10 January, 2021
Ben Johnson reaching to cross the line well ahead of Carl Lewis in the 100m-Florence Griffith-Joyner was the world’s fastest woman
Ben Johnson reaching to cross the line well ahead of Carl Lewis in the 100m-Florence Griffith-Joyner was the world’s fastest woman

In a coup for the Olympic Movement, South Korea turned democratic in order to welcome the world to the Summer Games. North Korea boycotted, and was joined by Cuba, Ethiopia and Nicaragua. Still, records were set with 159 nations participating, 52 winning medals and 31 taking home gold medals. The Games got off to a dramatic start at the Opening Ceremony when the torch was run into the stadium by 76-year Sohn Kee-chung, the winner of the 1936 marathon.

The Games of the XXIV Olympiad commonly known as Seoul 1988 Summer Olympic Games, were held from September 17 to October 2, 1988. A total of 8,391 athletes - 6,197 men and 2,194 women athletes participated in 237 medal events. The Soviet Union entirely dominated the medal count, winning 55 gold and 132 total medals. 27,221 volunteers contributed towards the success. 11,331 media - 4,978 written press and 6,353 broadcasters, showed the Games across the world. These were the last Olympic Games for the Soviet Union and East Germany, as both ceased to exist before the next Olympic Games in 1992.

Significance of 1988 Olympics

Hosting the 1988 Olympics presented an opportunity to bring international attention to South Korea. The idea for South Korea to place a bid for the 1988 Games emerged during the last days of the Park Chung-hee in the late 1970s. After President Park’s assassination in 1979, Chun Doo-hwan, his successor, submitted Korea’s bid to the IOC in 1981, with the hope that the increased international exposure brought by the Olympics would legitimize his authoritarian regime.

It was at a time of increasing political pressure for democratization, provide protection from increasing threats from North Korea, and showcase the Korean economic miracle to the world community. South Korea became the 16th host nation of the Summer Olympics, as well as the second Asian nation following Japan and the first mainland Asian nation.

The South Korean government hoped to use the Olympics as a “coming-out party.” The Olympics gave a powerful impetus to the development of South Korea’s relations with Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and with China. The advantageous of Seoul Olympics could be identified as rapid economic modernization, social mobilization and the legitimization of the military dictatorship.

In preparation for the 1988 Olympics, the IOC worked to prevent another Olympic boycott by the Eastern Bloc. This was made more difficult by the lack of diplomatic relations between South Korea and communist countries. Thus, at the Assembly of National Olympic Committees in Mexico City in November 1984, the “Mexico Declaration” was adopted; by it, the participants agreed to include the host of the Olympic Games in 1988. The IOC also decided that it would send invitations to the 1988 Games itself and did not leave this task to the organizing committee as had been done before.

Another point of conflict was the involvement of North Korea in hosting the Games, something that had been encouraged by Cuban president Fidel Castro, who called for North Korea to be considered joint host of the Games. As a result, in January 1986 in Lausanne, Switzerland, the IOC President chaired a meeting of the North and South Korean Olympic Committees. North Korea demanded 11 of the 23 Olympic sports be carried out on its territory, special opening and closing ceremonies, a joint organizing committee and a united team. The IOC did not meet the demands of North Korea. So the focus thereafter was solely on Seoul and South Korea.

Official Theme Song

In 1988, the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee decided to produce and distribute an official song of the Seoul Games to publicize the Games to all the IOC member nations, encouraging their participation in the festival and consolidating the harmony and friendship of the entire world citizens through the song. The song “Hand in Hand” was written by Italian composer Giorgio Moroder and American songwriter Tom Whitlock, and performed by singing group Koreana.

The Dirtiest 100m in History

The world’s fastest man, Canadian Ben Johnson’s gold for 100m was taken away from him after he was tested positive for steroid use, setting off the Olympics’ worst drug scandal. Johnson’s medal was given to Carl Lewis. The researchers have carried out in-depth studies of the two main leads in Johnson and Lewis, analyzing their backgrounds from boys to men, their rise to the top.

Johnson’s route to the top was not particularly smooth. It would be a full four years before he joined her mother Gloria in Toronto, but his early years in Canada were hardly idyllic, with Johnson subjected to bullying at school. One particular bully was finally silenced by Johnson, after he challenged his tormentor to a race. Johnson won that battle, before meeting the man who would change his life forever.

