Seoul airport was engulfed by frenzied camera crews, fans and private security personnel to mark the arrivals of Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson for the 1988 Olympics. Comparisons with the hype and hoopla accompanying Muhammad Ali’s arrival in various foreign capitals to defend his world heavyweight title in the two previous decades were inevitable. The boxing analogy was also appropriate for a race between the stylish Lewis and the muscular Canadian, who possessed the physique of a champion prize fighter.
Lewis and Johnson were front-page news throughout 1988 and the 100 metres final between the American, who had equalled Jesse Owens’s record by capturing four gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and his challenger was unquestionably the event of the Olympics.
Johnson’s bulging muscles, as the world was to learn during the course of a Canadian judicial inquiry in the following year, were the result of years of systematic drug use for a variety of prohibited substances.
His disqualification following a positive test for an anabolic steroid after he beat Lewis in the final was a seismic shock to the premier sport of the Olympic Games.
The sport has never fully recovered from the greatest scandal to hit the Games and suspicion and doubt have accompanied the men’s 100 metres since that dark day in South Korea 24 years ago.
The Svengali behind Johnson’s rise and fall was a talented, obsessive Canadian coach, the late Charlie Francis.
During the 1976 Montreal Games, Francis realised drugs were an important factor in the East German success story. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, documentary evidence showed the coach was correct.
Francis also maintained that drugs, although an essential part of any elite sprinter’s regime in that they allowed athletes to train harder and longer, were only one element.
“Steroids could not replace talent, or training, or a well-planned competitive programme,” he said.
“They could not transform a plodder into a champion. But they had become an essential ingredient within a complex recipe.”
Francis’s words still resonate today and the continued stream of positive drug tests across a variety of sports requiring either explosive speed or strength shows his successors share his beliefs.
Evidence given to Canada’s 1988 Dubin Commission by Francis and Johnson revealed just how widespread doping had been. The aftermath of the infamous Seoul race was just as chilling.
Lewis, who inherited Johnson’s gold medal, had tested positive for three banned stimulants at the 1988 U.S. trials, findings that were not revealed until 2003. The U.S. Olympic Committee ruled the use of drugs had been inadvertent.
One of the stimulants was pseudoephredrine, for which another Jamaican-born sprinter, Britain’s 1992 Olympic champion Linford Christie, also tested positive in Seoul. The International Olympic Commitee’s (IOC) medical commission decided on a split vote that the amount was too small to warrant a punishment.
In all, six athletes in the Seoul final, including Johnson’s team mate Desai Williams, have been tainted by drug scandals.
At the age of 32, Briton Christie became the oldest man to win the 100 gold at the Barcelona Olympics and at one stage held the Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth titles. He was disqualified for false starting twice in the 100 final at the 1996 Atlanta Games and in 1999, while in semi-retirement, he tested positive for the steroid nandrolone, a finding he has vehemently rejected.
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Justin Gatlin won the 100-200 double for the United States. Gatlin had already served a one-year ban after testing positive for amphetimines, a sentence halved when the world governing body ruled it had been the result of a prescription medicine for attention deficit disorder.
Two years later he again tested positive, this time for excessive levels of the male sex hormone testosterone, and was banned for eight years, later reduced to four. Gatlin finished first in the U.S. trials this year and will be competing in the London Games.
Gatlin worked with Trevor Graham, the coach who sparked a drugs scandal which dwarfed anything that had gone before when he sent a syringe containing an undetectable steroid called THG to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
A test was quickly devised for the drug manufactured by the BALCO laboratory in California and a number of prominent athletes in track and field and baseball were implicated, including Britain’s Dwain Chambers who will also be competing in London after serving a two-year ban.
Marion Jones, who won three gold medals at the 2000 Sydney Games after announcing she wanted to go one better than Owens and Lewis by winning five golds, was the biggest victim of the BALCO scandal. After years of denial she finally confessed she had been on a drugs regime similar but more sophisticated than Johnson’s.
As in Seoul, the London Olympics 100 final is shaping up as the battle of the Games, with defending champion and world record holder Usain Bolt and his world champion team mate Yohan Blake plus Americans Tyson Gay and Gatlin in the field.
The IOC and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) will not be the only people anxiously awaiting the results of the dope tests for this and the other major track and field events.
Another scandal of the magnitude of the Johnson affair would destroy the sport’s remaining credibility.