SEOUL, South Korea — The gloves are unlaced, the shoes are removed, the water in the pool is still. The Games of Summer will close today, amid a splash of color and ceremony. It will take days to pack up and weeks to clean up and years, perhaps, to pay up, but to sum up what has happened here the last 16 days is really quite simple: For all the highs (Florence Griffith Joyner) and lows (U.S. loses basketball to the Soviet Union), the unforgettable (Greg Louganis’ final dive), the unexplainable (Roy Jones robbed in his gold-medal bout) and the unforgivable (Ben Johnson busted for steroids), the sights (Chusok), the sounds (taxi horns), the smells (garlic) and the stories, the Olympics — and all that they imply — are back.
Oh, to be Janet Evans, wet head, big smile, returning to high school with three gold medals; to be Carl Lewis, soaring over the sand, knowing victory waits upon touchdown; to be Ray Mercer, who began boxing only five years ago, now leaping for joy as the referee signals end of bout, heavyweight gold medal, in the red corner. . . .
To be Portugal’s Rosa Mota, running alone through the streets of Seoul, while your whole country watches back home; or Soviet gymnast Dmitri Bilozerchev, whose leg was shattered in 40 places three years ago — “He’ll never compete again,” they said — yet here he was, winning two individual golds.
The best Olympic Games make you wish you had taken up the sport when you were a kid. Could anyone deny these Games did just that? Weren’t you inspired by something these last two weeks? Some beautiful breakaway in basketball? Some pinpoint spike in volleyball? An arrow that hit yellow, a javelin that caught the breeze, a horse that needed one leap and made that leap with inches to spare? We saw perfect 10s in gymnastics, the vault, the floor exercise. We saw world records in the pool, relays, backstroke, freestyle. We saw barriers fall in track, the 200 meters, the 100 meters. . . . We saw the 100 meters. Ben Johnson. Steroids. Not since the awful tragedy in Munich in 1972 has a single event so affected an Olympic competition. Like a teenager’s first romance, the Seoul Games were fresh and wonderful that Friday night when Johnson broke the world record and beat Carl Lewis in an awesome 9.79 seconds at Olympic Stadium — and for two days we basked in the glow of what humans can do.
And then we discovered it was more than human. And suddenly, we were all very much adults. The word now is that Johnson began using steroids several months ago, on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, to speed his recovery from a pulled left hamstring. He was injected, inflated, falsely strengthened into an almost superhuman specimen. “His eyes were so yellow with his liver working overtime to process those steroids that I said he’s either crazy or he’s protected with an insurance policy,” an American trainer told Sports Illustrated last week.
There was no insurance. The user was caught, confronted and kicked out; his gold medal was given to Lewis. Ben Johnson never existed, according to the final Olympic tapestry. Yet he cannot be forgotten. His story was an ugly jab to the chin of our conscience: How far will we go to win? How much pressure are we putting on our athletes? Is second place really so bad, that a man would risk shame, unemployment and, more importantly, cancer — just to avoid it?
And he was not alone. Six others had failed doping before him. Dozens, perhaps hundreds more, were suspected. It was suddenly impossible to watch a spectacular athletic performance without wondering, “Does he or doesn’t he?” These became, sadly, the Steroid Olympics.
And so the final shots of Johnson still linger: that shameful walk through Kimpo airport, devoid of medal, stripped of honor, his face half hidden behind
a briefcase as he was swallowed by a sea of photographers, blank, empty, spiritless. Better to remember the faces of victory. How about an emotional gold for Louganis, who, after winning the platform on his final dive, buried his stitched-up head into the shoulder of coach Ron O’Brien? Or hurdler Andre Phillips, overcome with joy at finally beating his lifelong rival Edwin Moses? He, too, wept — on the victory stand. There was Bulgarian-turned-Turkish weight lifter Naim Suleymanoglu, who fled his country to save his name; when he won the gold — Turkey’s first in 20 years — he led a raucous section of countrymen in a swaying love song. And don’t forget Korea’s Kim Young Nam, the Greco-Roman wrestler who earned his country’s first gold medal, which, literally, sparked a roar in the streets.
We saw grown men shaking and grown men sobbing. But for sheer, unadulterated glee, the nod goes to the women — particularly the Americans. Close your eyes and see Florence Griffith Joyner, golden in the 200 meters, being swirled like a jitterbugger in the arms of husband Al. Not to be outdone, FloJo’s sister-in-law, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the heptathlon and long jump champion, did the arm-in-arm bop with husband Bobby. The U.S. women’s basketball team held a sock hop on the hardwood, while Louise Ritter, a 30-year-old Texas high jumper given little chance here, went airborne for glory and snatched gold on the last jump of the competition, raising a fist to all the critics who said she could never win the big one.
