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.
The flamboyant Florence Griffith-Joyner (“Flo Jo”), with the distinctive long fingernails, striking make-up and powerful physique, was at the forefront of the North American domination of women’s short-distance running at the Los Angeles and Seoul Olympics.
Griffith-Joyner (billed as being “the fastest woman on earth”) looked too much like the bionic woman to avoid suspicion. Those doubts were not necessarily eased when she died prematurely of an epileptic seizure aged only 39 years old.
“Flo Jo” was part of the strong generation of American sprinters, including Evelyn Ashford and Valerie Briscoe-Hookes, which was challenged, but not beaten, by only the Jamaicans Merlene Ottey and Grace Jackson: furthermore her sister-inlaw Jackie Joyner-Kersee was champion in the heptathlon and long-jump.
Linford Christie was one of five finalists other than Johnson from the 100m in Seoul to be proved positive for banned drugs or to be implicated in a drugs scandal at some time. He was born at St Andrew in Jamaica but raised in London from the age of seven. He moved out of the shadows of Johnson and Lewis to win the 100m in his own right at the Barcelona Games in 1992 – becoming the oldest runner to take the title.
Since then, Christie has fallen out of favour with the British athletics authorities, and in contrast to several of the country’s other Olympic champions he has been given only a low profile in events leading up to this year’s Games in London. There are still echoes of the 1988 drug scandal in the 100m today. For a time earlier in this decade, it seemed that track and field athletics would collapse under the weight of the abuse. The “roll of shame”, those athletes who have been banned or implicated, includes some of the outstanding names of the modern era.
Rodney Hinds, sports editor of The Voice newspaper in London, has told me that he finds it difficult to summon up enthusiasm for the big athletic occasion – though being born and raised in the East End of London, he may make an exception for the Olympic Games this summer. For a week in the very hot summer of 2003, we shared a desk on the press benches high up in the Stade de France in Paris watching some enthralling track performances in the World Championships – only for a good number of the winners to be disqualified afterwards. It is impossible to know just what is what.
The previous summer, too, I had watched Tim Montgomery set a new 100m world record in the French capital. That fell with his reputation when it was shown that he had used prohibited substances, and the female champion Marion Jones, the mother of his son, went down soon afterwards.
It was a strange meeting during which I sought some relief by having a beer in an otherwise empty bar just outside the stadium. Gail Devers, the outstanding sprinter and hurdler, came in and sat next to me. It was a reporter’s ultimate frustration. Here I had the opportunity of an exclusive interview about athletics but Gail had come out of the stadium just so that she could get away from the athletics.
Dwain Chambers, the British sprinter who was born to Jamaican parents in London, was also in that race and ran very well. He has been the UK’s best sprinter since Linford Christie, but has been sidelined since receiving a two-year ban for using a banned substance.
Chambers has returned to the track successfully but – at the time of writing – he was still prohibited from competing in the Olympic Games. He has been a thorn in the flesh of the authorities that will not go away. It is easy to sympathise with Dwain when he sees the comparatively light treatment handed out to other competitors for similar offences and the lifting of the prohibition on the 400m runner Lashawn Merritt of the USA. Continental Africans have not been touched by the drugs scandal, and it was not just because they are little involved in the sprints (or field events) in which the practice was prevalent. The Kenyans just kept on winning at the longer distances.
In Seoul in 1988, for example, there were victories for Paul Ereng in the 800m, Peter Rono in the 1,500m, John Ngugi in the 5,000m, and Julius Kariuki, followed home by Peter Koech, in the 3,000m.
In Barcelona four years later, Matthew Birir, Patrick Sang and William Mutwol made a clean sweep of the medals in the 3,000m steeplechase, which Julius Korir had won in Seoul and Joseph Keter was to win in Atlanta. William Tanui and Nixon Kiprotich achieved a one-two in the 800m.
Kenyans and North Africans were so successful in Atlanta in 1996 that Ethiopia finished fifth in the medal-table, Kenya seventh, and Nigeria tenth. Here, too, Haile Gebrselassie came to the fore by winning the 10,000m in 27:07.04 and Josia Thugwane (South Africa) and Fatuma Roba (Kenya) made it an African double by winning the men’s and women’s marathon in 2:12.36 and 2:26.05 respectively.
The women’s marathon provided one of the more touching moments in Barcelona. The Ethiopian Derartu Tulu, who won in 31:06.02, thereby starting a long and continuing Ethiopian tradition of success in the event, and Elana Meyer, a white South African who finished second in 31:11.75, ran a lap of honour arm-in-arm to welcome South Africa’s return to the Olympic Games after an enforced absence of three decades during the apartheid era.
Some Africans, however, were still very quick on the track. Frankie Fredericks, who was born in Windhoek in Namibia, was one of the foremost challengers for the sprint titles after Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson had left the scene. He won four silver medals but not a gold.
In Barcelona he finished the 100m in 10.02sec to the 9.96sec of winner Linford Christie, and the 200m in 20.13sec to the 20.01sec of Michael Marsh (USA). In Atlanta, the Namibian was beaten into second place by Donovan Bailey (Canada), in 9.84sec to 9.89sec in the 100m, and by rising mega-star Michael Johnson (USA) in 19.32sec to 19.68sec – in both instances the winner’s time was a world record.
After missing the next Olympic Games in Sydney through injury, a veteran Fredericks came back to finish fourth in the 200m at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
Africans of the diaspora in Western Europe started to make an impact too. Decathlete Francis Morgan Ayodele “Daley” Thompson, the gold medal winner in both Moscow and Los Angeles (setting a new world record on the latter occasion), was born to a Nigerian father and Scottish mother in West London. His outspoken and sometimes irreverent attitude has not always endeared him to the “powers that be”. Even so his commitment to fitness and to athletics has won recent respect, so that Daley is being touted for a prominent role in London this summer.
In Los Angeles, too, Theresa “Tessa” Sanderson threw 69.56m to win gold in the javelin ahead of Tiina Lillak of Finland with 69.00m and her UK compatriot Fatima Whitbread with 67.24m.
Tessa was born in St Elizabeth in Jamaica and emigrated in childhood to Wolverhampton, England. Her opportunities in the 1980s were limited by having to contest the (usually) sole place available in the team with Whitbread, whose mother, incidentally, was a team manager and whose fiancée/husband was the promoter of many of the meetings.
Marie-José Pérec, who was born at Basse-Terre in Guadeloupe, showed the influence of the growing African/Caribbean community in continental Western Europe by winning the 400m in 48.83sec in Barcelona for France. She was back in Atlanta to win both the 200m in 22.12sec and the 400m in 48.25sec, and may well have won a third consecutive 400m gold medal in Sydney if she had not pulled out before the competition started, citing harassment by the Australian media.
Fiona May won the long-jump silver medal in Atlanta and Sydney, representing Italy. She was born to Jamaican parents in Slough, England, and had competed for Great Britain before adopting her husband’s nationality.
The track is always giving us new stars. The successes of Michael Johnson (USA), winner of gold medals in the 4 x 400m in Barcelona, the 200m and 400m in Atlanta, and the 400m in Sydney – and now as outstanding a commentator as he was an athlete – and the incomparable Usain Bolt, have done much to dampen the stench of scandal. Even so, the clash between Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis in Seoul in 1988, the conditions surrounding it, the aftermath, and the implications, continue to cast their shadow.