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Sport and Politics: The Olympic Games, Part 6

By Pete Usher.

Ben Johnson. From national hero to national disgrace with one drug test.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Why, Ben? Why?

Canadian newspaper headline, 1988.



1988: Seoul.

159 nations; 8453 athletes; 23 sports; 237 events.

Failed bids: Nagoya.


After a series of events which included terrorism, financial failure, and two massive boycotts, the Olympic movement was in desperate need of a non-controversial and inclusive Games. In a potentially surprising choice, the South Korean capital Seoul was selected over the Japanese city of Nagoya, which had widely been regarded as the favourite.


Ahead of the Games, the more reform minded Mikhail Gorbachev was leading the Soviet Union through glasnost and perestroika, leading towards the liberalisation and eventual dissolution of the USSR. While the rivalry between the USA and the USSR remained strong, the Cold War was thawing, and there was no threat of a large-scale boycott of the Games. That is not to say that there was no political impact, just that it was on a smaller scale than the previous two cycles.


The history of Korea is long and complex (and out of the scope of this article) but tension between North and South Korea had been a constant since partition at the end of the Korean War. The most obvious thing for Communist North Korea to do was call for a boycott of the Games, hoping to gain support from the Eastern Bloc and from other countries where Pyongyang had influence. However, by 1985, North Korea was suggesting a shared Games, with half the events held in each capital, an idea enthusiastically and consistently backed by Cuba. This would be a show of Korean unity, perhaps be a route to dialogue.


However, the IOC said that the Games would not be split, but were prepared to allow some concessions to show unity and harmony between the two countries – marching consecutively in the Opening Ceremony and joint cultural events. The North Korean position was that a 50/50 split was the only solution, as well as a renaming of the Games to include both cities.


Talks started in 1985 and continued into mid-1986. The North’s demands gradually reduced from eleven full sports events and joint hosting to eight, then six. Meanwhile, the IOC gradually increased its offer from some preliminary matches to two complete sports (table tennis and archery) and some of the football tournament – an event the North Koreans had thought they had been offered in full. Indeed, there is some evidence that Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC President, had previously agreed that the North could host the whole football tournament in a previous round of discussion, but crucially this was not the position in the June 1986 talks.


These were the last serious discussions on the sharing of the Games, although talks were held and demands were made by North Korea up until July 1987, when Samaranch actually offered the North four full sports, but not football. It is possible that if the North Koreans had been offered the three full sports in 1986, the 1988 Games would have been split, and Pyongyang would have been a host city. What impact would that have had going forward?


North Korea tried to leverage its relationships with both the Soviet Union and China to organise a wider boycott of the Games, but both the Communist powers had decided to participate, and in the end only Cuba joined North Korea in not attending for political reasons. By that time, North-South relations had deteriorated still further, as a result of the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 from Baghdad to Seoul.


Internal politics were also impacted by the Games. In 1981, South Korea was a de facto one party state, under the Democratic Justice Party, and its leader Chun Doo-hwan, who had come to power after military coups in December 1979 and May 1980. Although the idea for the Korean bid was from the previous regime, Chun’s government saw the Games as a way to legitimise their regime, and announce South Korea as a modern nation. Ironically, by the time of the Games in 1988, the one-party state had been replaced with truly democratic elections, and a new, liberal constitution had been put in place, which remains in effect to the present day.


But the most unpleasant aspect was related to the “city beautification” project, a drive to make Seoul look as good as possible to the world. Traffic was restricted, hundreds of thousands of residents were forced to relocate to former barracks, restaurants selling dog meat were closed temporarily. Also, thousands of “vagabonds” were being removed from the streets in a systematic plan to get rid of the homeless. The police targeted not only those living on the streets, but also alcoholics, the mentally ill, and neglected youths, and sent them to institutions for “unwanted persons”, the largest of which was the Brothers home in Busan, which housed around 4000 of those taken.


The Brothers home ran 20 different factories across the site, where the inmates worked as slave labour. Conditions have been described as comparable to concentration camps. Some of the goods manufactured there were exported to Europe. As the government subsidised the home on the number of inmates, local police were encouraged to find more ‘vagrants’, thus making the home more money, in a vicious hidden cycle.

Apprehension and confinement by the police and staff of the Brothers Home.

