Remembering the Day That Rocked the World

by John Furgele

Friday, September 24, 1988.  The field is in the blocks for the 100 meter final at the 24th Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.  Carl Lewis has an inside lane, with Ben Johnson out to his right.  One year earlier, at the World Track and Field Championships, Johnson ran 9.83, which beat Lewis’s 9.93.  The stage was set. 

Lewis was the American Golden Boy.  In 1984, he equaled Jesse Owens’ feat of winning the 100, 200, Long Jump and 4 x 100 meter relay.  But, for many reasons, Lewis had failed to capitalize commercially on his feat.  Maybe the American public didn’t like the fact that he passed on several jumps and decided it was better to rest than pursue Bob Beamon’s world record in the long jump.  Maybe it was because he was so arrogant and cocky.  Maybe it was because there were whispers of his sexuality, and when he was once asked by Roy Firestone, he replied that “he had his own personal friends.”  Remember, this was 1984, long before rights for same sex couples and the like.  In addition, every time Lewis lost a race to Johnson, who had won the bronze at the 1984 games, he hinted that his conquerer might be taking more than vitamins and Gatorade. 

The runners were in their blocks.  The late Charlie Jones was behind the mike as the track and field announcer for NBC.  I was a 20 year college sophomore, and like many of my contemporaries, was waiting with great anticipation for this race.  Even my father, never a big fan of track and field, was home waiting for the gun. 

The gun.  As usual, Lewis got off to a slow start, though, not as slowly as normal, but this race was no contest.  Johnson surged and powered to line, winning the most coveted title in the Olympic Games.  His time was 9.79 seconds, a new world record.  The most amazing part was that Johnson shut it down at 90 meters, looked to his left to find Lewis, raised his index finger and STILL ran 9.79 seconds.  We recently saw Usain Bolt shut it down at about 80 meters and run 9.69 seconds, but for some reason, I found Johnson’s race more impressive.  Perhaps it’s because today’s tracks are harder and much more sprinter friendly than they were 20 years ago. 

The Mortimer Hall dorm at SUNY Brockport was buzzing as people howled in amazement at Johnson’s performance.  My phone rang.  I knew who it was before I answered and when I did it was my father, who was howling because he was rooting for Johnson, as was I.  I think Carl Lewis is the greatest Olympian of all-time, but for some reason, I never warmed up to him, and for some reason, I thought of Johnson as the underdog, and I almost always root for the underdog. 

Because I was a member of the track team, people came up to me and asked me what I thought about the 100 meter race.  I simply said it was the greatest performance that I had seen in my 20 years.  I remember Johnson jogging over to his supporters and seeing Carl Lewis jog over and offer a cold, congratulatory handshake.  When he was interviewed, Lewis didn’t offer much.  Sprinters never say things like, “the better man won,” or I have to “tip my cap.”  Sprinters don’t—and can’t—do that because even in defeat, they have to keep the bravado, they cannot break.  I could also tell that Lewis didn’t think Johnson’s performance was clean, but he bit his lip and took the silver. 

Fast forward to Monday, September 27, 1988.  Breaking news.  Ben Johnson had been stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for steroids and was sent home immediately.  Even the Canadian media, which beamed with pride on Friday, was now referring to Johnson as “the disgraced Jamaican sprinter.”  I remember how stunning the news was.  Now, Lewis was elevated to the Gold, but how hollow is it when you win by default?  It would be like seeing somebody win the United States Open tennis title because one of the players had to withdraw after winning the first set.  Personally, I would rather see the title be listed as vacated as a lesson for our youth.  But, the IOC says otherwise. 

Now, Lewis, who still was having difficulties marketing himself to the mainstream, had some validation.  He was always suspicious, but now, he had the proof.  Johnson was a cheat, and he was the purest and fastest sprinter in the world.  Now, people actually believed him. 

The Canadian Government formed the Dubin Inquiry, calling over 100 people to testify about doping in track and field.  Johnson claimed that somebody spiked his toothpaste, a charge nobody believed.  Eventually, his coach Charlie Francis admitted that he gave his athletes performance enhancing drugs and got them from a doctor based in St. Kitts.  Johnson broke down, admitted his use and received a ban from the sport.  Few people know that after his ban, he returned to competition and made the Canadian Olympic team in the 100 meters for the 1992 Barcelona Games.  He made it to the semifinals, but stumbled out of the blocks, and eased up, finishing his heat in 10.70 seconds. 

Unfortunately, Johnson’s positive test didn’t clean up the sport.  It did result in more out-of-competition testing and not showing up for a test is now considered a funked one.  The cheating has continued and in many ways, has ramped up as the cheaters try to stay ahead of the testers.  But, Johnson was the first and remains the only 100 meter champion to have his Gold medal taken away. 

It was a watershed moment, a transcending moment, and believe it or not, it happened 20 years ago today.


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