Saturday 10 December 2016

No winners from dirtiest race of all

Ger Gilroy

Published 01/06/2016 | 02:30

Ben Johnson (left) crosses the finishing line first in the men’s 100m final at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, ahead of Carl Lewis (far right), Linford Christie (second right) and Calvin Smith, who was never linked to any doping controversy. Photo: Getty
Ben Johnson (left) crosses the finishing line first in the men’s 100m final at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, ahead of Carl Lewis (far right), Linford Christie (second right) and Calvin Smith, who was never linked to any doping controversy. Photo: Getty

Ben Johnson elicits a visceral response from people when you ask about him. He's a cheat. Cheater. That's it. It's not nuanced. It's not complicated. This is particularly true of anyone who remembers the 100 metres in Seoul and the way the news broke later that he'd tested positive.

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They felt cheated. This amazing thing they watched and marvelled at, felt exhilarated by, was literally unbelievable. That's at the core of the strong feelings, plus he was the first. This guy shattered our childhood dreams and must pay some price.

That is understandable and most people don't really think about this stuff for particularly long. Sport was supposed to be a safe place where we could take sides and have a good guy and a bad guy and depending on our mood we'd root for the good guy or secretly hope the bad guy would stick it to the goody-two-shoes.

The notion that the races weren't trustworthy makes this impossible. What if there are no good guys?

Johnson was part of our Saturday Panel on Off the Ball last week and at various stages contradicted himself about whether or not he'd dope again. If it was his destiny he'd do it again he said but equally he'd probably think twice if he knew what the outcome would be.

For him it was a simple equation - the game is rigged and he wanted to do his best and go home. Doing his best meant taking whatever he could to run fast. He told us that he'd failed a test in 1986 and that it had been covered up.

To him, it was cheating to level the playing field. This is still morally repugnant to most people, especially if you're considering Johnson as an individual. The documentary '9.79' about that race in Seoul changed my perception on all this.

It alleges that the sport was already corrupted, that in the context of the proxy Cold War being fought out between the USA and the East (both East Germany and Russia), doping wasn't just rife, it was systemic on both sides. Johnson's coach looked at this and thought he'd get his athletes in the game. So he doped and won.

A Canadian radio documentary alleges that the TV companies threatened to refuse to pay their rights fee - tens of millions of dollars in the 1980s - if there was a scandal.

The IOC and the US Olympic committee didn't want a scandal either. People were running faster, jumping further and doing it more often. Everyone was getting rich. Johnson played his part in raising millions for everyone while doing the same things as everyone else. In that context the entire sport is repugnant, not just the individual.

That story is complicated. It's sounds like self-justification, especially if you have a tin ear and decided years ago that Carl Lewis was a clean-cut hero. Lewis shouldn't have been running in Seoul having failed tests at the US Olympic trials.

Sport, like life, is complicated. I don't think Ben Johnson is a hero but it turns out he might not be the villain either. GG

Irish Independent

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