Picture courtesy Brothers Home Foundation

When foreign observers saw the site, only the healthiest inmates were to be seen, with others locked away. Abuse and beatings were common, and the true death toll is unknown. Official records claim 513 inmates died between 1975 and 1986, mostly attributed to heart failure or “general weakness”.


After the home was demolished and housing was being built, significant numbers of human bones were found on a nearby mountainside.


The Director of Brothers, Park In-kyun, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for embezzlement. No-one was charged for the deaths or physical abuse of the inmates.


Brothers was also one of the adoption centres involved in the trafficking and selling Korean children under false identities. Across the whole scheme, 200,000 children were sent to Europe, Australia, and America, despite the vast majority not being orphans at all. Each child earned Brothers $10 per month from the Korea Christian Crusade agency, which became the Eastern Social Welfare Society. The adoption scandal is being investigated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


The Games themselves did not get off to an auspicious start as a number of doves, released as a symbol of world peace, were seriously burnt by the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. As a result, the following Games was the last time live doves would be used as part of the opening ceremony.


One event would have a lasting impact on the way one Olympic sport was conducted. South Korean Park Si-hun was facing American Roy Jones Jr in the final of the men’s light middleweight boxing competition. In his quarter final against Italian boxer Vincenzo Nardiello, Park had lost the first two rounds narrowly, but had been judged to have won the third and final round by a large enough margin to win the overall fight. Nardiello had to be dragged out of the ring, shouting at the judges.


The final appeared to be a one-sided affair. Jones landed nearly three times as many punches as Park, 86 as opposed to 32. So obviously Park was awarded the win, and hence the Gold medal, on a split 3-2 decision. Hoiuad Larbi from Morocco, one of the judges, was quoted as saying: “The American won easily. So easily, in fact, that I was positive my four fellow judges would score the fight for the American by a wide margin. So I voted for the Korean to make the score only 4-1 for the American and not embarrass the host country.” However, the judges from Uruguay and Uganda voted the same way.

The biggest fix in Olympic History?

Picture courtesy Daily Beast.

It wasn’t until 1996 that Stasi files surfaced, purporting that boxing officials at Seoul had been receiving payments, although the East Germans did not know who from. The IOC set up a task force, and it reported back in late 1996. It was clear that the decision was unfair to Jones, and that the judges had been receiving payments from the hosts, to the tune of $300 per day for a fortnight. It was claimed this was to compensate the judges getting out late due to competition timings, and therefore not being able to eat out readily.


The IOC awarded Jones with the Olympic Order, but the Gold Medal result still stands.


But the biggest scandal of the Seoul Games occurred in the blue riband event, the men’s 100m final. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson had emerged as a genuine challenger to the defending champion, the great Carl Lewis of the United States. Lewis was not a popular figure in the US media, despite having emulated Jesse Owens by winning four gold medals at the LA Olympics of 1984. Having not secured any lucrative marketing tie-ins, Lewis instead made money by appearance fees at major European track meetings, where a rivalry with Johnson built up, culminating in Johnson winning the 1987 World Championship ahead of Lewis, setting a World Record of 9.83 seconds.


As usual, the early rounds of the competition provided little challenge to the top contenders, although Johnson only escaped the quarter-finals as a fastest loser, rather than securing a top two place in his race. Nevertheless, the two rivals reached the final, Lewis in lane 3, Johnson in lane 6. Johnson won the race with ease, running the race in just 9.79 seconds, another world record. Lewis was second in 9.92 seconds, and the UK’s Linford Christie came third, clocking 9.97 seconds and snatching the bronze just ahead of two further Americans, Calvin Smith and Dennis Mitchell. Ben Johnson had just beaten his biggest rival on the biggest stage, and had beaten him handily.

And then he tested positive for drugs.

Picture courtesy Simon Bruty.

But then Johnson tested positive for stanozolol, a banned anabolic steroid. Johnson was stripped of his gold medal and his world record, and went from national hero to national disgrace in a little over three days. He would later admit to taking steroids throughout the 1980s, which meant his 1987 world title and record were also taken away. This meant that not only did Carl Lewis get gold in Seoul, he also claimed the world record.


