The dirtiest race in sports: The day we learned about doping

Boredom Spieth

It’s a day that will live in infamy in the sporting world in general and the world of Olympic sport in particular, the men’s 100 meter final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics that brought the issue of doping to the fore.

Seemingly, Ben Johnson of Canada shattered the world record, crossing the finish line in a blazing 9.79 seconds. The United States’ Carl Lewis, a bitter foe of Johnson’s, finished second. But when Johnson tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol in a post-race screen, he was stripped of his medal. The gold was then passed to Lewis.

Britain’s Linford Christie was bumped into the silver position after Johnson’s DQ, but he too tested positive for steroids. Calvin Smith of the United States finished third. Sadly, it’s not the first time the fans have been let down.

Here are 9 times our sports heroes disappointed us:

Amazingly, five of the eight sprinters in 100 meter final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, a race in which four of the eight runners broke the 10-second barrier.

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But perhaps most troubling of all, Carl Lewis, who presented himself as the “clean” hero to Johnson’s drug-taking villain, also should have been disqualified.

“In the old Westerns they had the guy in the white hat and the black hat.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.”

Carl Lewis

More to the point, Lewis never should have been allowed to run.

In 2003, reports revealed the self-righteous Lewis failed a trio of drug tests for stimulants during the 1988 Olympic Trials. But instead of earning him a ban, the U.S. Olympic committee results swept the results under the rug when Lewis claimed he had taken an herbal supplement he didn’t know contained banned ingredients.

At an inquiry following the Olympics, and echoing the sentiment in the world of track and field at the time, Charlie Francis, Ben Johnson’s coach, said:

“Steroids could not replace talent, or training, or a well-planned competitive program. They could not transform a plodder into a champion. But they had become an essential ingredient within a complex recipe.”

Charlie Francis

Returning to the point about Lewis and his hasty clearance, 20 athletes tested positive for performance enhancing drugs but were given the green light by the IOC, according to a 2013 CBC radio documentary (“Ben Johnson: A Hero Disgraced”). Further, an IOC official said endocrine profiles at the games suggested more than 80 percent of track and field athletes displayed evidence of long-term steroid use.

In other words, the full scope of the competition that showcased the so-called “dirtiest race in history” will never be known, but its legacy is far-reaching. For some, the Olympics are still an event conducted under suspicion to this day thanks to doping scandals like the 100 meter final.

It took 11 years for another runner to “cleanly” match Johnson’s 9.79. Maurice Green did so at the 1999 world championships in Athens.

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