By Tom Atkinson
The 1988 Seoul Olympics seared it’s name onto the rump of history for many different reasons. There were moments of unbridled magnificence, there were moments of competitive mastery, there were moments of heartwarming sportsmanship. Ben Johnson famously, or infamously rather, won a 100m sprint that was labelled “the dirtiest race in history”. It was so laden with artificial ingredients that it would’ve made a skittles factory jealous. Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux famously halted from a certain silver medal to assist an injured yachtsman in a wonderfully human gesture. A young Roy Jones Jr pulverised all comers, before being flat out robbed in the single worst decision in boxing history.
The Soviet Union was in its final throes. The Iron Curtain was poised to fall for the first time since the war got cold. They dominated the medal tally like a young Ivan Drago whooping the breaks off Apollo Creed in Rocky IV. A grand total of 132 overall medals and 55 gold were amassed and was certainly a source of soviet pride. I miss the Soviet Union. I thought St Petersburg worked better as Leningrad, and the Glasnost coming out of there at the time was world class. The proletarian masses were noted as the warm and welcoming type, although the yanks (and Baltic States) may well disagree with me here. I wonder if the Soviet Union existed today, how their instagram would be doing? I’d be intently following the snaps of strength from Stalingrad to Tbilisi. The USSR may have been the Lance Armstrong of the Olympic world, but I was a Gorbachev fan long before I backed Reagan.
Whilst Roy Jones Jr may have headlined the boxing component of the games, the mayhem that ensued immediately after the bout between South Korea's Jong-il Byun and Bulgaria's Alexander Hristov gained a dishonourable mention. The Koreans were unhappy that a decision went against their man. Perhaps vengeance could attributed to the robbing of Jones Jr. However, they were more specifically aggrieved with the way Kiwi referee Keith Walker had officiated the bout. Keith Walker sounds like an honest dairy farmer from Waikato but the Koreans saw him as crooked as a witches broom. They stormed the ring and set upon ‘old Keithy’ like a mob of sandflies attacking an exposed leg at a tropical beach. Even Korean Olympic officials got in amongst the fracas, throwing sly kicks and elbows. It is rumoured that a young Dana White was watching on, and the diverse range of attacks inspired the idea for modern mixed martial arts. Could just be folklore, though.
The infallible Swedish fencer Kerstin Palm took part in her record breaking seventh Olympiad. I wasn’t aware the swedes were known for the mastery of the blade, but Kerstin was one of the best to ever do it. She had a shwing like an ancient shogun and a thrust like a marauding Viking. She clinked and clanked her way from Helsingborg to Stockholm. Seven Olympics is a rare feat, and for mine it elevates Palm to the plane in which the likes of Borg, Bergman and Lundgren exist.
For The Unsportsmen, however, the most intriguing moment of the Seoul Olympics came during the opening ceremony. It was a vivacious festival of colour and sound that started with a big Korean drum that almost certainly had to be carted in on a Mack truck. The performers on the ground hustled around into various silhouettes and figures, forming what could be mistaken for complex algebraic equations actually became the word “Welcome”, accompanied by an inch-perfect Olympic rings and the ’88 logo.
Balloons were released into the luminous afternoon sun. They drifted calmly into the stratosphere as captivated punters gazed on. Retrospectively speaking, the balloons did what the next act should’ve done. Live doves are a worldwide symbol for peace and hope. The Koreans brought a few flocks to the Olympic stadium, as a release of the white bird was now commonplace at such global events.
I bet the organisers were wishing they’d launched a thousand Dove soap dispensers instea
Why? Because the upmarket pigeons formed a congregation on the unlit cauldron. Minutes later, the Olympic flame was due to be lit. The sheepish torch bearer ignited the cauldron, to the sound of hundreds of flaming doves plummeting to their peril. An opportunistic man may have taken this as an opportunity to eat the worlds biggest Korean barbecue in the name of Olympic spirit. Horrified spectators could smell roasted pigeon and spy seared plumage from all corners of the bleachers.
From that moment on, the world entered its post dove era. There was a rumour that Sydney Olympics were contemplating releasing a troop of kangaroos at Homebush along with a speeding Hilux & Bullbar demonstration for the 2000 opening ceremony. Thankfully, the example of the burning dove was still seared onto the memory, and cauldron of the Olympic Games.