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Olympic lore: Doped and duped ~ the 1988 Seoul Games

July 23, 2012



Champion of cheats?: Ben Johnson crosses the line clear of Carl Lewis and Linford Christie in the Men’s 100m final – yet ultimately it wouldn’t be glory his victory would wrought, but infamy

Well, it’s less than a week away now, peeps – what you didn’t know? Er, seriously? Yes, on Friday night the London Games finally kick-off and this blog’s nostalgic multi-sport celebration has indeed turned into and is wending down Olympic Way with this post, dedicated, as it is, to an event of supreme highs and extreme lows (two of which were shockingly associated with the exact same event). Yup, for good and bad, Seoul ’88 (September17-October 2) was an unforgettable Olympics – a real news-making Indian (or rather Korean) summer in the autumn of the ’80s…


The Magic

Rather like West Germany ahead of the ’72 Summer Games, South Korea had enjoyed an ‘economic miracle’ over the past 15 or so years, during which its economy had not just recovered following the Korean War, but developed rapidly thanks to increased industrialisation and urbanisation. In which case, it saw the opportunity of hosting the Olympics as, if you will, a coming-out party to the rest of the world, in much the same way as fellow South East Asian power-in-waiting Japan had looked to Tokyo ’64 as a chance to announce its arrival on the global stage. As such, the host nation made sure it completed the construction of all new venues a full two years before the Games came to town – in order astutely to host the 1986 Asian Games as a test event.

A major fly in the ointment, however, was perhaps unsurprisingly North Korea. An unlikely agreement had been reached between the two Koreas to hold the ’88 Games together (with the North wanting hosting duties of 11 of the 23 sports, as well as its own opening and closing ceremonies); this agreement was – quel surprise – to founder. And North Korea, rather like the USSR four years before, thus led a Communist boycott that included Cuba and Albania, yet the Soviet Union itself was having none of it and was only too happy to attend. After all, the Cold War was now approaching its end; the major nations of the world had no interest in missing out on another Olympic party.


The Mascot

An undeniably happy, cute little chap, Hodori the Tiger was chosen owing to the Amur (or Siberian) tiger’s popular one-time prevalence in South East Asia – it’s now mostly only found in South East Russia. Created by designer Kim Hyun, the tiger cub sports an Olympic medal around his neck and the traditional sangmo hat worn by Korean farmband members. A streamer runs from the top of the hat in the shape of an ‘S’, the first letter of host city Seoul, of course. Hodori’s name is fittingly derived from his nation’s word for tiger (‘horangi’/ ‘Ho’) and a colloquial word for boys (‘dori’). To this day, Hodori remains the emblem of the South Korean taekwondo demonstration team, whose sport was a designated ‘demonstration sport’ during the Games and was also demonstrated by mass participators during the opening ceremony.



The Moment

It’s an age-old cliché is the ‘everybody remembers where they were when so-and-so happened’ statement, but it really applies in this case. Because everybody really does remember where they were when Jamaican-born Canadian Ben Johnson won gold in the Men’s 100m final (see video clip above)… and where they were just three short days later when he was unceremoniously and instantly stripped of his medal for testing positive for a banned drug. It was an extraordinary sporting event – a man went from relative zero to total hero in less than 10 seconds and, seemingly as quickly, to absolute zero. For  the average Joe, there was something unnatural, even unearthly about how Johnson had streaked away from the field to cross the finishing line – in reality, it was scientifically improbable. Sprinters slow down after they’ve run 60 metres of a 100m race; Johnson patently didn’t: he maintained his speed. Of course, it was all a sham. He was found guilty of taking the anabolic steroid stanozolol – and would go on to admit to having taken such drugs for at least a year, which meant two world records he’d set (one in the final itself at 9.79 seconds) were stripped from him.

Following an attempted comeback after a three-year ban, Johnson again tested positive and, this time, was banned for life. Bizarrely and more than dubiously, he went on to train notorious drug cheat footballer Diego Maradona and future war criminal Al-Saadi Gaddafi when the latter was attempting to gain a contract with an Italian football club – after which he too tested positive for drugs. In 2006, Johnson opined that around 40 percent of all sportspeople were taking performance-enhancing stimulants, intimating they were all banned substances.  Indeed, four of the sprinters he lined up alongside in that  infamous 100m final would go on to face drug-related scandals of their own: his training partner Desai Williams (who was implicated with him), American Dennis Mitchell, Brit Linford Christie and even the great hero of Los Angeles ’84, Carl Lewis.


