It was dubbed ‘The Dirtiest Race in History’. The Olympic 100m final in Seoul 1988. Canadian Ben Johnson crossed the line first that September day, but he would become the sport’s most significant loser and five years later, on March 3rd 1993, he would be banned for life.
This tale is one of several moving parts, rather than just one man’s illegal quest for glory. His fierce rivalry with American Carl Lewis no doubt pushed him further than was naturally conceivable, as close races between the two stoked the fire in the mid 1980s. There was Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier and Bjorn Borg vs John McEnroe in the 1970s, but in the following decade Lewis vs Johnson took centre stage in the sporting world.
Contrary to popular belief, Lewis was unloved by most Americans. He won four golds at LA 1984, matching Jesse Owens, but was not picked up by any of the major sponsors. Sports Illustrated called him “vain, shallow and self-absorbed" ahead of the Games while there are even reference to him being called a “flying faggot” by other sections of the American media.
All of this meant that Lewis was forced to compete in European meetings from a financial point of view, which set up several meetings with Olympic bronze medalist Johnson, who was also out to earn some cash. The American was the man to beat, but then in Zurich in 1985 - Johnson did beat him for the first time.
Then he beat him again, and again, and again, beating him by just 0.01 of a second in Seville, 1987. As you can expect, that didn’t go down well with the American, who desperately celebrated like a boxer trying to sway a judge's decision at the final bell as the pair had to be separated after the race.
Johnson then stolen his world record and his world title in Rome and something seemed to snap something in Lewis’ mindset. He’d had enough. "A lot of people have come out of nowhere and are running unbelievably, and I just don't think they're doing it without drugs," Lewis said on ITV. "If I were taking drugs, I could do a 9.80 right away-just like him."
Obviously it wasn’t just Lewis that drove Johnson to cheat his way to gold. Coach Charlie Francis was with him for 11 years and pushed him to succeed at all costs while Doctor "Jamie" Astaphan was the man that gave him the steroids. Those two shared a fractious relationship throughout the build up to the Games, but Johnson made it to the starting line undetected.
And so it all came down to those 9.79 seconds in Seoul. It was a dirty starting line-up as the athletes sat in their blocks. Lewis himself had failed a drugs test at the US trials, a result that would have got him kicked off the Olympic team, but the Americans cleared him on appeal.
Johnson got a flying start, driving out of the blocks, and the rest of the field could not stay with him. Lewis flapped and floundered, even coming out of his lane on his way to a second-placed finish. He was bemused to what had unfolded, as Johnson wheeled away in celebration.
72 hours later, he was stripped of his Olympic title after a positive urine test, and became the sport's greatest villain. "I can't lose something I never owned," Johnson said in acceptance, after being caught for his discrepancies.
But this wasn’t what earned him a lifetime ban. In fact, he appeared at another Olympic Games in 1992 but finished last in his semi-final after stumbling in the blocks. The following year would be his last competitive one on the track, as he was found guilty of excessive testosterone as he closed in on the 50m indoor world record.
This gave Johnson a lifetime ban from competitive athletics and he hasn’t raced since. In 1999, he posted a time against the clock for an Ontario meet, but failed another drugs test. Disgraced and dishonoured - Johnson cheated his way to the very top, and then the pillars of sand collapsed underneath his feet.
Read Richard Moore’s The Dirtiest Race in History, to know more about the 1988 Olympic final.