Charlie Francis coached Johnson for 11 years. They are an integral part of the saga. Francis approached Johnson in September 1981 about the issue of drugs. Initially Johnson was reluctant, his progression from scrawny kid to the muscle-bound figure we all grew aware of in the mid-1980s had begun.

Before the 1984 LA Olympics, Carl Lewis’s manager, Joe Douglas, had predicted that his athlete would be as big as Michael Jackson. Lewis had emulated Jesse Owens’ achievement of four gold medals. “A lot of people have come out of nowhere and are running unbelievably, and I just don’t think they’re doing it without drugs,” said Lewis.

The explosive start from Johnson, which for once was almost matched by Lewis; the look of utter concern on Lewis’s face as the race unfolds; the fact that Lewis ran out of his lane, such was his preoccupation with the Canadian; the emphatic celebration of Johnson; the total blanking Johnson gave to Lewis when the American shook his hand. Of course, this isn’t where the story ends. Johnson’s subsequent disqualification rocked the sporting world.

Carl Lewis’s Golden Leap

The world was still wallowing in the seismic fallout of Ben Johnson in 100m when Carl Lewis opened the defence of his Olympic long jump title at the 1988 Games in Seoul. The news of 100m had sent shockwaves through the city and the Olympic Movement and it was no small feat of concentration that Lewis was able to focus once again on the rest of his programme.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee established a world record in the Heptathlon

If revenge for that slight on victory wasn’t enough motivation, Lewis was also coping with the loss of his beloved father the year previous. Lewis had placed his gold medal from the 100m in Los Angeles 1984 into the hand of his deceased father William to be buried with him, pledging to him and his mother that he would win another.

He did win the second 100m gold but not in the manner he would have liked, and it was to the long jump – his favoured event – that he looked to reaffirm his standing. Scheduling meant Lewis had less than an hour to recover from a 200m qualifier when the long jump final started. He was due to jump first but officials accepted his request to go last of the 12 finalists to give him more time to recover. The contest was seen as a battle between the American trio of Lewis, Mike Powell, and Larry Myricks.

Lewis was the model of consistency with opening jumps of 8.41m, 8.56m and 8.52m to give him a decent but not insurmountable advantage over his rivals. Officials changed their tune about the jumping order after the third round and Lewis was reinstated at the top of the list but it didn’t faze him one bit and he soared to the ultimately decisive distance of 8.72m and the gold was assured. Lewis became the first man to retain the long jump title and went on to win again in Barcelona and Atlanta in what is surely a feat never to be emulated.

Florence Griffith’s Marvels

Florence Griffith-Joyner was the world’s fastest woman winning three gold medals. After having demolished the world record in 100m at the US Olympic trials in Indianapolis, she set an Olympic record (10.54) in 100m and a still-standing world record (21.34) in 200m to capture gold medals in both events. To these medals, she added a gold in 4x100 relay and a silver in the 4x400. American Jackie Joyner-Kersee set a world record for heptathlon with 7291 that still exists after 32 long years. She also won the individual long jump establishing an Olympic record with a leap of 7.40.

United States’ Dominance in 4x400

When the athletics programme came to its conclusion with the traditional relays, the US trio of Steve Lewis, Butch Reynolds and Danny Everett had completed a clean sweep of the medals in the individual event and it seemed that only a baton drop or a technical infringement could stop them. Everett and Lewis led out the quartet and by the time the individual champion handed the baton to Kevin Robinzine the Americans were almost half the final straight clear. Butch Reynolds’ lap turned out to be a race against the clock. Reynolds, in his distinctive languid, head-pumping style, extended the lead further and finally crossed the line with the stadium display showing a time of 2:56.17 – a new world record.

Swimming and Diving

Swimmer Kristin Otto of East Germany won six gold medals. Other multi-gold medalists in the pool were Matt Biondi (five) and Janet Evans (three). When Janet Evans’s rivals towered over her by the starting blocks at Seoul in 1988, they were all too aware of the dangers posed by the 17-year American. She looked the very antithesis of an Olympic swimmer - slight, wiry and possessing a unique high action often compared to a windmill, she was to prove the unrivalled distance swimming queen of her generation.

In the space of six months at the end of 1987, she started her one-woman assault on the record books. She set new marks in the 800m and 1,500m freestyle events before her 16th birthday, and broke the 400m freestyle record of nine years’ standing going into the Olympic year. Evans used her powerful backstroke and freestyle sections to power to her opening gold in the 4x100m individual medley. Next came the 400m freestyle.

