After boycotts, financial blow-outs and tragic terrorist attacks at recent Games, the Olympics suffered another shocking blow at Seoul in 1988: the doping disqualification of Canada’s Ben Johnson after his victory in the men’s 100m sprint in the world record time of 9.79 seconds. Johnson’s triumph over fierce rival Carl Lewis, the American defending champion from 1984, had captivated and mesmerised a global audience. His disqualification a day later for steroid abuse sent that same sports-loving world into a spin. Lewis was awarded the gold medal and Johnson left the Games in disgrace and was disqualified from competition, his record wiped from the books. During the Games, nine other athletes were disqualified from competitions after failing doping tests.
Johnson’s disqualification was, without question, the lowlight of 1988. It overshadowed many excellent achievements across the sports program. More than 8000 athletes from 160 nations set a new mark for participation at the Games. The program was expanded to include 237 events. Included among new sports and events were the debut of table tennis and the re-introduction of tennis after 64 years.
Australia at these Games
Australia sent a team of 263 athletes, 189 men and 74 women to Seoul. It was the biggest team ever sent overseas to an Olympics, surpassed only by the team for Melbourne in 1956. It returned with 14 medals: three gold, five silver and six bronze.
Hockey’s Ric Charlesworth, playing in his fourth Olympics, was chosen to carry the flag in the Opening Ceremony. He would later enjoy a successful career as coach of the Hockeyroos and Kookaburras - the women’s and men's national teams. The Hockeyroos, however, were busy establishing their own reputation in Seoul, winning their first gold medal, under the stewardship of coach Brian Glencross. Captain Debbie Bowman and Lee Capes scored in the 2-0 final win over Korea, played in front of a capacity crowd of host nation fans. It was the first gold medal in a women’s team sport event for Australia.
The flagbearer for the Closing Ceremony was Debbie Flintoff-King, an honour worthy of her famous win in the 400m hurdles. In a dramatic finish, Flintoff-King beat the Soviet Union’s Tatiana Ledovskaya by 0.01 of a second, winning in 53.17 seconds, a new Olympic record.
The third gold was won by swimmer Duncan Armstrong, who produced an enormous performance to win the men’s 200m freestyle. He also won a silver medal in the 400m freestyle, just coming up short of completing a fantastic double. Julie McDonald was the only other swimmer to win a medal, placing third in the 800m freestyle.
While missing out on gold, Australia’s cyclists were the best performed squad in Seoul, collecting four medals. Lisa Martin won a brave silver medal in the women’s marathon. Australia celebrated the return of tennis to the Games with a bronze medal for the women’s doubles team of Wendy Turnbull and Liz Smylie. Grahame ‘Spike’ Cheney won a boxing silver medal in the light welterweight division.
Canoe/kayak provided Australia’s two other medals. Kayakers Peter Foster and Kelvin Graham won a bronze in the K2 1000m. In the K1 1000m, kayaker Grant Davies provided one of the most admired acts of sportsmanship in Games history. On crossing the line in the final, Davies was declared the winner, edging out American Greg Barton. But 10 minutes later, after Davies had signed the gold medal register and was preparing for the medal ceremony, officials informed him judges had reversed their decision and declared Barton the winner by 0.005 of a second – an absurd margin equal to two millimetres. But Davies accepted this result without complaint, telling reporters, “If that’s the biggest disappointment I’ll experience in my life, I’ve got no problems.”
Elsewhere, archer Simon Fairweather and shotgun shooter Russell Mark both made their Olympic debuts. Each would later win rare gold medals in their sports for Australia.