However, of the eight men who took part in the race that day, only two (Calvin Smith, who was elevated to the bronze medal, and Brazilian Robson da Silva, officially credited with fifth) never tested positive for drugs. Lewis himself tested positive for low levels of pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine at the US Olympic Trials earlier that year. While the levels were low enough that they would not result in a ban under current rules (at time of writing), they did trigger an investigation at the time, with Lewis and fellow athletes saying they had inadvertently consumed low levels of the substances while taking a dietary supplement. The test result was covered up by the US Athletics authorities.


Likewise, Linford Christie failed a test for pseudoephedrine after a 200m race, but was cleared by the IOC after arguing it had come from ginseng tea.


The very public battle between dopers and the testers had made it to the biggest stage in sport.


1992: Barcelona.

169 nations; 9386 athletes; 25 sports; 257 events.

Failed bids: Amsterdam, Belgrade, Birmingham (UK), Brisbane, Lausanne, New Delhi, Paris.


The Olympics returned to Europe in 1992, and many changes were afoot. Firstly, the 1992 Summer and Winter Games were the last to be held in the same year. Beginning in 1994, the Winter Games were offset by two years – the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France were then followed by the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway.


Secondly, for the first time since 1972, there was no boycott of the Games, a situation which has been true of every Games since. Indeed, global politics had moved on significantly since the last Games, pushing the number of competing nations up to a then record high. South Africa, fully engaged in the transition to a fully participatory democracy, had ended the policy of apartheid, and was re-admitted to the Games family. Germany had reunified, sending a single team for the first time since 1964.


The largest changes came from the dissolution of two states. Firstly, the Soviet Union had dissolved in 1991, and the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania competed as sovereign teams for the first time since before the Second World War. The remaining former Soviet republics competed as the Unified Team, who finished first in the medal standings. The dozen countries who made up that team would go on to compete independently in the future.


Secondly, the separation of Yugoslavia was ongoing (which would lead to the unexpected winners of the 1992 European Championships), but also the Olympic debuts for Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The rump Yugoslavia was not allowed to compete, but athletes from there were allowed to compete under the Olympic flag.

South side of the Barcelona Olympic Stadium.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Domestically, there were concerns that the Basque nationalist group ETA would attempt to disrupt the Games. There was an increase in ETA attacks in Catalonia in 1991, including a car bomb in the town of Vic, around 40 miles from Barcelona. Although the bomb was detonated in the courtyard of a Civil Guard barracks, it was close to a school. As a result, a number of the dead were children. Two weeks before the Games were due to start, ETA offered a truce in return for negotiations, which the Spanish government declined. Nevertheless, there were no attacks carried out during the Games.


Although the Games cost significantly more than planned (an estimated overrun of 266%, a final cost of $9.3 billion), most of the cost was in urban regeneration, including upgrading the airport and building new port facilities. Overall, the impact is generally seen as positive for the city, making it into one of the most popular tourist cities in Europe.


1996: Atlanta.

197 nations; 10,339 athletes; 26 sports; 271 events.

Failed bids: Athens, Belgrade, Manchester, Melbourne, Toronto.


The Games of the XXVI Olympiad, the Centenary Games, were awarded to Atlanta in September 1990, in a somewhat surprising decision. Atlanta was regarded as a dark horse even within the US bid selection process, where it had won out over Minneapolis, Nashville, and San Francisco. The question has to be asked: why did Atlanta win the bid? The answer appears to be (Coca Cola) Athens.


It was no secret that Athens was considered the favourite to be selected as the host of the 1996 Games, even before formal bids were entered. After all, this would be 100 years since the first modern Games, and the Olympics was now established as (arguably) the biggest sporting event in the world. The Greek bid leaned heavily into this, as well as the fact that the bid was Athens, home of the Olympics. There may have been an air of expectation that Athens would win, perhaps verging into arrogance.


This Anniversary spirit also fed into other bids. Melbourne was positioned as being 40 years after the previous Games to be held in Australia, Toronto as 20 years on from Montreal. Likewise, the fact that there was such a strong frontrunner meant that other bids did not put forward that nation’s larger cities. Manchester, not London, represented the UK. For the USA, Atlanta was the 36th largest city in the country at the time (it is 38th now), and was criticised in US media as being a ‘second tier’ city.


Where Atlanta did well was with the quality of the bid – it had the highest rating of all the candidates for infrastructure and facilities; it offered the highest television revenue and substantial revenue sharing with the IOC and National Olympic Committees; and Atlanta was able to show a strong economy and improved race relations.