Evans was the red-hot favourite for the 800m freestyle, and she won in an Olympic record time and her astonishing hat-trick was complete. At Atlanta 1996, in the opening ceremony she was given the honour of handing the torch to Muhammad Ali before the great boxer lit the cauldron.

Anthony Nesty of Suriname won his country’s first Olympic medal by winning the men’s 100m butterfly; he was the first black person to win an individual swimming gold. American diver Greg Louganis won back-to-back titles on both diving events despite striking his head on the springboard during his third-round dive and suffering a concussion.

Suleymanoglu Lifts Weights and Hearts

Not many small men have made such a big impact on the modern Olympics as the unique weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu. The Bulgarian-born lifter was to become a national symbol in Turkey and was dubbed ‘the Pocket Hercules’ such were his exploits at just 1.47m. He won the first of three gold medals in the featherweight division by an extraordinary margin. Such was his dominance that he broke the world record in both the snatch and the clean and jerk categories, and produced a combined weight that would have won gold in the heavier lightweight division.

But Suleymanoglu’s journey to glory was far from straightforward. Born Naim Suleimanov the son of a miner from the ethnic Turkish community of Bulgaria, he was breaking world records at the age of 15 and would have been favourite for gold in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles had it not been for the Eastern bloc boycott. Amid a crackdown on ethnic Turks by the Bulgarian government in 1985, he had his passport taken by the authorities and his name was changed to the non-Islamic Naum Shalamanov. Incensed by this, the lifter was at a World Cup event in Melbourne in 1986 when he decided to defect and lift under the colours of his adopted home, Turkey.

It was estimated that a million people lined the streets of Turkey to welcome him home after his crushing win in South Korea. He lifted a total of 30kg more than his nearest rival, ironically a Bulgarian. The Olympic weightlifting gymnasium was a sea of Turkish flags as Suleymanoglu completed his programme by lifting an astonishing 190kgs in the clean and jerk. He would become the first lifter to win three consecutive gold medals in Atlanta in 1996, and he was granted the Olympic Order by IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch in 2001.

Soviet weightlifter Yury Zakharevich won the men’s heavyweight (up to 110 kg class) with a 210 kg snatch and 245 kg clean and jerk for a 455 kg total. Zakhareivich had dislocated his elbow in 1983 attempting a world record and had it rebuilt with synthetic tendons.

Firsts in Seoul 1988 Olympics

Swedish fencer Kerstin Palm became the first woman to take part in seven Olympics. Women’s judo was held for the first time, as a demonstration sport. Indonesia gained its first medal in Olympic history when the women’s team won a silver medal in archery. Table tennis makes its first appearance in the Olympics, with China and South Korea both winning two titles. Tennis returned to the Olympics after a 64-year absence.


The Olympic Flag is presented during the Opening Ceremony

Steffi Graf added to her four Grand Slam victories in the year by also winning the Olympic title. Mark Todd of New Zealand won his second consecutive individual gold medal in the three-day event in equestrian, only the second time in event history that a gold medal has been won consecutively. For the first time, all three medalists in equestrian dressage were women. Baseball, Taekwondo and Bowling were demonstration sports. This was the first Olympic Games where women’s sailing was its own event. It was won by Americans Allison Jolly and Lynne Jewell.

Gymnastics, Sailing and Boxing

Soviet Vladimir Artemov won four gold medals in gymnastics. Daniela Silivaş of Romania won three and equalled compatriot Nadia Comaneci’s record of seven perfect 10s in one Olympic Games. Phoebe Mills won an individual bronze medal on the balance beam, shared with Romania’s Gabriela Potorac, making history as the first medal ever won by a US woman in artistic gymnastics at a fully attended games. The USSR won their final team gold medals in artistic gymnastics on both the men’s and women’s sides.

Canada’s Lawrence Lemieux sacrificed his chance at winning a silver medal to save two sailors on Singapore’s team whose boat had capsized amidst heavy winds. For his heroism, he was awarded a medal that’s even harder to get, the Pierre de Coubertin medal. “By your sportsmanship, self-sacrifice and courage,” Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the IOC told him, “you embody all that is right with the Olympic ideal.”

In boxing, Roy Jones Jr. of the US dominated his opponents, never losing a single round en route to the final. In the final, he controversially lost a 3–2 decision to South Korean fighter Park Si-Hun despite pummeling Park for three rounds and landing 86 punches to Park’s 32.

(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)