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Seoul Games scarred by riots, Johnson

Posted: Monday July 5, 2004 10:51PM; Updated: Monday July 5, 2004 10:51PM
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LONDON, July 5 (Reuters) -- Ear-piercing whistles, blown relentlessly by police directing traffic outside the media village, assaulted the senses day and night at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

The jangling daily discord supplied the soundtrack for an Olympics preceded by street violence and scarred by the biggest drugs and boxing scandals in Olympic history.

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Student riots, admittedly featuring more sound than fury, dominated the build-up to the Games, only the second staged in Asia. Security fears, prompted by the hostile proximity of communist North Korea, overshadowed a sometimes spectacular opening ceremony.

Then there was Ben Johnson, fastest man on the planet and Olympic gold medallist for little more than two days.

His race against defending 100 metres champion Carl Lewis on Saturday September 24 generated an excitement comparable to a great heavyweight title fight. Its ultimate outcome was akin to an ancient Greek tragedy.

"When the gun go off, the race be over," Johnson had predicted.

He was as good as his word.

POSITIVE TEST

Johnson leaped from the blocks and was never headed, bursting across the finish line in a world record 9.79 seconds. Right index finger held high, he had already half-turned to look triumphantly at the disbelieving Lewis.

Canada celebrated a stunning victory over their giant neighbours uproariously but all too briefly. On the Sunday, International Olympic Committee (IOC) medical commission chairman Alexandre de Merode was the first to learn that Johnson had tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol. He communicated the information to the Canadian team.

At 3.30 on Tuesday morning Canadian chef de mission Carol Anne Letheren collected Johnson's gold medal from the sprinter.

"We love you," Letheren told him. "But you're guilty."

Judging in the boxing besmirched the Olympic ideal as thoroughly as Johnson.

In one of a series of controversies, hometown boy Park Shi-hun became the Olympic light-middleweight champion after five consecutive disputed victories.

His victory over the accomplished American Roy Jones Jnr in the final defied belief. Jones hammered Park mercilessly over three rounds only to find three of the five judges had voted for the Korean.

In an even more sickening incident, New Zealand referee Keith Walker was physically assaulted by Korean boxing officials and security guards when he cautioned bantamweight Byun Jong-il for headbutting.

After Johnson had been swiftly hustled out of Seoul, the Games turned surreal.

West German Juergen Hingsen, a former world record holder, false started three times in the first heat of the decathlon's 100 metres.

He was consequently eliminated from the competition after the first discipline in the two-day event and never competed at another major championships.

Johnson was succeeded on centre stage by Florence Griffith Joyner, a gaudily glamorous figure with model looks and long, curling finger nails. Purely as a sprinter she was good enough to win medals but she was not considered a champion.

DEEP VOICE

At a news conference shortly after her arrival in Seoul, track reporters were startled at the changes in the past year. Griffith Joyner's upper body had been transformed and her voice was noticeably deeper and huskier.

She won the 100 metres final then set a world record 21.34 seconds in the 200, finishing with a huge smile on her face.

Although her time has never been approached before or since, nobody in the press box stood, clapped or cheered.

Second-placed Grace Jackson, who finished four metres back, shouted to trackside reporters: "Tell them Jamaicans do it naturally."

Griffith Joyner's post-race news conference degenerated into an exercise in cynicism. "Why was she suddenly running so fast?" "Hard work and dedication," replied the increasingly stony-faced American. "Medication?" a journalist shouted. The confrontation ended in chaos.

Griffith Joyner, who never failed a drug test, retired unexpectedly in 1989, the year random out-of-competition tests were introduced. She died in 1998 after an epileptic seizure, her world records and 10 other world marks set in the 1980s still intact.

Johnson, who had steadfastly denied doping, admitted to a Canadian government inquiry in 1989 that he had in fact been on a drugs programme since 1981. He returned to run unsuccessfully in the 1992 Barcelona Games and was later banned for life after another positive test.

Lewis was awarded the 100 metres gold medal, one of nine he was to win in his distinguished Olympic career.

Last year, six years after he had finally retired, documents released by former U.S. Olympic Committee director for drug control Wade Exum showed Lewis had tested positive for three stimulants during the 1988 Olympic trials.

A initial suspension of six months, which would have resulted in Lewis missing the Games, was overturned on appeal. Neither the positive nor the reprieve was made public.

- - - -

++John Mehaffey joined the Reuters sports desk in 1981 after working on the world desk for 18 months. He was appointed rugby correspondent in the same year and athletics correspondent in 1982, subsequently covering each of the nine world athletics championships and all five rugby World Cups. He has covered five summer Olympics, three cricket World Cups and world championships in cross country, gymnastics and boxing. He became deputy news editor in 1999 and was appointed to his present post of chief sports reporter in 2001.

Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.


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