“I guess that proves y’all were wrong, huh?” she said.
Yep. Did the celebration somehow seem more earnest this time? Perhaps because the athletes knew that these Olympics counted. For the first time since Munich in 1972, medals were not handed out with the caveat, “Of course, if such and such were here.”
It was a critical rebirth for Olympic competition. Almost everybody showed. Unfortunately, America learned that when everybody shows, we are lucky to place. Both the Soviet Union and East Germany out-hardwared the U.S. in the total medal count. And TV ratings back home plummeted compared with 1984. Why? Los Angeles was fun. But Los Angeles was a Star Spangled orgy. We didn’t beat the world, we just marked it absent and took over its desk.
Are we that enamored with our own success? The U.S. moaned with the world’s sudden parity in swimming, track and basketball — traditionally “our” sports
— and groaned to discover that, despite 1984, we are really way behind in others, including our beloved gymnastics. We earned one bronze in the entire men’s and women’s competition this time. Where are you, Mary Lou?
“You get a little tired,” one U.S. Olympian said, “of hearing the Russian anthem over and over.”
And yet, did you watch the Olympic shot-put competition? American Randy Barnes, down to his last chance, heaves an Olympic-record 73 feet 5 1/2 inches to leapfrog past world- record holder Ulf Timmermann of East Germany. The crowd explodes. Timmermann is shocked. His face contorts, reddens, and, down to his final try, he puts it an index finger farther, 73 feet 8 3/4, to win the gold. And the crowd explodes again. This is wonderful, delirious competition. East vs. West. It never happened in 1980 or 1984.
So, we hope we are reunited for good. In which case, these will be the Games that make America think. Is it really important that we keep abreast in things like rowing, team handball, archery, walking and women’s discus — events that cannot raise a yawn in between Olympics? Can we possibly resist the urge to ship our NBA players next time, after the Soviets outplayed our finest amateur basketball players? Is there such a thing as moving to the backseat gracefully?
“No way,” some Americans say. “We got our butts kicked.”
Perhaps. Or perhaps we need to think again. Remember that, despite our final medal count, not a single U.S. athlete tested positive for drugs. Nor did a single U.S athlete attend a government-run sports school. Nor did a single U.S. athlete receive the promise of a house or car or big chunk of cash for a medal. The truth is, the U.S. may very well have the cleanest and most sincerely earned gold medal collection of these 1988 Games. That counts for something, right?
It says here that counts for a lot. Not that we didn’t have our problems in Seoul. We were robbed in boxing (even the Korean broadcasters admitted Jones won his fight Saturday night) and jobbed in gymnastics (where the Western bloc is the wrong bloc). We were shut down in soccer and women’s volleyball. But OK. Every Olympics has its mishaps. For the United States, three stand above the rest:
* Boxer Anthony Hembrick, who showed up late for his first bout thanks to his coach’s inability to read the schedule. Hembrick never got to throw an Olympic
punch. He spent two weeks watching his teammates.
* The U.S. men’s basketball team. Possessed from the start with a single-minded concentration, John Thompson’s group proved to be too much defense and not enough offense for the more- together Soviets. Perhaps the wrong players were chosen? Perhaps they were coached poorly? The saddest part is that under Thompson’s reign of terror — closed practices, no talking to media, no wandering — all the fun seemed to go out of basketball.
* The U.S. 4-by-100 relay team. The men blew a baton pass in the very first heat, something that might not have happened had they practiced a few times. Big egos, poor communication and overconfidence erased what should have been a gold medal and world record for Carl Lewis & Company. Fittingly, Lewis wasn’t even on the track when the dream vanished.
In all three cases, we come back to the words of Soviet basketball coach Alexsandr Gomelsky: “The U.S. has excellent players,” he observed, “but it is not a team.”
A little more teamwork might have avoided all three blotches. But Olympic Games are nothing if not variety. And so for every moment we sighed, there was a moment we laughed. How about tennis star Pam Shriver, describing life in the co-ed dorms: “It’s great. You read their little badge and you say, ‘Oh, hi, Jim.’ I just wish the badges included the room numbers.”
How about American baseball player Billy Masse bragging about Olympic shopping: “I picked up a Rolex for $30. I bet it runs at least until next week.”
How about a weight lifter named Oxen Mirzoian? How about a cab driver named Ho-nee-moon? How about Central African basketball players, taking pictures of one another after their first win? Or the indignant reporter who screamed at a confused Korean official: “Do you understand? I am from the NEW YORK TIMES!” The official finally nodded, and came back two minutes later.
“The time in New York is eight o’clock,” he said, happily.
