Early this month on a wet, cold night in the north of France, Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis finally ran their first race against each other since the 1988 Seoul Olympics. They could see their breath while warming up for the 100 meters at the GNP Mobil Grand Prix meet near Lille, but they seemed not to see each other. They took their practice starts elbow-to-elbow in adjoining lanes without exchanging a word or a look.
Lewis wore blue. Johnson was in neon chartreuse and jet black. When they were introduced, the cheer for Lewis was long, laced with the voices of French schoolchildren. The sound for Johnson was deeper, as if a military academy had chimed in.
It was a clean start. Johnson blasted out strongly, his distinctive wide foot placement unchanged from the first steps of his world-record races of 9.83 at the 1987 World Championships in Rome and of 9.79 at the '88 Olympics in Seoul. After 10 meters he narrowly led Dennis Mitchell, who was second. Lewis, taller, always slower to unfold, was back in the pack.
In Seoul, Johnson had bulled to a full-meter lead in the first 30 meters and accelerated on through 60 as no man had ever done. More disheartening to the pursuing Lewis, Johnson slowed only infinitesimally over the final 40 meters, until he began his own angry celebration. Had he not thrown up an arm and turned to taunt Lewis before the finish, Johnson probably would have run 9.75.
At 30 meters in Lille, Johnson was caught by Mitchell. Lewis and the rest of the field were closing. If he were to have a prayer, Johnson now had to summon some of the old speed.
Johnson had passionately insisted that he would be just as fast without the anabolic steroids that he had used for sever years before he was caught in a drug test at Seoul and stripped of his gold medal and world records (Lewis's time in Seoul of 9.92 was ratified as the 100-meter world record). However, after serving a two-year suspension, a creaky-clear Johnson, who has been dope tested frequently, ran no better than 10.40 in losing the four races that preceded his show down with Lewis. Johnson's clockings were nowhere near world-class time Lewis, meanwhile, had hit 9.93 behind Santa Monica Track Club teammate Leroy Burrell's world-record 9.90 at the TAC Championships six weeks ago.
Yet Johnson was eager to race. He wanted the money. He and Lewis had signed some time ago to run in Lille for a reported $250,000 each, but meet director Raymond Lorre fretted about Johnson's times. To try and ease Lorre's concerns, Johnson said he would take a 25% cut if he didn't break 10.17.
Johnson could command a hefty guarantee for the rematch because only a race against Lewis would so dramatically reveal how much of Johnson's success had been due to drugs. Johnson said none. "The drugs don't make you faster," he told the German magazine Sport last fall. "They may help you during training, but I'm not even certain of that. But the drugs don't make you run 9.83."
If he could support that contention with a good race against Lewis, Johnson would prove, in 10 redeeming seconds, that he is a great natural talent and a remarkable survivor. But a bad race threatened to be mortifying. A bad race would suggest that he had never been the man he thought he was.
If it were that bad, Johnson would be the last to face it. "Running is my life," he had said before and after his fall, and he meant it. He luxuriated in expensive sports cars, pliant women and the chance to build his mother a beautiful house in the suburbs of Toronto. But he knew the source of those rewards and how, when he was suspended, the pleasures had stopped. He had to stop construction on the house (he kept the Testarossa). So he had to come back, and if he couldn't, it would take more than one race, maybe more than a year of races, before he would understand.