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.
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.