Humor. Tragedy. Call these the Games of Contrast. The rat- pack mentality of East German athletes, versus the lonely elegance of Kenyan distance runner John Ngugi. The bulging yet expelled Bulgarian weight lifters, versus the unbridled joy of one-handed baseball pitcher Jim Abbott. The morning calm of Korean sunrise, versus a riot in the ring after a Korean boxer was eliminated.
“That day will always be our shame,” lamented Yg. H. Lee, a translator in the Olympic Village. Angered at the decision, and thinking that New Zealand referee Keith Walker was the same referee who had jobbed a Korean the day before (wrong, but perhaps we all look alike), several Korean boxing officials had stormed the ring and attacked Walker. They were followed by two security guards, who were joining in, not breaking up. Bottles flew. Chairs flew. When it was over, heads were hung. The young Korean boxer, Byun Jong Il, sat in the corner of the ring for more than an hour, even after the lights were turned out. A lonely man caught in a moment of madness.
It was the sole blotch on an otherwise sparkling job by the hosts. The fear of danger that kept so many tourists away from Seoul never materialized
— at least it hasn’t yet — and about the closest anyone came to terrorism was the taxi ride between venues. Korean cab drivers made Manhattan cabbies look like drivers-ed teachers. The sun shone on Korea and the people shone back, smiling and bowing almost to a fault. Westerners left the shopping district of Itaewon without a spare leather jacket or eelskin wallet. Nobody was served dog who didn’t order it. And the visitors who came in skeptical left with music in their ears and a suddenly new feeling for this part of the world. So maybe the International Olympic Committee knew what it was doing when it chose Seoul in 1981. These will forever be remembered as the “reunification” Olympics (an ironic word to use in Korea), the Olympics in which Carl Lewis became human — and, compared to Ben Johnson, almost saintly. The Olympics in which Matt Biondi and Kristin Otto needed wheelbarrows to haul home their medals. The Olympics in which table tennis and bowling were suddenly five-ring sports.
There was no finer example of Olympic spirit than Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux, who abandoned his race to save a Singapore sailor who had fallen off his boat and drifted into rough waters. And there was no worse example than East German gymnastics pooh-bah Ellen Berger, who demanded the U.S. women’s team be penalized half a point because 17-year-old alternate Rhonda Faehn was crouching on the podium during a competition. Berger’s East German girls wound up winning the bronze by .3 over the U.S. Gee, what a coincidence.
But such are the Olympics. They have changed, for sure. Top athletes now stay outside the village, in private homes or hotels. Nations promise cash to medal winners (Ray Mercer’s Korean opponent, Baik Hyun-man, will receive $550 a month for life — for the silver medal). Every athlete must fill a bottle now. And walk through miles of security checks. The Games may be growing too big for their friendly britches. Maybe the athletes from Swaziland had it right when they marched into the Opening Ceremonies in just loincloth, beads and headdress.
Sometimes less is more.
But for 16 days, more has been fine. More countries, more athletes, more real competition. More new faces moving in (Steve Lewis, Andre Phillips, petite Soviet gymnast Elena Shushunova), more old faces moving over (Edwin Moses, Mary T. Meagher, Daley Thompson). More records. More drama. More of everything — a growing pastiche set against a gracious Asian backdrop.
And tonight it ends. No Olympics for four more years. How much will we miss it? During a midweek cab ride, the driver handed an American journalist a small notebook and asked her to write down her thoughts of Korea.
“The Olympics will never come again in my lifetime,” he explained. “I wish to give this to my grandchildren, so they will know what happened.”
Here is what she might have written: Thank you, Korea, for smiling and cooperating and luring us all here to remember why the ancient Greeks put these crazy Games together in the first place. As Kelly Garrison-Steves, a 21-year-old American gymnast who had missed the 1980 and 1984 teams, said upon arrival: “Wow! These are really the Olympics.”
For the first time in too long, no one could argue. CUTLINE Top, the U.S. 4-by-400 relay team exchanges a hug after winning the silver medal. Members of the team are Florence Griffith Joyner, Diane Dixon, Denean Howard-Hill and Valerie Brisco. Above, Greg Louganis watches the diving action with a bandage on his head. Louganis hit the board during springboard preliminaries, but came back to win the gold. Right, pitcher Jim Abbott of Flint is engulfed by teammates after the U.S. baseball team won gold, as did Jackie Joyner-Kersee, above left. Ben Johnson waves the Canadian flag after winning a 100-meter gold medal that would later be taken away. Janet Evans hugs teammate Tami Bruce after Evans set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle. Detroit’s Anthony Hembrick shadow-boxes at his mother’s apartment while awaiting final decision on his disqualification.