Seoul 1988 was ‘my’ Olympics. Born in 1980, I was too young to appreciate the LA Olympics in 1984, but I got caught up in the buzz of Seoul. I even remember trying to persuade my parents to buy me a toy of the official mascot, Hodori the tiger (I failed).
The crowning event of that Olympics was always going to be the 100m final, with the two great rivals Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson going head to head to settle once and for all who was the best in the world. Lewis had dominated the 100m for years, but in the year leading up to the Olympics, Johnson had completely owned the event, taking Lewis’ world title in 1987 and setting new world records on the way to the summer of 1988.
The outcome and fallout from the 1988 final is well known, but Richard Moore’s pacy account shows how little most of us know about what took place. Moore has interviewed all 8 of the men who ran in that race. What makes the book particularly gripping is how open Ben Johnson is about his career and use of illegal drugs, and the entire underworld operation required to run a successful doping programme.
Johnson is frank about what he did, and comes across mostly sympathetically as the figurehead for practices that were widespread in athletics at the time. 6 of the finalists in 1988 were subsequently found guilty of, or implicated in, doping offences. There are fascinating hints of a conspiracy at work. For one thing, you learn from this book that Johnson should never have been caught. Steroids improve performance by allowing the athlete to recover much more quickly from intense sessions and train twice as hard. Unlike EPO, as favoured by Lance Armstrong, steroids don’t actually help in the race itself, so steroid users typically stop taking them weeks before they race, so that they can flush them out of their system to avoid detection. Johnson is therefore convinced that his drink was spiked by the Lewis team, and there is certainly a mysterious character in Johnson’s dressing room whose presence is difficult to explain.
Lewis himself is the most elusive character in the book, and Moore struggles to track him down. The book reminds you what a formidable athlete he was in his prime, winning gold in four different Olympic events, including the long jump. However, there are strong hints that Lewis himself used performance enhancing drugs, and at least two known cases where he was found positive for an unnamed substance, but was subsequently let off with a warning. The reader’s view of Lewis is inevitably prejudiced by the fact that he was clearly unpleasantly arrogant at the time, although Moore highlights the devastating loss of his father and persistent press rumours about his sexuality as mitigating factors for Lewis’ aloofness.
Ultimately we are left to judge whether Johnson is right to say to Lewis “I beat you fair and square. You only beat me in the doping room”. However, the incidental details in the book include some hilarious nuggets for future pub quizzes:
Linford Christie is far, far grumpier than I remember from the ‘tunnel vision’ hero of my childhood. He was also already a grandad at the age of 36, which might have something to do with it.
Carl Lewis actually felt his true calling lay outside athletics, and thought his eventual success would come in acting or singing. His attempts to break into the music industry in the 1980s are on YouTube – you owe it to yourself to watch his hit song ‘Break it Up’.
Ben Johnson was a prodigious drinker. 24 hours before the heats (48 hours before the final) Johnson went out on a date with a 400m runner and was knocking back champagne. Even more astonishingly, immediately after his victory in the final, Johnson had 8 – yes, eight! – beers.
To me, that’s the key message of the book. However much we know he is a dirty, dirty cheat who did not deserve his medal, we can still respect a man who values the importance of a post-race pint.