Seoul of the game
Steroids overshadowed Johnson-Lewis duel in 1988
Posted: Wednesday July 18, 2007 11:46AM; Updated: Thursday July 19, 2007 10:25AM
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The damn shame is all anyone seems to remember is what happened next: the disgrace of a positive steroid test, the flight from Seoul, the Dubin Inquiry into drugs in sports, the subsequent comeback and a second positive test, the match race against a horse. Almost two decades later, sometimes it seems that Ben Johnson's only lasting contribution to sport is he taught us how to spell Stanozolol.
But on a warm Saturday afternoon in South Korea -- late Friday night viewing back in Canada -- there was indeed a race. In 9.79 stunning seconds, it was over -- and I still swear those were the most thrilling 10 seconds of my life, no matter what my wife tells you.
If there is a sound in sports more impressive than the library silence that descends upon 80,000 people before a 100-meter Olympic final -- thank you, Simon & Garfunkel -- it is the electric buzz of a crowd before heavyweights bob their way into the ring for a title fight. And make no mistake, Ben Johnson vs. Carl Lewis in Seoul 1988, the best sprinters of their or maybe any era, was a 100-meter final and a heavyweight fight. (There were six other lane fillers. For the life of me, I can't remember one.) The two sprinters seemed larger than life; in Johnson's case, unfortunately, this was literally true. Johnson and Lewis had been dogging each other since 1984 when Lewis won the Olympic 100 meters and Johnson took the bronze. Johnson, after seven straight losses, finally beat Lewis the following year. They continued to have memorable clashes in Europe, most notably in the 1987 World Championships in Rome when Johnson ran 9.83, shattering the world record by an absurd tenth of a second and bringing into focus the outer limit of human achievement. After the race Lewis insinuated darkly that Johnson was doping.
The press section in Seoul's Olympic Stadium stretched from about the 10-meter to the 90-meter mark but having the best seat in the house wasn't good enough for me. I sneaked past security to trackside and stood at the 85-meter mark, only a low fence separating me and the track. The vantage spot made the race more personal. And perfect. Perhaps five meters before they reached me, Johnson, in lane six, turned his head slightly to his left to look for Lewis, in lane three, and I could see the hint of a smile when he couldn't spot his rival. If Johnson hadn't turned his head, I suspect he would have run 9.75.
When Johnson didn't show up for a press conference -- he was in doping control, we were told -- I didn't think much about it. I would, of course, be forced to spend the next 19 years thinking about it whenever the depressing subject of steroids came up, but all those drug stories have yet to move me as much as 9.79.
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