In the end none of the damage done to South Korea's Olympics was caused by the expected sources. No North Korean saboteurs slipped across the border to plant explosives at the venues. No team of terrorists drove trucks laden with dynamite into crowds of spectators. No masked marauders stormed the Olympic Village to take hostages. Not even the most rabble-rousing of Seoul's students attempted to disrupt the Games.
In the end these Olympics were marred only by bad manners, temper tantrums and cheating. And thus it would be wrong to judge this spectacle as anything less than a success in a variety of ways—as theater, as architecture, as an international melting pot and, most emphatically, as a gallery of athletic excellence.
That this show had to be flawed at all was a shame, but that's the way with our latter-day Olympics. One must go back to 1964 and Tokyo to find the last Games without some kind of scandal or disruption. Mexico City '68 will be remembered for the black power demonstrations and bloody student riots; Munich '72 for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes; Montreal '76 for the 29-nation boycott by African countries and their sympathizers and for its $1 billion debt; Moscow '80 and Los Angeles '84, for feckless boycotts by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. And now Seoul '88, the Games that will forever be remembered for drug busts.
The biggest bust of all, of course, involved the man who had reigned temporarily as the greatest hero of these Games: Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who had won the 100-meter race, beating his archrival, Carl Lewis of the U.S., in world-record time. Three days later Johnson was stripped of his gold medal and his record because he had tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol.
October 9, 1988
But it was not only Johnson who lost a medal for taking drugs. The 1988 Olympic Hall of Shame includes two other gold medalists, Mitko Grablev and Angel Guenchev, both Bulgarian weight-lifters; a silver medalist, Andor Szanyi, a Hungarian weightlifter; and a bronze medalist, Kerrith Brown, a British judoist. In all, as SI went to press, 10 of some 1,700 Olympians tested had been disqualified by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for using banned substances. That was actually one less athlete than had been caught in Los Angeles, where 1,500 athletes were tested, but there only two were medalists.
In Seoul it seemed that every day some fresh report of an Olympian flunking a drug test was released to the press. Besides the official news issued by the IOC, gossip and rumor placed certain athletes—and certain sports—under a cloud of suspicion. Indeed, the entire Canadian track and field team, 64 strong, was so concerned it had been summarily branded as a bunch of druggies by fans back home that it voted to volunteer en masse for tests in the doping control center. The request was turned down by Games officials.
One could not blame the Canadian Olympians for being anxious about their reception back home. Johnson's transgression had sent an emotional wave sweeping over their country. Some Canadians treated Johnson's bust as high treason, some as raw tragedy. Children wept and sportswriters anguished in print over the disgrace of the man who had become the nation's No. 1 sports hero in the wake of the departure of Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles. The Globe and Mail of Toronto published this lead editorial about Johnson's fall from grace:
"It was so right, that victory. Not only did it do more for race relations than any number of human rights committees, but it came as a triumph over Carl Lewis, a superb athlete whose arrogance, glitter and artifice reminded so many Canadians of what they find objectionable in their mighty neighbor to the south.... How far we have fallen. National celebration has become national wake. Parents struggle to answer questions from their teary-eyed children, even as our athletes in Seoul cover their uniforms in shame and sports fans contemplate the dreadful possibility that they may never see the fastest man in the history of the world run again, ever. It is possible to see a positive message in all this—namely, that not even the greatest can cheat and get away with it—but you have to dig pretty deep to find it."
The ruined hero spent his first days at home holed up in his two-story house in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. Once, Johnson emerged to wash his Ferrari in the driveway, his every swish of the chamois watched by a mob of reporters, fans and policemen. What few public comments he made were generally a repetition of the claims of innocence he had issued in Seoul before he boarded Korean Airlines flight 26 for New York on Sept. 27. SI reporter Shelley Smith interviewed Johnson during that trip. He stuck to his story, though he did reveal some details of events that had occurred in Seoul.
Johnson said that on the night before the 100-meter final, he had been brushing his teeth in the shower of his room in the Hilton hotel when he became ill. "I felt so sick, I tried to throw up, but couldn't," he said. "I choked, but I couldn't puke. It passed in a little while. I didn't take it too seriously." Excitement about the race? The effects of steroids? Fear of being caught? Johnson's mother, Gloria, told Smith that her son "was fine after that, and we didn't think anything of it." After he had won the race, his elation was complete when he gave the gold medal to Gloria. "I won the gold for her," Johnson told Smith.
Three days later, at 2 a.m., Johnson's coach, Charlie Francis, knocked at the sprinter's hotel room door and told him that he had been disqualified and would have to give up his medal. A short time later Johnson took the medal from his mother's hand and gave it to Carol Anne Letheren, a Canadian team official, who was weeping as she accepted it. Gloria said, "When Ben told me about the test, I was really shocked. And then I said to him, 'God didn't mean for you to have this medal, so just give it back.' I know he's not guilty. I told him this was all just nonsense."
Not long after he was told to give up his medal, Johnson said, an officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, on security duty with the Canadian Olympic team, phoned and advised him to leave Seoul as soon as he could. Johnson also said that he was planning to leave anyway, despite the fact that running away seemed to be an implicit admission of guilt. "I wasn't worried about myself," he said, "but my mother hasn't been through anything like this. I had wanted the best for her—everything."
On the plane with Johnson was his doctor, George Mario (Jamie) Astaphan. In Seoul, sources told SI that Astaphan had given Johnson injections of anabolic steroids last May and that Astaphan had boasted that Olympic drug testers would not be able to detect the banned substance (SI, Oct. 3). Smith, who wasn't aware of these revelations when she interviewed Astaphan, didn't question him about the specific allegations. Astaphan did say that he hadn't been credentialed for the Games and that he had watched Johnson's victory from a seat in the stands. When Smith asked Astaphan if he had ever treated the sprinter with steroids, he replied, "Not knowingly. He wasn't given anything knowingly, not by his coach, not by his manager or me. He was clean. He tested clean six weeks ago in Zurich [where Johnson lost a 100-meter race to Lewis]. I guarantee he was clean for this meet. People point to me now, but for a long time nobody in Canadian track and field has liked me. They say I'm some kind of witch doctor."
