Rosa Mota in Seoul 1988

“It was the Greek gods who chose me to be a marathon runner”              Rosa Mota

Seoul was chosen as host of the 1988´s Olympics in 1981 ahead of the Japanese city of Nagoya. The Olympics were seen as an opening to show the world the country´s miraculous economic recovery. There was even a chance for the Games to be co-organised with North Korea, but their demands of keeping the opening and closing ceremonies and almost half of the disciplines were not met.

Thanks to the negotiating skills of the IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch the previous boycotts from Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 didn´t happen again. Finally, only North Korea, Cuba and Ethiopia didn´t attend.

The Olympics of Seoul 1988 were to be the last appearance by the Soviet Union, that once again topped the medal count. In athletics Florence Griffith Joyner set a still-standing world record for the 200m in 21.63. Not less impressive was the men 100m final, where Canadian Ben Johnson set also an explosive world record in 9.79…

But it is time to get back to the marathon scene for now. Women had already entered the Olympic marathon scene four years earlier, and they were hungry for success too.

The marathon was set for September 23rd at 9.30. Weather was warm and humid, and many of the top runners were present at the start line. Rosa Mota from Portugal was the recent winner of the Boston Marathon and world and European champion. Grete Waitz from Norway seemed also recovered after being most of 1987 injured. Also, at the highest level was Lisa Martin from Australia, winner of the Osaka marathon with the best time of 1988 (2.23.51). But there were also some missing athletes: Joan Benoit, recovering after giving birth, and Ingrid Kristiansen, who had decided to run the 10000m instead.

Rosa Mota was born in Porto. While in high school she run cross-country races but decided to participate in the first-ever women marathon, in the 1982 European Championships in Athens, where she won. After her success she competed in many international marathons achieving good results. Her previous experience in the Olympics finished with a third place in Los Angeles 1984. She arrived at Seoul as one of the favourites, being the World and European champion.

The Olympic marathon started with 69 runners from 39 countries. The rolling course, humidity and absence of shaded areas suggested a difficult race. By the 10k (34.13) most of the important runners were in a big leading pack of 21.

Weakest runners slowly started to fall behind. When the leading pack crossed the 20k (1.08.46) the 21 runners had become only 13, and the group was getting smaller. By the 30k (1.43.13) only four runners were at the lead: Mota and Martin, accompanied by Katrin Dörre from East Germany and Tatyana Polovinskaya from the Soviet Union. They were 34s ahead of the nearest runner.

The next section was uphill, and the pace slowed. Coming from behind Zhao Youfeng from China was trying to connect with the group ahead. At the 39k there was a short uphill section. With temperature rising Mota took advantage of her ability to run in the heat and pulled ahead of her fellow runners. Crossing the 40k (2.18.10) she had an advantage of 14s with Martin and one more with Dörre.

Medal positions were not to change and Mota crossed the finish line in 2.25.40. Thus, silver medal went to Martin in 2.25.55 and the bronze to Dörre in 2.26.23.

Mota became the first Portuguese woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Her victory was not her last, as she won again the 1990 European championship, the Boston Marathon in 1990 for a third time and the London Marathon of 1991, before retiring in 1992. She is widely recognised as one of the best women marathoners in history and has continued linked to the Portuguese sports scene since then.


More to watch:

A short video interview with Mota commenting her Olympic victory in:–oaANk



 “The Olympic Marathon”, DE Martin & RWH Gynn. Human Kinetics, 2000.

Seoul 1988 Olympic Medals

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