When Ben Johnson smiles children cry.
If a 116 year old tradition, based on an ideal which stretches over millennia, has a villain, it is Johnson. He broods, he scowls – he is the convenient symbol behind which hundreds of similar cheats cower. Teary apologies have been tossed aside, rehabilitation forbidden, Johnson’s biggest mistake will always be to be the first to get caught.
There are three stand outs from this image of the finishing line of the 100m final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics: ‘the dirtiest race in history’. First, the 84 track and field darling, Carl Lewis, in lane 3, and his contemptuous, disbelieving glance across the line to Johnson in lane 6. It is tempting to think Lewis began, conducted and concluded the race with the thought ‘this guy cheats.’ He certainly began and concluded any post race interview with the insinuation that what Johnson achieved deserved examining. Lewis certainly should be the hero of the piece but any man who produces and makes motivational dollar with quotes as preposterous as ‘the trials on the road to world harmony are no greater than the courage of those who accept the challenge’ is difficult to like. Few did apparently.
Second, in lane 2, the straggling Jamaican, Ray Stewart, injured during the race who would finish hideously off the pace. He didn’t test positive then but has since received a lifetime ban as a coach.
Third, of course, Johnson’s arm aloft before the finishing line, smashing a world record, obliterating a sport’s reputation. He immediately and arrogantly regretted the arm aloft and glance along the line, thinking his time of 9.79 could have been even less. Within days, his regrets had acquired perspective.
This race, where 6 of the 8 finalists would go on to test positive for drugs (including our own Linford Christie), was a watershed. It soon became apparent that sprinters had been mere lab rats and we had been in awe not of athletes but chemical compounds competing ‘on the worlds greatest stage.’ Every sprint world record since has been tainted which perhaps goes some way to explaining why the up to now clean Usain Bolt has been so desperately embraced (that and the fact a Bolt product endorsement triggers a minimum 10% sales increase).
Chris (doggedly maintaining that the Olympics can be interesting…)