Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the Olympic gods

Few people who were watching the BBC coverage of the 1988 Olympics will forget the evening of Tuesday 27 September. The suave sports presenter, Des Lynam, was given, on air, a bulletin from the Agence France-Presse, an international news agency. He read it with the solemnity of someone broadcasting a declaration of war to the nation: “I’ve just been handed a piece of paper here that, if it’s right, it’ll be the most dramatic story of these Olympics, or perhaps any others.”

The story was that Ben Johnson, who had three days earlier won the 100 m final with a world record time of 9.79 seconds and defeated his nemesis, Carl Lewis, had tested positive for the anabolic steroid, Stanozolol. The image of the pumped hulk, Johnson, crossing the finishing line, his finger pointing to the Olympian gods, was overnight replaced by that of a man destroyed by his own hubris. The Furies, “those who beneath the earth punish whosoever has sworn a false oath” according to Homer, gathered around Ben Johnson. This athlete had sworn to the Olympian ideals of honesty and fair play while injecting steroids in locker rooms. For this, he would be punished. He would be stripped of every medal, title and world record. He would be cast out into the dark. He would become a thing of shame.

Richard Moore revisits the events of the Seoul Olympic 100m final in his book The Dirtiest Race in History with a forensic, impartial eye. Moore avoids lazy portrayals of Johnson as the panto villain of the piece and Carl Lewis as the handsome prince with wings on his ankles. A simple, moralistic reading of these men would not do justice to the complexity of their stories, characters and bitter rivalry.

Ben Johnson was all muscular aggression, ripping up the blocks on the “B” of the “BANG!” of the starting gun. Carl Lewis, on the other hand, was grace and beauty, a human gazelle. Johnson, the poor Jamaican immigrant, was embraced by the people of Canada as a national hero. In America, the middle-class Lewis was admired rather loved for his athletic ability. He was unable to woo the romantic heart of the American people. Johnson was the stutterer, Lewis the honey tongued one. Johnson, the lothario. Lewis, the suspected homosexual. And what brought these two very different men together was a 100m strip of racing track.

Moore humanises these athletic titans, unpicking their complexities and dissecting the hatred at the heart of their relationship. It is this which makes The Dirtiest Race in History read like a psychological thriller. You know the ending but that doesn't stop this book from being a page-turner. Actually, the ending of Moore's account is where the author finally encounters the elusive Carl Lewis at the opening of a London Nike store. It is a brilliant conclusion to the book.

Moore also successfully brings to life the shady managers and ambitious coaches who will stop at nothing to give their athlete the edge on their competitors. There are the unethical doctors and dubious friends, the megalomaniac sports executives and greedy hangers on. Moore exposes a mafia cesspool of greed, double-dealing and syringes.

But there are also the good guys, such as Don Catlin, “the father of drug-testing in sports” according to the New York Times and Manfred Donike, the German chemist, who patiently found more reliable ways to detect steroid use and create an “endrocine profile,” the science which strives to keep sport “clean”. They prove to be the heroes of the story and those who carried the torch for the nobility of sporting endeavour. It is thanks to men such as these that the London Olympic Games 2012 remained relatively drug free and the world could marvel at the speed, strength and stamina of its participants.

The Dirtiest Race in History, Richard Moore, Bloomsbury 2012

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