Nothing I have done professionally will ever top the feeling of singing at the opening ceremony in Sydney,” Olivia Newton-John is reported to have said somewhere, and she was not just paying lip service.
I understand the sentiment well. Being part of the Olympic Games—in whatever capacity—can be a transcendental experience. The only Games I have been to was almost a quarter of a century ago—in Seoul, 1988—but nothing before or since has come close to matching it in thrill and awe.
No, not even seeing India win two cricket World Cups, having a grandstand view of the football or hockey World Cups, not three Wimbledon championships, not seeing Sunil Gavaskar play his last Test match and Sachin Tendulkar his first, or being witness to Javed Miandad’s devastating last-ball six in Sharjah in 1986.
Race of the century: Ben Johnson (second from left) was stripped of the gold medal and Carl Lewis (extreme right) was declared winner. Mike Powell/Getty Images
In many ways, Seoul was blessed with stories—good and bad—which made it rich pickings for journalists: starting, of course, with the government clamping down on the sale of dog meat—a delicacy in South Korea—so as not to offend the sensibilities of visitors!
That did not stop “dog-meat” touts from soliciting customers. Once we were strolling downtown, far away from the Olympic village, when a man approached us with photos of a variety of dogs. We thought he was selling pups when, in fact, he was trying to divert us to an eatery. No sir!
But essentially the focus was on the sporting action. The cream of the world’s athletes were returning to the Olympic fold after a spate of boycotts by the Western and Eastern blocs, for the first time tennis pros were to be allowed to play, the issue of drug use loomed large, and there was also the vanity of nations wanting to finish on top in the medals tally.
The pièce de résistance of the Seoul Games was the “Race of The Century” between Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson; and so it turned out to be, but with a sordid twist in the tale that was to redefine the state of international athletics.
Champions: (From Left) Florence Griffith-Joyner (By Allsport UK /Allsport) and Ed Moses (Tony Duffy/Getty Images) are two of the most famous Olympians.
The 100m sprint was run in the morning to feed prime time TV in the US. The main stadium was packed despite the inconvenient hour. Everybody seemed to be sitting on the edge of their seats. Would Johnson beat Lewis again?
The pin-drop silence when the runners assembled at the starting point broke into cacophony when the gun went off. From our vantage point near the 80m mark, the race changed momentum. Johnson surged ahead in a remarkable show of strength and speed and poor Lewis was left behind, tongue hanging out more in disbelief than fatigue.
For many, this was THE story of the Games, but a bigger one was to follow less than 12 hours later. We were asleep in our room in the media village when somebody knocked on the door. It was a journalist from Canada whom we had befriended. “Ben’s tested positive,” he said sombrely. “He’s being deported asap.”
Our dash to the airport proved in vain. The Canadian Olympic officials built a wall around the disgraced sprinter, giving nobody access. Within a few hours, Johnson had gone, not just back home, but into oblivion. Lewis won the gold by default, but till date, people are sceptical whether Johnson would not have beaten him otherwise too.
A few years later, I met Johnson’s doctor, Jamie Astaphan, in St Kitts when the Indian cricket team was touring the West Indies. Astaphan had allegedly pumped Johnson with stanozolol. He didn’t deny the charge outright, but said the biggest culprits were the Americans, except that they could mask their drugs better.
A decade or so later, several top-notch US athletes, including Marion Jones, were found guilty and stripped of their honours. Even the queen of Seoul, Florence Griffith-Joyner, who died at 38, was thought to have succumbed to the side effects of performance-enhancing substances.
The issue of drug usage in sport, and particularly at the Olympics, has never abated since Johnson’s fall from grace. For glory and for reward, athletes seem to be willing to take the risk of being found out and banned; or even worse, dying prematurely.
But Seoul had other stellar performances beyond the titanic 100m clash between Lewis and Johnson, and some shock results too. Ed Moses, unarguably the greatest 400m hurdler in history, was beaten to bronze by two rookie Americans.
They couldn’t control their tears after beating their hero, and it was left to Moses to literally speak on their behalf at the press conference that followed. Even then, Moses showed the statesman-like qualities that make him such a significant voice in athletics today.
Daley Thomson, the decathlete, was one of my favourites, but he too flopped. And yet triumphed. A pulled hamstring during one of the early events meant that he was never going to be in contention for a medal. But unlike a prima donna, Thomson finished all his 10 events.
“This is the Olympics, it’s an honour just to be here,’’ he was to say later, exemplifying the much touted “spirit of the Games”. The founder of the International Olympic Committee, Baron Pierre Coubertin, would have been proud.
My own experience of this spirit came in different, more unusual circumstances. At the opening ceremony, I had left a pouch containing my passport and traveller cheques below the seat as advised. When the ceremony was over, the pouch was gone. I now had no money and no national identity, as it were.
Complaints were lodged with the authorities, notices were put up at the main press centre, but to no avail. I lived on borrowed funds and high tension for a week till one morning, a German journalist knocked on the door of my room. “I think this belongs to you,” he said, handing over the pouch.
I discovered soon that the German had mistakenly taken the pouch from under the seat ahead of him instead of as directed. In the process, he had lost his pouch, which looked similar too, but which had since been found.
“I have been searching high,” he said. “Finding you is like winning a medal.” That night we partied. He sang praises of India, which he had visited a few times. “It’s a great country, but when are you going to win an Olympic medal?”
It’s a poser I am in a better position to answer now than then.
What makes the Olympics distinct? The sheer scale and scope clearly. What other event can bring almost the entire world under one roof, as it were. Participating countries at London this year number 205; some of them are tiny specks in the atlas, some even unheard of by most people.
This lends a unique universality to the Games, accentuated by the multiple disciplines that test almost every aspect of human endeavour—physical and mental. There are some who argue that since golf, cricket and a few other sports are not included, there is something lacking.
Yet the five rings that symbolize the Olympics represent not just the biggest brand in sport, but also a route to cohabitation on this planet. It is the greatest show on earth in more ways than one.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org