American great Carl Lewis stole the show at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, when he matched Jesse Owens’ achievement of winning four gold medals in the 100m, the 200m, the long jump and the 4x100m relay.
With the Soviet Union and its allies boycotting the Games, just as America and its allies had boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the record perhaps didn’t get the kind of respect it deserved but there was no doubting Lewis’ class – he was on top of the world and it looked like few could catch him.
But then suddenly, a rival made an appearance. In 1980, when he was still just another scrawny kid, Canada’s Ben Johnson raced Lewis for the first time. The event was the Junior PanAms in Sudbury, Ontario. Lewis won in 10.43 seconds; Johnson came sixth in 10.88.
Johnson, however, started getting better at a starling pace. His scrawny physique started putting on the kind of muscle that only bodybuilders possess and with that muscle came pace and a ton of wins.
In 1982, Johnson won a silver medal in the Commonwealth Games and in the 1984 Olympics, he prevented an American podium sweep and came home with bronze.
Good but not as good as King Carl. Johnson lost his first eight races against Lewis.
Still, the bronze medal gave Johnson hope. Richard Moore, in The Dirtiest Race in History, quoted Johnson as saying, “after L.A. I knew Carl was good, but I knew I could beat him. I knew it.”
Then, came the turning point. Johnson beat Lewis for the first time in Zurich in 1985 by 1-100th of a second. It was unexpected and it got the rumour mill going.
Many attributed Johnson’s superb improvement to his lightning-fast starts. He was out of the blocks and away before the others could even get their act together. That start would allow him to get into his peak stride faster and then pull away.
“In 1987 to ‘88, I won 25 finals against the best sprinters and that never happened today. Unbeatable,” Johnson told CNN in an interview in 2012.
The result of all that success was that at a race in Seville, Spain, in 1987, Johnson received a higher appearance fee than Lewis for the first time. Lewis didn’t like it. America didn’t like it. But there were also many who thought it was just Lewis being Lewis and America being America.
Lewis and Johnson didn’t get along either and the hype around the rivalry made the 100m dash at the 1988 Olympics the one race that everyone had their eye on.
The two sprinters duly reached the final of the event. It was an all-star field – Lewis, former world record holder Calvin Smith, future gold medalist Linford Christie and Johnson all made it a top-quality race.
Ben Johnson was the last man to settle into his blocks on September 24, 1988, and the first man out of them. Before the others knew it, the Canadian had opened up a huge gap and it kept getting wider and wider.
“Nobody,” Johnson recalls in the interview with CNN, “nobody could touch my start.”
By the end, the figures of Carl Lewis straining his every sinew and of Ben Johnson raising his arm almost nonchalantly at the finish line were a perfect contrast. But the thing that people noticed the most was the time: 9.79... faster than any other human over the distance. An Olympic record. A World record.
Four of the field broke the 10-second barrier. It had never happened in a race before. Calvin Smith finished third with a time of 9.99 seconds, the first time anyone had broken ten seconds and finished third.
But then the bomb dropped. Johnson’s urine tested positive for the banned steroid stanozolol and he became the first of six runners in that 100m final to be tainted by association with performance-enhancing drugs.
Only two of the eight runners remained clean throughout their careers: American sprinter Calvin Smith and the Brazilian Robson da Silva. The rest of them, including Lewis, had tested positive at some point or the other.
The biggest spectacle of the 1988 Olympics had also become its dirtiest.
Lewis gained a second gold medal in the 100m after Ben Johnson was disqualified for doping, successfully defended his long jump gold, and picked up a silver in the 200m. But no one quite remembers 1988 like 1984.
Johnson, to this day, insists that it isn’t cheating if everyone else is doing it too.
“You only cheat if no one else was doing it. I was aware of what other people were doing in the field. I just did it better than anyone else. It doesn’t make you a fast runner... It was my training regime that was better than the rest of the world,” Johnson later said.
Indeed, Johnson was better alright. Just not the ‘better’ the world wanted to see.
1988 Olympics men's 100m final
|Original silver medalist, awarded gold medal and world record after Johnson's disqualification.
|Set a British and European record.
|This was the first time anyone had broken ten seconds and finished third.
|Robson da Silva
|Pulled a hamstring after 55 meters.
|9.79 / NA
|Stripped of gold medal and world record after he tested positive for stanozolol.