Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer based out of Victoria, BC. In feeding his passion for swimming, he has developed YourSwimBook, a powerful log book and goal setting guide made specifically for swimmers. Sign up for the YourSwimBook newsletter (free) and get weekly motivational tips by clicking here.
The storylines that came out of the Seoul Olympics were as varied and colourful as the athletes whose names became synonymous with Games. There were the emerging stars such as Egerszegi, Nesty, Otto, Biondi and Darnyi, while other big names like Gross and Salnikov sought to end their Olympic careers with the reflective awesomeness of gold.
The Seoul Games were notable in that it was the first time the major swimming powers would all be competing against each other at the Olympics since the Montreal Games in 1976, a gap of 12 years. The West had boycotted the Moscow Games in 1980, with the Soviets following suite in 1984 when the Games were held in Los Angeles. Additionally, the Seoul Games would be the last time we would see the East Germans and Soviets compete as sport powers.
Here are the 8 biggest moments — in no particular order — that came out of the pool that fall in Seoul:
Matt Biondi, otherwise known as the “California Condor”, was billed as the next Mark Spitz coming into the Seoul Olympics. With world record holder Pablo Morales not competing – he placed third at the US Trials a month earlier – Biondi looked to have the field at his whim.
And for 99 metres, he did. With the pack — including defending Olympic champion Michael Gross — coming back on him, Biondi held a comfortable lead with about 5 metres to go. Under the flags he was faced with the classic swimmer’s dilemma – to finish on half a stroke or glide in.
He choose the latter.
Surinam’s Anthony Nesty, swimming two lanes above, finished on a full stroke, out-touching the American by the slimmest of margins – just 1/100th of a second.
Biondi, in a diary that he kept for Sports Illustrated during the Games, summarized the margin of victory and the expected reaction he had upon watching it: “After all, what’s a 100th of a second? Could I have won with longer fingernails? A slightly quicker start? Looking at the tape of the race just makes me sick to my stomach.”
2. Tamas Darnyi wins the IM double.
Daryni was the master of the individual medley for close to a decade, dominating both IM’s at every major international competition between 1985 and 1993.
Forged under the heavy and demanding workload heaped on him by his father – who would spank him mid-workout if not performing adequately – and his coach (who once made Darnyi swim 200 laps with paddles and a t-shirt for extra resistance as punishment for an “uninspired workout”) Daryni dominated the IM’s in Seoul, winning the 200, and then completely dismantled the field to win by over 3 seconds in the 400, breaking his own world record in the process.
3. Janet Evans captures hearts and gold in the 400m freestyle.
Faced against a daunting East German opposition, whose members had been running the table on international swimming since the early 1970’s, here was this tiny, bouncing ball of smiling energy wrapped in the stars and stripes.
With her trademark windmill and endless endurance Evans was one of the very few to break the East German stranglehold on gold medals, winning both distance freestyles and the 400 IM. Her greatest performance came in the 400m freestyle, where she not only won gold, but swam a world record that would go unbeaten for 18 years.
4. Kristin Otto wins 6 gold medals.
A year before the Berlin wall came down– and the subsequent unveiling of their sophisticated state-sanctioned doping program — the East Germans put on one final display of overwhelming superiority on the Olympic stage. Their crowning achievement would be a tall blonde from Leipzig named Kristin Otto.
In Seoul she would put on a stunning display of versatility by winning the 100 free, 100 back, 100 butterfly, and 50 free, while also contributing to the GDR’s winning 4×100 medley and 4×100 freestyle relay.
Becoming the first woman to win six gold medals in a single Olympic games – the previous record was multi-way tie with four golds – she could have won 7, tying Spitz’ record, had the 4×200 freestyle relay also been competed on the women’s side.
5. Krisztina Egerszegi becomes the youngest swimmer to win gold in Olympic history.
At just 14 years of age, Egerszegi won the silver medal in the 100m backstroke, and then qualified second fastest for the final behind defending World Champion, Cornelia Sirch from East Germany. At the 100 it was a 3-way race between Egerszegi, Sirch, and another East German, Kathrin Zimmermann, with the rest of the field left in the dust. The tiny Hungarian not only took on the two more experienced GDR athletes, but dismantled them over the last 50 metres, pulling away to win gold and break the Olympic record.
Three years later she would also break the world record, holding it until 2008, a span of 17 years. She would cement her place as the best female backstroker of all time, winning the 200m backstroke again in 1992 and 1996, becoming the second swimmer behind Australia’s Dawn Fraser to three-peat the same event at consecutive Games.
6. The 50m Freestyle is held at the Olympics for the first time since 1904.
It had been 84 years since the 50 freestyle was held at the Olympic Games, and it’s long awaited return did not disappoint. In his second to last event, Matt Biondi had a self-professed “perfect race,” securing himself medal number six – the fourth gold — and yet another world record.
Biondi would lower the world record by 0.09 seconds, beating teammate Tom Jager’s mark, and leading an American 1-2 punch in the event.
7. Vladimir Salnikov finally wins a non-boycotted 1500m freestyle gold medal.
Vladimir Salnikov had won gold in the 1500m freestyle at the 1980 Moscow Games. Winning gold at a boycotted Games was an empty victory for Salnikov, who also became the first man to break the vaunted 15 minute barrier that year. With the Soviet Union boycotting the 1984 Games, Salnikov would have to wait until 1988 to swim his prized event with the whole world present.
By the time Seoul rolled around, Salnikov was 28 years old, and in the previous two years he’d shown cracks in the armour, failing to medal at Worlds in 1986, and not even making the final at European Championships in 1987. Despite this, Salnikov would become the oldest swimmer to win gold at the Olympics in over half a century, swimming a gutsy 15:00.42, and receiving a standing “O” from competitors of all sports and countries in the athletes village.
8. East German women utterly dominant in the pool.
While this isn’t what you would call a “top moment,” the East Germans and their long running PED program need to be mentioned, as the long running state-driven doping program cheated countless athletes chances at records, medals, and second swims.
By 1988 the East German machine had been running on overdrive for years – as far back as the 1976 Games the GDR women took 11 of 13 gold medals – and with Kristin Otto leading the charge with her 6 golds, the East German women would win a total of 10 of 15 gold medals in Seoul, forever tainting the record books.
Fortunately for future athletes, the large-scale doping program would disintegrate along with the Berlin wall in upcoming years, but too late for the women who attended the ’88 Games and were cheated out of seeing their hard work be fully recognized on the world’s brightest stage.
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