It was the sprinting clash of the century – and it lasted for less than 10 seconds. The eagerly-awaited showdown between Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis in the 100m at the Seoul Olympic Games on 24 September 1988 had everything – including a lot that shouldn’t really have been there. Please sit back – we are continuing our “down memory lane” series as we head towards the London 2012 Olympics (27 July to 12 August).
It wasn’t just the traditional shoot-out between the hero and the villain, even though there was a lot of Muhammad Ali in the brash extrovert Carl Lewis, who was facing down the brooding Ben Johnson. These Games, the last from which apartheid South Africa was excluded, marked the point from which controversy would be less about politics as hitherto and more about drugs and personal issues.
The Olympic ideal needed to redefine itself after it had become a plaything of the two “superpowers”, the Soviet Union and the USA, who had found cause to boycott the two preceding Games on their respective home territories in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984.
Nationalism was still the order of the day. When Ben Johnson in the Canadian colours crossed the line ahead of his rival (and I don’t think that we are really giving away the ending to the duel), he was hailed as being – indeed – a Canadian. After his disqualification a few days later, the team representative spoke of him as the “Jamaica-born athlete”.
Who were the contenders and how did their rivalry come to mean so much?
Frederick Carlton (“Carl”) Lewis was born to the “purple” – as well as the “gold” – at Birmingham, Alabama, on 1 July 1961. His mother, Evelyn, had competed as a hurdler in the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, and his sister Carol was a long-jumper at the Los AngelesGames in 1984.
Success came to him easily. From his achievements while still at the University of Houston, Carl qualified to represent his country in the Moscow Olympic Games 1980, but was prevented from doing so by America’s political boycott. Four years later, he was at his peak – which he sustained for close to a decade – by winning gold in the 100m, the 200m, the 4 x 100m relay, and the long-jump.
It was inevitable that his performances should be compared to those of Jesse Owens in 1936. Yet in spite of the achievements, which have won him acknowledgement as the “athlete of the century”, Lewis has never enjoyed the popularity accorded to Owens and now to Usain Bolt. He has been perceived as lacking humility and his flamboyant clothing and hairstyling have been considered to be unbecoming in a male role model.
His preeminence, though it was supreme for the moment, was soon challenged by Benjamin Sinclair Johnson, an athlete of a very different stamp. He was born at Falmouth in Jamaica on 30 December 1961 and moved to Canada in 1976. At first Johnson had to play second fiddle to Lewis – he was third in the 100m in Los Angeles in 1984, but beat him at the 1985 Goodwill Games in Moscow.
After that Ben generally had the edge. Lewis smarted following his loss at the 1987 World Championships in Rome and started to cast aspersions in the direction of his rival by saying: “There are a lot of people coming out of nowhere. I don’t think they are doing it without drugs.”
He is quoted as adding in a television interview: “There are gold medalists at this meet who are on drugs, that [100m] race will be looked at for many years, for more reasons than one.”
In the approach to the 1988 Seoul Games, Johnson was coming off an injury and defeat to Lewis in Zurich. The 100m was a match for heroes which was without heroes. Everybody, it seemed, lined up in support of either Johnson or Lewis – with even such formidable rivals as Britain’s Linford Christie and America’s Calvin Smith being scarcely in the picture. It was not that the public wanted either to win. Being tainted by innuendo or a perceived bitchiness, neither was popular – but they craved for the other to lose.
My own household, for example, which I admit was of predominantly Jamaican heritage, wanted to see Ben take the smile off the American’s face. And Ben certainly showed Carl a clean pair of heels. He crossed the line in 9.79 seconds, beating his own world record set in Rome the year before. It is said that if he hadn’t expended energy in raising his arms in victory as he crossed the line, Ben would have shaved a point or so off even that time.
Yet as with the triumph of South Africa’s Caster Semenya in Berlin in 2009, it seemed too good, too powerful, to be true. It invited controversy, which came soon. The winner’s urine sample showed traces of the banned substance stanozolol; he was disqualified. As a result, Lewis was moved up to the gold medal in 9.92sec – itself now the new world record, Christie to the silver in 9.97sec and Smith to the bronze. Lewis’ harping on about it did him few favours. He may not have said “I told you so” exactly, but his words and actions seemed to proclaim as much.
Ben Johnson, the hero of the hour (if not for much longer), was disowned and abandoned by the people who would have been expected to back him.
When he admitted to the inquiry before Chief Justice Charles Dubin of the Ontario Appeal Court that he had taken drugs over a longer time – defending himself by saying that he had done so to counter the advantage of other athletes who were doing the same – the world record from Rome was also expunged. The several attempts he made afterwards at a comeback to big-time athletics were beset by further scandal. Carl Lewis, however, went from glory unto glory. In addition to the gold medals he collected in the 100m and long-jump in Seoul (plus silver in the 200m) Lewis added further golds in the 4 x 100m relay and the long-jump at the 1992 Barcelona Games, and won the long-jump again in Atlanta in 1996.
He achieved similar supremacy in the World Championships in athletics, which had been set up in 1983 to offset the political entanglements of the Olympic Games.