Each day of the Games I thought I’d share with you my list of what has made the quadrennial sports carnival so anticipated and so memorable for me over the years. It includes a lot of the good as well as some of the bad and the ugly. Here is the offering for Day 2.
SEOUL, 1988: FIRST AMONGST EQUALS – LEWIS AND JOHNSON
The Carl Lewis v Ben Johnson rivalry was the ultimate in head-to-head stakes, on a par with other great sporting rivalries of the time such as Ali v Frazier and Borg v McEnroe.
One was a phenomenal all-round athlete, born into a family of athletes and nurtured from a young age to be an athlete. He was the quintessential African American elite sportsperson: confident, good looking, talented. He was also flamboyant, prone to being brash, and had aspirations to be a singer. Carl Lewis had won four gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as well as gold at multiple world championship events.
The other was the antithesis of a loud, confident American. A quiet, reserved Jamaican who had immigrated to Canada as a 15-year-old. A powerful sprinter who decided in 1978 to focus solely on the 100 metres, he lowered his time by one second to 10 seconds in the seven years to 1985. It was around the same time that Ben Johnson’s coach of 11 years, Charlie Francis, first talked to Johnson about doping.
By the time the 1988 Seoul Olympics had rolled around, Lewis and Johnson had met each other on a number of occasions.
Johnson beat Lewis for the first time in Zurich in 1985 and again at the Goodwill Games in Moscow in 1986 with a time of 9.95 seconds. The following year, Johnson defeated Lewis twice – once in Seville when the two men had to be separated after a physical row – and again in Rome at the World Athletics Championships were Johnson won in a world record time of 9.87.
Lewis all but publicly accused Johnson of doping to achieve ‘unbelievable’ times. Lewis went on to say that: “If I were taking drugs, I could do a 9.80 right away, just like him.”
Officially the ‘world’s fastest human’ after the world championship win, Johnson became a celebrity – a role that he was neither used to nor comfortable with. The extrovert Lewis adored fame and attention, and admitted that the rivalry was terrific for him commercially.
So by the time the eight men lined-up in the starting blocks of the 100 metres final in September 1988, the stage was set for an almighty battle.
As races go, it was superb. Johnson had a trademark powerful start and lowered the world record to 9.79 seconds. The look on Lewis’ face (in the image below) as they reach the finish line tells you exactly what he was thinking.
24 hours later, we learned that Johnson had tested positive for the steroid stanozolol.
The Gold Medal was confiscated, his records erased and he was suspended from competition for two years. He was stripped of his 1987 world championship. He came back after his ban, and made the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but he was never the same runner again.
Lewis was handed the Gold Medal and awarded the world record. Linford Christie was given the Silver and Calvin Smith, the Bronze.
Lewis continued to compete for another three years. The IOC named him Athlete of the Century in 1999.
The narrative spun by the IOC and the IAAF when they expelled Ben Johnson was that he was the lone doper in the world.
We know that’s not true.
Of the eight men who raced in the 100 metres final in Seoul, six have proven to have been associated with a performance-enhancing drug. The two who haven’t are Robson da Silva of Brazil and Calvin Smith of the USA.
As it turns out, Smith is the man who should have been awarded the Gold Medal.
Five weeks before the games, at the US Olympic trials, Carl Lewis and seven other athletes from the same Santa Monica Track Club tested positive for three banned substances. The levels detected were small, but sufficient to attract a ban of between three and six months at the time. This would have put Lewis out of the Olympics.
All of them appealed on the basis of ‘inadvertent use’. All of them won.
None of this was known until 2003 when a former US Olympic Committee medical staffer handed-over documentation to a journalist.
Lewis still has his medals and his records stand.
And according to the IOC, he is still the greatest athlete of the 20th century.
Plus ça change.