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.
Seoul had many multi-medallists. In the pool, East German Kristin Otto won a record six gold medals, while American Matt Biondi became the only man other than Mark Spitz to win seven medals at a Games, finishing with five gold, one silver and one bronze. The pool welcomed a new kind of hero when Surinam’s Anthony Nesty surprised everyone to win the 100m butterfly. He was the first South American and first black athlete to win a swimming gold medal. American diver Greg Louganis scored an historic double when he defended both his 3m springboard and 10m platform Olympic crowns, despite hitting his head on the board during his 3m preliminaries.
On the track, Florence Griffith-Joyner won three gold medals, setting world records in the 100m and 200m that still stand. Her other gold was in the 4x100m relay. Her sister-in-law, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, won gold in the heptathlon and long jump; she had won a heptathlon silver medal behind Australia’s Glynis Nunn in 1984. The Soviet Union’s Sergei Bubka won the men’s pole vault, setting a new Olympic record of 5.90m.
New Zealand’s Mark Todd won his second consecutive three-day eventing individual gold medal, stamping him as one of the greatest horsemen in history. China proved its class in the new sport of table tennis. German Steffi Graf won the women’s singles gold medal in tennis. Along with her Olympic win, she also won all four Grand Slam tournaments in 1988, an unparalleled achievement known as the Golden Slam. East German Christa Luding-Rothenburger, who earlier in the year won a speed skating gold medal at the Calgary Winter Olympics, became the first athlete to win Olympic and Winter Olympic medals in the same year when she won silver in the women’s track cycling sprint.
The Soviet Union was the leading nation with 55 gold medals, ahead of East Germany and the United States. Korea was fourth with 12 gold. In total, a record 52 nations won medals at the Games.