Atlanta 1996.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

By contrast, Athens’ bid underestimated the challenges of the modern Games, and estimated that around $3 billion of infrastructure improvements would be required. Although Athens was in the lead after the first two rounds of voting, the elimination of other anglosphere bids gradually swung the vote towards the American city, a 23-19 first round deficit turning into a 51-35 final round win – the only time the USA has won Summer Games hosting rights in a contested competition.


In terms of participation, the Games was a huge success. A total of 24 national teams made their Summer Games debut, including all of the former Soviet States and Macedonia, as the ramifications of Yugoslavia’s dissolution continued. The Czech Republic and Slovakia also returned as independent states following the Velvet Divorce, as well as a single Palestinian athlete.


Likewise, financially the Games was successful. Atlanta took a lot of the lessons learned from Los Angeles in 1984, and either reused existing venues or ensured that new and upgraded facilities had a future use planned for them, such as the Centennial Olympic Stadium being converted to Turner Field, home to the Atlanta Braves baseball team for another two decades. Corporate sponsorship went a long way to underpinning the success of the Games, and the corporatisation of the Games was criticised at the time.


The one obvious event that scarred the Atlanta Games occurred on 27th July, midway through the Olympics. Centennial Olympic Park had been designed to be the ‘town square’ of the Games. On the evening of the 26th, a late night concert by Jack Mack and the Heart Attack was well attended. Around 1am, a 911 call was made saying there was a bomb due to go off in the park within the next 30 minutes, planted by “a white male with an indistinguishable American accent.”


Around ten minutes previously, security guard Richard Jewell discovered the bag containing the bomb under a bench, and alerted Georgia Bureau of Investigation officers, who called in the bomb squad. Jewell and others began to evacuate attendees. The bomb detonated a couple of minutes later, at 1:20am, killing Alice Hawthorne directly, and wounding 111 others, including Alice’s 14-year-old daughter. A Turkish cameraman, Melih Uzunyol, suffered a fatal heart attack as he ran to the scene.


Initially, Jewell was hailed by the press as a hero, whose actions had prevented a more significant loss of life. Three days later, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) revealed that the FBI considered Jewell a possible suspect. The investigation suggested a ‘lone wolf’ style bomber, and Jewell’s profile was considered a fit, as he was a man in his thirties still living at home. The publicity that followed effectively amounted to trial by media, with Jewell’s home being thoroughly (and publicly) searched twice by the FBI as well as effectively having a media siege around it.


Jewell was portrayed by some in the media as the prime suspect, and as a frustrated wannabe policeman. In one Journal-Constitution article, his case was compared to that of a serial killer, Wayne Williams. However, after three months, Richard Jewell was told that he was not considered a target of the investigation, and a separate apology from the US Justice Department regretted the leaking of the investigation into him. Jewell then sued the Journal-Constitution, New York Post, CNN, NBC News, and Piedmont College (where Jewell worked, whose President and spokesman may have spoken to the Journal-Constitution) for libel. All bar the AJC settled out of court, and the case versus the newspaper was eventually concluded in 2011, four years after Jewell had died. The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled for the paper, as the articles were “substantially true” even though the “investigators’ suspicions were unfounded”.

Richard Jewell; first a hero, then a suspect, then hounded by the media.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

In 1997, two more similar bombings took place around Atlanta, at an abortion clinic and a lesbian nightclub. The similarities in the devices led to the conclusion that all three bombings had been the work of one person. A further bombing of another clinic gave the FBI enough information to identify Eric Rudolph as the prime suspect in all four attacks, and they named him on the Most Wanted List in May 1998. Rudolph evaded capture, and went on the run, which he managed for 5 years.


In 2005, Rudolph pled guilty to all charges in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. In his statement, Rudolph used anti-abortion and anti-gay rhetoric, in an attempt to justify his actions. He also justified the Olympic bombing as being designed to embarrass the Government and force the cancellation of the Games, which he regarded as promoting the values of global Socialism, described as “despicable ideals”. In his statement, he claimed that the intent had been to disrupt, not to kill, and apologised to the victims of the Centennial Park bombing.


Eric Rudolph is currently serving four consecutive life terms, and is currently incarcerated in the ADX Florence Supermax Federal prison in Colorado.


Richard Jewell’s life was turned into a 2019 film, directed by Clint Eastwood.


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