When Smith asked Astaphan if Johnson would race at world-class level again, he said, ''Oh, yeah, he'll be back. He'll be back, and he'll run a nine-seven. We're going to go over every step from Zurich. We're not going to take this lying down. Ben will live with the loss of the gold medal, but we're going to clear his name."
Johnson himself was angry, but he spoke softly: "All I know is that I got ——— over. I'm not telling any names, but someone out there is smiling now." He paused, and then sighed, "I can't keep thinking, thinking, going back, thinking all the time about what might have happened. I'll be back. I tested clean when I beat Carl in Rome [at the 1987 World Championships!. I still have the world record. I'll be back. Sure it was a goal to win the gold medal. But I gave it back. It's not the only thing in the world."
While Johnson remained holed up in Scarborough, damaging new information kept coming to light. Gary Lubin, a coach with the Toronto track club to which Johnson belongs, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that Astaphan said after Johnson's Rome victory that he had injected the sprinter twice with a substance—once four days before the competition, once four hours before it. Lubin said that he had asked Astaphan if the substance was legal, and Astaphan replied, "We had to mask it."
One theory among Johnson's defenders in Seoul was that a rubbing cream containing DMSO—an anti-inflammatory substance that can be used as a vehicle to transdermally transfer certain chemicals into the body—had been somehow used to taint the athlete's urine. But Dr. Robert Luba, head medical officer for the Canadian Track and Field Association, said, "I don't think any sort of topical cream could lead to the sort of steroid profile [that Johnson revealed in the testing]."
Johnson and his drugs made an indelible scar on these Games, and the South Korean people deeply resented the blemish on something they had wanted to be perfect. But even before the steriod busts, the citizens of Seoul had seen cracks appear in their national dream.
The first occurred during the opening ceremonies when the U.S. team broke ranks and wandered around the Olympic Stadium track, displaying, among other things, HI MOM signs for television and acting for all the world like alumni at a college reunion. The display came through to Koreans as a classic example of ugly Americanism.
Five days after the opening ceremonies, the host country committed its own gaffe. It happened in Chamshil Students' Gymnasium, the boxing venue, when a swarm of enraged South Korean coaches and other boxing personnel leaped into the ring and punched a referee because a Korean fighter had been declared a loser. The entire country was humiliated by the incident. To many it seemed the Olympics were more seriously damaged by this act of petty violence by their own countrymen than they might have been by North Korean saboteurs.
To others it seemed that NBC was the saboteur. The U.S. network had covered the brawl in the boxing arena with restrained, though candid, reporting. The defeated fighter had staged a sit-down strike in the ring, staying there for 67 minutes, and NBC had shown him several times and had replayed the brawl a couple of times. It wasn't offensive, condescending, sensationalized, melodramatic or tasteless—by U.S. standards. However, to South Koreans, who have very different standards, the broadcast was a stunning blow.
Chang Jeong Seok, a Seoul businessman, explained it this way: "We cannot understand why Americans, who are our friends, would replay and exaggerate an incident that they knew was so embarrassing to us. If the same thing had happened in the U.S., we would have refrained from emphasizing it because we consider you our friends and we would not have wanted you hurt any more than you already were by this very painful event."
Almost all South Koreans shared Chang's view. NBC, which many Koreans seemed to consider interchangeable with U.S.A., had become the villain of the Games. The network was described by a variety of citizens—from high school students to a peddler of dried squid—as a mean-minded, arrogant behemoth that had insulted them with its portrayal of South Koreans and their Games. A columnist for The Korea Herald, an English-language newspaper, labeled the NBC team "'media bullies" and wrote, "Thanks to the NBC performance, hosting Koreans have gained a sobering sense of realism about the nature of the beast, the last bastion of fork-tongued racism and arrogance in that nation of immigrants [the U.S.]. In the collective experience of three million Asians in the U.S., coverage of Asian minorities by the mega-media ranges from non-existent to stereotyping...."
Small wonder that the NBC Broadcast Center in Seoul received bomb threats, shop owners in the city's teeming markets put up signs saying NBC personnel would not be served, and the network sent a memo to all 1,200 of its employees in Seoul that they should not display the peacock logo or their credentials away from Olympic venues.
In fact, throughout the 16 days of the 1988 Summer Games, NBC—quite unlike ABC at Olympics past—was unhysterical in its coverage, which was generally objective and intelligent. Michael Weis-man, NBC Sports executive producer, was baffled by the intensity of the Korean reaction. "We covered the boxing brawl just like we would have in America," he said. "We aren't going to be intimidated by all this anger, but we really are trying to be fair. I think we have been. Hell, in the States some people are accusing us of being anti-American."
It was, when all was said and done, a misunderstanding between two cultures. Of course, anti-Americanism could grow more intense as South Korea continues to move out of the shadow of the U.S., its longtime protector. On the other hand, individual South Koreans may become less touchy about real and imagined slights as they begin to see their country more and more as an equal to the U.S. Certainly the Koreans have already proved themselves equals to the rest of the world, the U.S. included, in some enterprises—not least in their success in staging an Olympic Games.
It would be wrong to judge this spectacle as anything less than a gallery of excellence.
The South Koreans resented the blemish on something they had wanted to be perfect.
The Hi Mom signs for TV came through to Koreans as an example of ugly Americanism.
South Koreans described NBC as a mean-minded behemoth that had insulted them.