Running back in time, John Mehaffey looks at the 'dirtiest race in the history' and substance abuse is still prevalent today.
100m final, Seoul 1988: Events that changed the soul of athletics
If anti-doping regulations had been strictly enforced, Calvin Smith, a gifted American sprinter with a distinctive upright style, would have left the 1988 Seoul Games as the Olympic 100 metres champion and world-record holder.
On the day that changed the face of the Olympics and his sport forever, Smith finished fourth behind Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and Linford Christie.
Today he is the only man among the first five finishers in Seoul untouched by a drugs scandal. “I should have been the gold medallist,” Smith has said of a race variously described as the dirtiest and most corrupt in history.
“Throughout the last five or 10 years of my career, I knew I was being denied the chance to show that I was the best clean runner,” he said. “I knew I was competing against athletes who were on drugs.”
Canadian Johnson was infamously hustled out of Seoul after testing positive for the steroid stanozolol following his victory in a world-record 9.79 seconds.
Lewis, who clocked 9.92, was promoted to the gold medal ahead of Britain’s Christie, who was awarded the silver in front of Smith. Lewis’s time was eventually recognised as the official world record when Johnson’s mark of 9.83, set at the 1987 Rome world championships, was also erased.
Johnson’s time in Rome was an astonishing tenth of a second faster than Smith’s then-world record of 9.93, set at altitude in 1983.
Smith won consecutive world 200m titles but never a global 100 gold. In the popular mythology of the time, Lewis, a glorious sprinter and long jumper who won four gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, was the clean-cut hero and Johnson a scowling villain. It was an image Lewis was keen to foster.
“In the old Westerns they had the guy in the white hat and the black hat,” Lewis said years later. “I felt like the clean guy going out and trying to win, I was the guy in the white hat, trying to beat this evil guy.”
Not everybody warmed to Lewis and his incessant self-promotion, coupled with a holier-than-thou attitude to drugs offenders.
The sceptics felt vindicated when it was revealed in 2003 that Lewis had failed three drugs tests for stimulants during the 1988 Olympic trials.
Under the rules of the time, he should have been banned from the Games, but the results were covered up by the United States Olympic Committee after it accepted his plea that he had innocently taken a herbal supplement.
Christie failed a test for the stimulant pseudoephedrine after the final, but was cleared on a split decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) medical commission when he argued that he had taken it inadvertently in ginseng tea.
If Lewis had been banned from the Games and Christie disqualified, Smith would have been next in line for the gold medal and his world record would have stood once Johnson’s times were scrubbed from the books.
The noise and furore at Seoul airport when Lewis and Johnson arrived for the Olympics resembled the frenzy associated with a world heavyweight prize fight featuring Muhammad Ali.
At the opening media conferences, Lewis was as articulate as always. Johnson, whose natural shyness was exacerbated by a stutter and an accent showing traces of both his native Jamaica and his adopted homeland, said little.
Johnson’s coach, the intense and ambitious Charlie Francis, was both fluent and relaxed while continuing to conceal an explosive back story which shocked the world when he revealed all to a Canadian government inquiry in the following year.
During the 1976 Montreal Games, Francis realised drugs were a vital ingredient in the East German success story, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, formerly secret documents showed he was right.
Francis also knew that drugs, which allowed athletes to train harder and longer, were only one element in a sophisticated programme, but at the elite level, as he explained to Johnson, a one per cent difference in performance meant a one-metre advantage in the 100 metres.
“Steroids could not replace talent, or training, or a well-planned competitive programme,” Francis said. “They could not transform a plodder into a champion. But they had become an essential ingredient within a complex recipe.”
In Seoul, there were those who thought a bigger cheat than Johnson had gone unscathed.
Florence Griffith-Joyner, who died 10 years after the Games at the age of 38, had been a glamorous and successful sprinter in the years leading up to Seoul, but had always finished among the minor medals.
In 1988, her physique noticeably altered and her voice deepened, both signs of possible steroid abuse. “She sounds like Louis Armstrong,” exclaimed one journalist at her news conference in Seoul.
Of more enduring significance were the times she set in that unreal year.
No woman, even 2000 Sydney Olympics triple champion Marion Jones, who eventually confessed to years of systematic doping, has even come close to Griffith-Joyner’s times of 10.49 and 21.34 seconds for the 100 and 200m, respectively.
Griffith-Joyner announced her retirement in 1989, the year mandatory random drugs test were introduced. Eleven women’s world records in Olympic events remain unchanged since the 1980s.
Since Seoul, athletics, in general, and the sprints, in particular, have been battered by drugs scandals and the central sport of the Olympic Games has suffered increasingly in credibility as a result.
At the 2004 Athens Games, Justin Gatlin won the 100-200m double for the US after serving a one-year ban following a positive test for amphetamines. The sentence had been halved when the world governing body accepted he had taken a prescribed medicine for attention-deficit disorder.
Two years later, he again tested positive, this time for excessive levels of the male hormone testosterone, and was banned for eight years, later reduced to four.
Gatlin worked with Trevor Graham, the coach who initiated a drugs scandal equivalent to the Johnson furore when he sent a syringe containing an undetectable steroid called THG to the US Anti-Doping Agency.
A test was quickly devised for the drug, manufactured by the Balco laboratory in California. A number of prominent athletes in track and field and baseball were implicated, including Britain’s European 100m champion, Dwain Chambers.
Jones, who won three gold medals in Sydney after announcing she wanted to go one better than Lewis and Jesse Owens by winning five titles, was the biggest victim of the Balco scandal.
The International Association of Athletics Federations has consistently uncovered drugs cheats over the 25 years since Seoul.
However, the positive tests keep coming and this year has been a bad one for track and field.
Former 100m world-record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica and former world champion Tyson Gay of the US both missed last month’s Moscow world championships after positive drugs tests which were revealed on the same day.
The two-times Olympic 200m gold medallist Veronica Campbell-Brown was suspended by the Jamaica federation after a positive test for a banned diuretic.
Officials said a dozen athletes had been sanctioned after positive drugs tests in the past five years.
Johnson, now an anti-doping campaigner, accepts that his decision to take drugs ruined his life.
He said recently that athletes “are still testing positive week after week, still making the same mistakes I made. Athletes’ perceptions need to change. The system needs to change.”