maintain the facilities after the games are gone, it seems the spirit of place has not been respected. How wasteful, and financially devastating.

    • Jan Haenraets says:

      Thanks for the great comment, and as mentioned in the text, I agree that too often many of these aspects are being overlooked in contemporary planning, including in Olympic cities. The ideals on paper are often good, but implementing it is not always as successful as could be. In that sense, the need to respect spirit of place – in its widest sense – was given the classical Grecian traditions in this case something that came to my mind.

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