Hot sprinting, heroic sailing and cool runnings: taliswoman with the talons Florence Griffith-Joyner (l), sailer saviour Lawrence Lemieux (m) and Calgary ’88’s Jamaican bobsled team (r)


The Main Man

Lawrence Lemieux ~ a rare non-sporting achievement (or mis-achievement) here. This Canadian sailer made himself a true Olympic hero for all-time on September 24 when in the Finn Class event, in which at the time he was lying second in the fifth of seven races, he abandoned quite likely podium glory by rescuing two Singaporeans competing in the 470 Class (whose course was nearby) after their boat capsized owing to heavy winds and, injured, they began to struggle in the water. Thanks to his endeavours, Lemieux trailed in to finish 22nd in his own event. At the its medal ceremony, though, he was given the Pierre de Coubertin Medal for sportsmanship (named after the founder of the modern Olympic Games), of which only 11 have ever been handed out. In June this year, Lemieux commented on the episode: “You spend your life working really hard internationally [in sailing] and you get very few accolades. So that’s the ironic thing; 25 years after this rescue, we’re still talking about it”.


The Main Woman

Florence Griffith-Joyner (or simply – and with more than a flashy splash of ’80s cool – ‘Flo Jo’) made rather incredible history at these Games, as she ‘did a Carl Lewis’. Yes, she won four sprinting gold medals (100m, 200m, 400m and 4x100m Relay). But not just that, the camera-friendly American with long and garishly coloured finger nails also set two world records in the process – 10.62 seconds in the 100m and 21.34 seconds in the 200m, the latter of which still stands. A colourful athlete in more ways than one then, Flo Jo wasn’t without controversy, however (in the wake of Ben Johnson’s antics, the late ’80s maybe was the era when controversy first seemed devilishly to spring up around every major sport star, something which we still see today of course). Her rivals questioned whether her performances may have be drug induced, not least because she appeared to have gained a great deal of muscle in the early months of 1988; she was never close to being found guilty of relying on stimulants, though. Having reached an undeniable apex and wanting to start a family, she retired immediately after these Games and, tragically, died 10 years later following an epileptic fit aged just 38.



Mentioned in dispatches

  • This would be the final Olympic Games contested by both the powerhouse teams from the Soviet Union and East Germany, as the Berlin Wall would fall just over a year later when the process of the break-up of the USSR and Eastern Europe began. Many observers had questioned the dominance of East Germany in different Olympic events, not least women’s swimming, and lo and behold after Germany was reunified secret files were discovered verifying that a staggeringly high number of their female Olympians had been taking undetected stimulants for years
  • Future unifier of the World Heavyweight boxing belts Lennox Lewis won gold in the Super Heavyweight division – for Canada, that is, rather than the UK, the land of his birth and which he would later represent. Another future professional, Roy Jones Jr. of the United States didn’t fare so well, though. After dominating the Light Middleweight final he was judged to have lost the bout to home favourite, South Korean Park Si-Hun. Jones got the last laugh, mind, for as a professional he became a world champion at four separate weights, including heavyweight, and was named the 1990s’ ‘boxer of the decade’
  • Keeping it in the family, Flo Jo’s sister-in-law Jackie Joyner-Kersee won both the women’s heptathlon and long jump, setting a world record in the former (7,291 points) and an Olympic record in the latter; her heptathlon world record still stands today
  • American swimmer Matt Biondi attempted to emulate at these Games the Munich ’72 achievements of his countryman Mark Spitz by winning seven gold medals. He came up short, winning only five, as well as a silver and a bronze and setting eight world records. As second bests go, not exactly dreadful then
  • For right or wrong, these Games marked an Olympic return for tennis after a 64-year absence. In the women’s singles event, West German superstar Steffi Graf added a gold medal to the four Grand Slams she also won that year (making it a so-called ‘Golden Slam’)
  • Evoking memories of ‘1966 and all that‘, the Great Britain men’s hockey team made it all the way to the final of the tournament and overcame the well-fancied West Germany 3-1 to claim the gold medal, in which Asian player Imran Sherwani memorably scored two goals (see video clip above)
  • Further success came for Blighty in the pool where, following in the wake of his Montreal ’76 hero David Wilkie, Adrian Moorhouse upset the odds to win the 100m Breaststroke, while rower Steve Redgrave won the second of his five gold medals in five consecutive Summer Games in the Men’s Coxless Pairs, along with Andy Holmes. Meanwhile, in athletics Linford Christie saw his bronze in the 100m upgraded to a silver following Ben Johnson’s disqualification (Carl Lewis was upgraded to silver); Christie also earned a silver in the 4x100m Relay with John Regis; famed long- and middle-distance runners Liz McColgan and Peter Elliott both claimed silver in 10,000m and the 1,500m, respectively, and a silver was also won in 110m hurdles by Colin Jackson
  • A British hero of a very different kind emerged at the Calgary Winter Games, held in February, in the shape of ski jumper Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards (see bottom video clip). Amiable and very normal bloke-ish (owing to his wearing thick-lensed glasses and, well, not particularly looking like an athlete, at least in the face), Edwards quickly became a household name and even quicker a national hero in the manner only the British will entertain: because he was crap. He finished last in both the 70m and 90m events and by some way too. Yet his fame also spread globally and goodwill seemed to greet him everywhere he went, even in the Games’ closing ceremony during which organising committee chairman Fran King referenced him in a speech: “At this Games, some competitors have won gold, some have broken records and some of you have even soared like an eagle”
  • Even more famous exploits at the Winter Games were made by the Jamaican bobsled team who, contrary to popular belief, were welcomed to participate in the event by rivals despite the very un-Winter Olympics tradition of their country. Their non-finish but walking alongside their overturned bobsled to the finish line was immortalised (albeit with them instead carrying the bobsled) in the popular John Candy-starring Hollywood film adaptation Cool Runnings (1993).


