Seoul. Saturday, 24 September 1988. Ben Johnson.
In 1989, I had my appendix removed. During the procedure I wasn’t put under general anaesthetic, but rather was given an epidural. Throughout the half hour or so of the operation, I was somewhat delirious and over and over in my head ran Bruce McAvaney’s commentary of the 100m final at the 1987 World Championships in Rome. This says a few things – I must have been really delirious, and I am positively an athletics nut.
The reason I knew this call so well (essentially it went like this: “Away; Johnson got out well; Christie not so good; Lewis not so good; Johnson is running away from them; I don’t think Lewis can get to him; Carl won’t catch him; and Johnson wins in a world record!) is that I had taped the race and watched it over and over.
I loved listening to McAvaney’s call and I loved watching the race, often I'd watch it on slow-mo, seeing Lewis, famed for running over the top of everyone in the last 20 metres, unable to catch Johnson, who was known for his fast starts but inability to sustain the speed over the full 100m. This clip of it (not with McAvaney’s call) shows how Johnson jumps out of the blocks and after two metres is already seemingly a metre ahead. The race was over.
I was a Lewis fan (because when I was you I had a need to always pick a side in any sporting contest) and I couldn’t believe that Johnson had won. It stuck in my head.
The following year at the Olympics, Johnson was a raging favourite. The man who came third in the LA Olympics 100m, was no longer in Lewis’s huge shadow (there still really hasn’t been anyone who has been as huge in the sport since) and was the attraction of the biggest Olympics ever – the first for 16 years not to be affected by boycotts.
Athletics in the 1980s was huge – mostly because of Lewis, but also the jogging craze (and Deek in Australia) put a focus on the sport that it will most likely never again have. It was also a time when we could think that doping only occurred in Eastern Block countries – Russians and East Germans used steroids, not Americans and definitely not Canadians (though there were whispers, but they seemed mostly sour grapes from Lewis).
But geez look at the guy. You gotta wonder.
And so on that Saturday, the guns goes off Johnson again jumps out of the blocks in his unique way that looks unnaturally fast. The race really is too quick to describe.
All that you remember is that Johnson won by a long way.
He destroys the rest of the field. It looks wrong; no one should be able to win like that – indeed perhaps the best guide for drug use is to use your brain: if someone is doing something that seems inhuman, it probably is.
The result is Johnson; daylight; Lewis; Christie; Smith; Mitchell; da Silva; Williams; Stewart.
But despite the seeming impossibility, because of the focus of the event – people who were not even into athletics knew who Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson were, similar to how even if you don’t follow baseball you know what sport the New York Yankees play – and because we were still mostly in denial on drugs, it was for two days the most amazing run in history. And even though the world record is now 7 hundredths of a second faster than what he ran, it still looks unbelievable.
Two days later our brains regained control and connected with our eyes. What we had seen looked too good to be true, and we then knew that it was. 'Twas Stanazolol that did it.
But still, to be there... wow. Tell anyone you saw Ben Johnson win the 100m at Seoul, and they won’t pity you, rather they will quiz you as though you were witness to the crime of the century (which you were). Johnson’s 100m win is to athletics what the JFK assassination is to politics. Everyone can remember it, and afterwards all innocence is lost.
And like the Kennedy assassination, conspiracies abound. Since then Christie, Mitchell and Williams have been found guilty of doping offences. It was also revealed in 2003 that Lewis had actually tested positive to the banned stimulants (not steroids) of pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine after the 1988 US trials, and under the rules of the day should have been banned for 6 months. Instead the US Track and Field Association accepted his statement that it was unintentional and let him run in Seoul.
Now admittedly under today’s rules the amount of stimulants found in his body would not be enough to warrant suspension, but still, it isn’t a good look – it means 5 out of the 8 runners in that final have been linked to or banned for performance enhancing substances.
And so since then races start and finish, athletes come and retire, world records are set and broken (except in women’s athletics!) and people worry about drug cheats. But I don’t. Am I naive? Nope, I saw Marion Jones win the 200m at Sydney; and I knew she was cheating.
When world record holder Tim Montgomery got done, I was disappointed; I was again when world record holder Justin Gaitlin tested positive. But I refuse to let them win.
I love athletics, and will use my eyes and judge for myself. If someone in Beijing gets done I’ll be disappointed but not surprised – and I’ll also be happy because that’s one less cheat; and one more warning to the others in the field thinking of taking a pharmaceutical short cut.
I don’t watch athletics to see records broken; I watch because I love the competition, the tactics used in a race, the joy of victory; the utter despair of a loss. And when something happens that seems inhuman I shake my head and think, "Hmmmm, you gotta wonder", but mostly I shake my head and think, "Wow, how good was that?”