1988 Olympics: Controversy in Seoul

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medals1988 Summer Games

Host: Seoul, South Korea

Medal table winner: The Soviet Union





Held between September 17th and October 2nd, the 1988 games saw the Olympic carnival travel to the Far East for its 21st edition. Over the past two tournaments, the hosting had swung between the two Cold War nations but in South Korea inheriting the challenge, substantial boycotts were avoided. As a result, the games saw the biggest athlete body ever to grace the Olympics at the time.

The Seoul edition would also prove the last appearance of the Soviet Union at the Olympics upon the Communist state’s impending dissolution in 1991. Nonetheless, the Russians ran away with the medal table with 55 golds and 132 ribbons overall. Another nation making their final showing- East Germany came second with the United States of America limping to third place.

Great Britain’s stagnant Olympic era trundled on with a twelfth place finish and just five medals. Meanwhile, China continued their emergence as a world power in usurping the Brits into eleventh. In addition, the official mascot of the games proved a stylised tiger called Hodori that served to represent the friendly hospitality of the Korean people.

With a new high of competing nations, athletes, events and the Cold War simmering out, the ’88 games looked set to mark a new beginning for the Olympics. However, a chain of controversial occurrences in the Manchurian state dealt this aspiration an unfortunate blow.


Ben Johnson shame

The 1988 Olympics witnessed arguably the most famous instance of cheating of all time across all canons of sport. The men’s 100m final is perhaps one of the most anticipated and viewed sporting events and Ben Johnson defaced it of its prestige. It proves an incident still talked about today with the guilty man still shamefully upholding that his positive test was US sabotage.

A1Having screamed through the line in an unprecedented world record time of 9.79 seconds, the Canadian was disqualified the same night for the illegal use of the anabolic steroid stanozolol. In a matter of hours, Johnson had fallen from a national hero to a worldwide disgrace. Consequently, he was also stripped of his world record and World Championship medal gained the previous year.

Carl Lewis proved the beneficiary of this extraordinary scandal and thus became the first ever athlete to win consecutive 100m golds at the Olympics. However, it will never truly be the same for the American seeing as Johnson stole his deserved moment of glory. Furthermore, with all of the Canadian’s times written off, Lewis also inherited the world record with a (legal) time of 9.92 seconds.


Marine heroism

Amidst all the controversy in South Korea, there was also an incredible instance of bravery that reminded everyone of the true Olympic spirit. In the Finn Class sailing event, Canadian Lawrence Lemieux found himself in second place and on course for a silver medal. However, the wind off the Pusan coast had picked up to 35 knots and the Singapore team dingy capsized as a result.


In an astonishing act of heroism, Lemieux steered off course to rescue the injured Singaporean sailors and stayed by their side until the arrival of a patrol boat. This derailed the Canadian’s medal chances and saw him registered eleventh overall. Despite this, his courageous actions were rewarded via the prestigious Pierre de Coubertin medal after the race.


Boxing scandal

A2It seemed improbable. Roy Jones Jr. fought his way to the final of the light middleweight Olympic boxing final without losing a single round on the way. Despite this, facing an unknown South Korean boxer called Park Si-Hun, the Florida-born boxer was defeated and had to settle for a silver medal.

However, Jones deserved far more from a controversy ladened final that saw defeat welcome him with open arms albeit pummeling his opponent. In fact, Si-Hun only landed 32 punches in comparison to Jones’ 86. The victor found the judges decision so embarrassing and fantastical that he apologised to the American himself.

The IOC has since condemned the incident and immediatel y changed the Olympic boxing scoring system afterwards. In fact, it was later revealed that the judges had been wined and dined by South Korean officials the night before the final. Despite this however, Si-Hun maintains his gold medal- a true stain on the games as frankly, Jones was robbed.


Flo-Jo lights up the track

While the men’s sprinting events were tainted with illegal substances, there was no such controversy in the women’s 100m and 200m. Mercurial American sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner executed perhaps one of the greatest ever athletics performances in Olympic history in Seoul. Fondly known as ‘Flo-Jo’, the American bagged three gold medals and a silver amidst a cameo in the 4x400m team.

Having obliterated the 100m world record in the US Olympic trials with an astonishing time of 10.49 seconds, Flo-Jo assured gold came in tandem. Despite a tail wind, she missed out on improving the record but her imperious showing saw a jaw-dropping margin of victory. Furthermore, the Los Angeles born athlete added a first place in the 4x100m relay by running an electric top bend.

The cherry on the cake undoubtedly proved the 200m success however. Having been forced to settle for silver in her home city in 1984, Griffith-Joyner was on a mission in Seoul. Winning in a world record time of 21.34 seconds, Flo-Jo executed the perfect run and left second placed Grace Jackson spluttering in her dust. In addition, by retiring immediately after the games, she left an incredible legacy that simply lit up the track and dispelled past demons.


Other sports

Anthony Nesty of Suriname sealed his country’s first ever gold medal with an unlikely victory in the 100m butterfly. In winning by just 0.01 seconds, Nesty derailed Matt Biondi’s attempt at breaking Mark Spitz’s record of the most gold medals at a single summer Olympics.

Swedish fencer Kerstin Palm grabbed herself an unlikely piece of Olympic history in South Korea. She became the ever woman to compete at seven separate games but unfortunately never found herself on the podium.

East German athlete Christa Luding-Rothenburger became the first ever and still only competitor to win a medal at the summer and winter games in the same year. She added a cycling silver to the speed skating gold she had won in February.


Kobe Tong, YJA Senior Correspondent