Majestic, plastic and desperate Brits: the men’s hockey team delight a nation by winning gold (l), Lennox Lewis back in the days when he considered himself Canadian (r) and our Winter Olympic legend, for all the wrong – or is that right? – reasons, Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards (m)


The Memory

No question, the pong of drug-aided cheating (both very real and in other cases only speculated) stunk up these Olympics – and has continued to tarnish its memory in the years since whenever more allegations and revelations have reared  their ugly heads. There’s simply no getting away from the fact that Seoul ’88’s Ben Johnson affair is easily the most shocking and most dramatically theatrical doping scandal ever to have rocked the Olympics, nay the entire sporting world, both of which it changed forever. Seemingly every high profile sport suffers from drug-related trauma nowadays, from cycling to football and from baseball to – yes, still – athletics. All this is the legacy of the Seoul Games and Ben Johnson getting caught.

And yet, to dismiss these particular Summer Games like that is to obfuscate the truth, for these were also an Olympics of fine joyful moments (Lemieux and Biondi) and historic achievements (Lewis and Graf). Moreover, they also had a profound, positive effect on their host country – one which would surely have far exceeded its inhabitants’ hopes. Although South Korea had sought and won the right to host the Games as part of a wider desire to reinforce its emergence as a global player, this had been done under the authoritarian administration of President Chun Doo-hwan, who had assumed power in August 1980. However, in the wake of actually hosting the Games in a years’ time and the desire not to have the country presented to the rest of the world as an embittered military dictatorship – and thanks to recent pressure applied by mass political protests – Chun stood down and Presidential elections took place in December 1987, ensuring that by the time the Olympics came to Seoul the host nation was a democratic republic.

All this undoubtedly helped drive improved relations not just between South Korea and the West, but between the nation and China, the USSR (effectively soon to be Russia) and Eastern Europe. In which case, the Olympics played a genuine part in South Korea becoming a more confident, more open and better society that would, economically and otherwise, go from strength to strength in the decades to come.


The Medal Table

Gold Silver Bronze Total
1  Soviet Union 55 31 46 132
2  East Germany 37 35 30 102
3  United States 36 31 27 94
4  South Korea 12 10 11 33
5  West Germany 11 14 15 40
6  Hungary 11 6 6 23
7  Bulgaria 10 12 13 35
8  Romania 7 11 6 24
9  France 6 4 6 16
10  Italy 6 4 4 14
12  Great Britain & NI 5 10 9 24



2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan Hilbert permalink
    August 24, 2012 5:18 pm

    Because of the Lance Armstrong’s reported fall from grace this morning, Flo Jo’s reputation & accomplishments have been called out again for public drubbings. I’m tired of hearing about her legacy being “tainted” or her records being “in doubt” because of using performance enhancing drugs. She lived for 10 years after she set the records, and has been dead for almost 14 years… a total of 24 years since her days of glory at the Seoul Olympics. Since then not one person has come forward to confess or show any connection to a use of illegal substances or processes, unlike Marion Jones, Lance Armstrong and many others who were eventually disgraced by actions that were originally undetected, or undetectable. Surely if Flo Jo had been involved in such activities somebody, somewhere who was involved or had personal knowledge of it at sometime would have come out of the woodwork by now for their “15 minutes of fame”, “glory” or “infamy”. She could not have used such substances on her own without help, a connection, supplier or a medical supervisor to monitor her health. In other words, she could not have done it BY HERSELF. The only accusation that would ever put ANY of her records in doubt was of “wind assistance”, and even then she had undisputed times that were / are still records by themselves. The simple truth is that Flo Jo lived and, unfortunately, died drug-free. Let that be her legacy along with her records and medals.

    Dan Hilbert
    Broken Arrow, OK


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