The 100 metres final in Seoul in 1988 has gone down in Olympics history as one of those 'where were you' events but the 9.79 seconds it took Ben Johnson to blow away the field was just the start of the story. Richard Moore talks about his new book which examines the controversy
June 7 2012
It is the Olympics' 'JFK moment'. And it is burned into the memory of all those who witnessed an astonishing 9.79 seconds, when Ben Johnson ran the fastest 100 metres in history to hammer his bitter rival, Carl Lewis, at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
But that wasn't the end of it. In many ways, it was only the beginning.
The bombshell exploded two days later. And this was the real JFK moment -- one that any fan of sport old enough to remember the 1988 Olympics will remember.
After his victory, Ben Johnson tested positive for an anabolic steroid, stanozolol.
The news caused a sensation -- the Canadian was far and away the biggest name ever to be caught. And he had been caught at the Olympic Games, after its most high profile event, which also happened to be the most incredible 100m final ever seen.
Johnson was disqualified, stripped of his gold medal, and left Seoul in disgrace. Twenty-four years later, he remains the ultimate sporting pariah, his name still regularly prefixed with "disgraced."
But there is an enduring and still unsovled mystery about the great 100m confrontation between Johnson and Lewis in Seoul, and the scandal that followed..
It is a mystery I was keen to explore in my new book - The Dirtiest Race in History - because it turned out that Johnson may not have been the only athlete using drugs in the eight-man field. Six of the eight have subsequently had their reputations tarnished through their links to doping - including Lewis.
The enduring saga revolves largely around a "mystery man" who appeared in the anti-doping room of the Olympic stadium, and handed Johnson beer as he waited for his bladder to fill. It turned out the mystery man was a friend of Lewis.
Lewis revealed as much in his 1990 autobiography. But what has never been explained is how, and why, the mystery man was in the anti-doping room in the first place.
In the course of my research I discovered why he was there -- at least according to Lewis's old manager, Joe Douglas. And I also tracked down and spoke to the mystery man himself. He now runs a diamond mine in Angola.
There remain so many other fascinating aspects to the "dirtiest race in history" -- which some insist should instead be called "the greatest race in history" (and I can understand why).
It came during the halcyon days of athletics, which - thanks to Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram, Daley Thompson and so many others - vied with football for media coverage in the UK. The sport was enormous. It is hard to comprehend now, but the 1987 world athletics championships in Rome seemed as big as the previous year's football World Cup in Mexico.
It was in Rome that the Lewis-Johnson rivalry really came to the boil. It had been simmering since Johnson, who won bronze behind Lewis at the LA Olympics in 1984, first beat the American superstar in 1985.
Before then, Lewis had been untouchable - he was the King of the Track: Michael Jackson in spikes. Johnson was his opposite in every way. Where Lewis was lean, tall and graceful, Johnson was compact, muscular, and all brute force: the Incredible Hulk in spikes.
This, and the fact that they hated each other, meant their rivalry was utterly compelling.
The balance between the two rivals tilted over the next two seasons, and in Rome, Johnson settled any remaining arguments about who was the fastest, exploding out the blocks to leave Lewis for dead and set a new world record of 9.83.
It set up their confrontation in Seoul. The men's 100 metres was the most anticipated event of the Games -- and perhaps in the history of the Olympics. Then, remarkably, it didn't just live up to its pre-race hype - it surpassed it.
There is a parallel with the London Olympics, with the men's 100 metres once again the event that is generating most hype and excitement. And in Usain Bolt, it has the expected star of the Games. But in Seoul there was not just one superstar, there were two, each as sensational as Bolt.
Quite apart from the controversy that followed, and Johnson's later admission that he had been using steroids for seven years, the race itself still thrills, from Johnson's unbelievable start, to Lewis's repeated glances across at his rival, each one betraying his anguish.
As much as I wanted to explore the mystery, I wanted to recreate the race in my book, and, to this end, I went to Toronto to interview Johnson, to Florida to interview the untainted Calvin Smith, who finished fourth but considers himself the "moral winner," to Santa Monica to see Lewis's old manager and his club, and to Los Angeles to interview the "father of drug-testing in sports", Don Catlin. And I met Lewis in a shop on Oxford Street, London.
"The Ben thing," said Lewis, referring to his old rival, "everyone's like, 'You must hate him.' What, are you kidding me? That guy made me so much money it's ridiculous!"
DIRTIEST RACE IN HISTORY
The Dirtiest Race in History: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 Olympic 100m Final, by Richard Moore, is published by Wisden Sports.