Commentary : Seoul Olympics Lost Some Luster When Johnson Ran Into Trouble

The Washington Post

For all historical intents and purposes, the Seoul Olympics began Sept. 23 when Ben Johnson turned on the juice in the most electrifying 100 meters ever run, and ended 3 days later when Johnson slinked out of town after it was discovered that the juice he used was squeezed from poisoned fruit.

Regrettably, even with so many moments of joy and exhilaration, history will judge that these were Johnson’s Olympics, an Olympics of disillusion. He lent them light, then plunged them into darkness. His cheating heart lowered an awning that blocked the light and choked the air. Not since the murderous villainy in Munich, 16 years ago, has there been a single act that so suppressed an Olympics. And though you can’t equate the deeds, just as that terrorism altered the course of not only the 1972 Games but all subsequent ones, the aftereffects of Johnson’s scandal will be felt for years as people routinely question the honesty of athletic performance.

Was it real?

Or was it out of a bottle?


Johnson hasn’t robbed us of our innocence, because athletic innocence was lost many years ago. But to see it happen on this stage, in what we’ve always believed was the purest form of athletic competition, to see a spectacular athlete, a giant of the earth, cheat at the Olympics is the athletic equivalent of The Day The Music Died. What does it foretell for the Games? Must an athlete be monitored like a person with an artificial heart? Are they to be contested on the field or in the pharmacology labs? Will we grow so disenchanted with strength and speed competitions that the idiotic sports, like synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics, actually become important?

Yet even though Johnson will be remembered as the Grinch That Stole the Olympics, what an achievement these Games were for such a small, emerging nation. South Korea did a magnificent job with organization and facilities, creating a wondrous platform for so many memorable performances.

Who will ever forget the courageous drama of Greg Louganis coming back from smacking his head on the diving board to win two gold medals? Or the stunning athleticism of Florence Griffith Joyner; the indomitable spirit of Jackie Joyner-Kersee; the consistency of Kristin Otto; the amazing strength of Pocket Hercules, Naim Suleymanoglu; or the sweeping success of the Kenyan distance runners?

What a celebration there was in Seoul, a thriving, peaceful gathering of an unprecedented 160 nations. After 12 years, the American athletes finally had the chance to compete against the Soviets and East Germans.


But what a disturbing coincidence, as if taking their cue from Johnson, that so many of the major stories centered on events outside the competition. The first flare of the Games went up in the opening ceremony, when the exuberant U.S. team appeared to swallow, Pac-Man style, teams from Vanuatu and Bahrain. At the end of the first week the Bulgarian weightlifting team went home in disgrace, their steroid tests having made the drug-o-meter go Tilt!

Two U.S. swimmers were sent home for stealing a plaster lion’s head from a hotel bar. The U.S. men’s 400-meter relay team fouled up its baton pass and was disqualified, costing Carl Lewis a chance to overtake Paavo Nurmi’s record for career track medals. Rhonda Faehn, the gymnast whose innocent presence on the competition podium cost the United States a bronze medal, became an unfortunate footnote in Olympic lore.

Boxing was a maelstrom. Anthony Hembrick of the United States inexcusably missed a bus to his first bout and was disqualified without throwing a punch. South Korean officials were so incensed when one of their boxers lost a decision, they riotously stormed the ring and attacked the New Zealand referee, Keith Walker. Afterward, the South Korean boxer sat in the ring for more than an hour in mute protest. NBC’s coverage of the incident ignited anti-Americanism among South Koreans that pervaded the rest of the Games, and surely was the underlying influence on the thieving decision that cost Roy Jones his gold medal.

Even FloJo, the Games’ most spectacular performer, the radiant model of 21st Century woman, was caught in Johnson’s undertow. Innuendo about her muscular physique and the quantum leap of her recent times dogged her, and at every news conference she was asked if she, too, was taking steroids.

But still, there were so many inspiring performances in which to bask. For the United States, FloJo and Louganis shone most brightly, followed closely by Matt Biondi, Janet Evans, Joyner-Kersee, Greg Barton, Ray Mercer, Kenny Monday, Louise Ritter, the men’s volleyball team and women’s basketball team.

Some of the grand old names ran into tough luck: Carl Lewis won the quietest two golds and one silver; Edwin Moses broke his Olympic record but still could do no better than bronze; Mary Slaney finally finished an Olympic race but finished way back.

But without the stirring anchor of another golden oldie, Evelyn Ashford, the women’s 400-meter relay team wouldn’t have won gold.

We saw how much a full complement of nations can change the character of an Olympics; the United States didn’t come close to repeating its successes in Los Angeles. Swimming, cycling and gymnastics medals grabbed in L.A. went elsewhere here. But the biggest upset was in the basketball semifinal against the Soviet Union, a game that was supposed to avenge the infamous False Stop game in Munich. Interestingly, the result may prove to be a watershed, because it will probably lead to Soviet participation in the National Basketball Assn. and National Basketball Assn. participation in Barcelona. Good news from bad.


The memories I’d rather carry home are exhilarating, like FloJo’s ever-widening smile, like Louganis’ joyful tears, like the happy, eager faces of the thousands of South Korean children who mobbed the venues, playing excitedly in the many hollow, 5-ringed sculptures scattered throughout Seoul. I’d like to close my eyes and recall Janet Evans batting irrepressibly at the water, or Jim Abbott diving desperately at the squirting baseball and scooping it to first just in time to beat the runner. But when I do, first I see Ben Johnson’s finger pointed toward the sky as he crosses the finish line, and then I see him being hustled through an airport into exile, and taking too much of the Olympics with him.