The Top 8 Swimming Moments from the 1988 Seoul Olympics

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:

1.. Anthony Nesty out-touches Matt Biondi in the 100m butterfly.

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.

Janet Evans prepares for her 800 free on night one of the 2012 SMOC. (Photo Courtesy: Melissa Lundie)

Janet Evans prepares for her 800 free on night one of the 2012 SMOC. (Photo Courtesy: Melissa Lundie)

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.

Matt Biondi and Tom Jager, 24 years later, race at the 2012 Tiburon Sprint Classic

Matt Biondi and Tom Jager, 24 years later, race at the 2012 Tiburon Sprint Classic

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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6 years ago

Its sad, how many americans are talking about gdr and its athletes, although in athletics there is at least one athlete from usa caught doping every year and although usa nowadays shows the same dominance in swimming (what might be the reason?). These people should show at least a little bit of respect, because these athletes trained harder then anyone of you ever will. The reason for their victory wasnt doping alone, but most importantly the very hard training (Im sure nearly every of their opponents was doped as well). Today everyone knows that every swimmer who wins a medal at olympics is doped, but noone says that american swimmers only win because of doping, but because they have the… Read more »

Reply to  thomaslurzfan
6 years ago

That is a ridiculous and unfounded accusation. Yes, there are athletes still who dope, but to accuse nearly every athlete who wins an Olympic medal of doping is preposterous. Yes, sometimes American athletes dope and are caught doing it, but random drug testing is used to catch these athletes. Regardless, there is a big difference between a few athletes a year and the entire East German national team being coerced into a government-run program to artificially enhance their ability.

That said, I do agree with you on a couple points. Yes, these athletes still worked very hard; however, I think to say they necessarily worked harder than the athletes they pushed out of medals or WRs is a stretch.

But… Read more »

Reply to  Flyin'
6 years ago

I really like your comment here. Very balanced, fair and level headed.

Reply to  thomaslurzfan
4 years ago

Few reasons the USA is continually dominant in swimming
1. Size 300,000,000+ Americans third largest country on the planet plenty of talent to draw from
2. Money wealthiest nation on the planet high per capita income as well around 54,000 on average making sports like swimming accessible to many and attracting talent from across the world.
3. College Swimming some may think this inhibits the USA but I disagree the college system helps collect the best athletes from around the States (A big country by land area) and have them train together as well as encourage training beyond high school level
4. An expectation an tradition of excellence we like to win we work hard to… Read more »

Reply to  thomaslurzfan
4 years ago

There is a world of difference between state organized doping and individual doping. US athletes have doped and will probably continue. But I don’t recall the US labs responsible for control falsifying results under the close supervision of the White House, or the US National Team doctors carefully injecting their athletes with micro-doses ahead of key meets.

Finally, at the top level, all athletes have talents, work hard, want to win and are close to one another performance-wise. Thus, if doping improves your performance by just 1%, you will swim the 50 free in 21.3 rather than 21.5, or the 100 free in 47 rather than 47.5 and probably win gold as a result.

6 years ago

I didnt say that a few american athletes are doped, what i wanted to say is that in my opinion these athletes who are caught are just the tip of the iceberg. Justin Gatlin/Tyson Gay/LaShawn Merriot (Marion Jones) they were all caught doping (and now are all back even better) and i have no doubt that the guys who replaced them in the american team were doped as well, otherwise they wouldnt have been able to run as fast. I think that in the United States doping is part of the system (just look at how ”accepted” doping is in american baseball/football), there are so many great athletes in the us that you dont have a chance to get into… Read more »

Dying Breed
Reply to  thomaslurzfan
4 years ago

Over the years I have had several friends and teammates test positive for caffeine, asthma medication (clenbuterol), growth hormone (HGH) and Beta-2 Agonists (Advair Discus). Everyone served a suspension and every case followed the pattern that the athlete and the athlete’s doctor were not paying attention to the who (an elite athlete) and the what (a banned drug) was being prescribed or in the case of caffeine used (fyi: caffeine is no longer a banned substance). Therefore, your premise that “in the US doping is part of the system” is flawed. You can check USADA statistics here: .

I understand that some athletes in the US will try to cheat, hopefully… Read more »

6 years ago

Jeez dude, would it kill you to break up your comment? Besides your ridiculous claims that world records that have gone down from the GDR era by large amounts are a result of doping (did you even think about the plethora of records broken by the tech suits???), it’s really hard to follow your posts. Paragraphs, man, paragraphs.

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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