The potential Olympic reinstatement of Russia by the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) from a suspension occasioned by the revelation of wholesale doping at the Sochi Olympics coincides uncomfortably with the 30th anniversary of the busting of Ben Johnson following the Olympic men’s 100 metres in Seoul. State sponsored doping meets free market enterprise doping, you might say.
For those who might quibble with the suggestion of an immoral equivalence, they are deluding themselves. The only difference is in scale and, in the case of Russia, as in East Germany of yesteryear, official collusion. Doping in western countries has an equally long and disgraceful history. The only difference is that in the west it has been freelance, that is, left to coaches, managers, sponsors, and the athletes themselves; not forgetting the occasional blind-eye turned by local/national federations.
The old East-West axis (the Olympic Games as surrogate Cold War battlefield) which disappeared temporarily with the fall of the Berlin Wall has returned with a vengeance. And with it, the concept of realpolitik, which basically means compromise based on practicalities rather than moral or ideological considerations. We may not like it any more than we like Brexit or the election of Donald Trump. At least, they were democratic processes. But compromise is how politics works. It’s also a reminder that the belief that politics should have no part in sport has always been a fantasy.
WADA has been widely criticised for compromising, but as the former (often outspoken) first president of the international anti-doping body, Dick Pound pointed out yesterday, “The issue of access to the (Moscow anti-doping) lab is the key and it had been dragging on for years while the Russians conducted this criminal investigation – well, that was their excuse… WADA said ‘that’s got to stop, we need to put a stake in the ground’ and that is what we have now with this 31 December deadline (for handing over data from the lab). I think we are in a much better position to follow through with these cases now. We have a timeline, backed up by an automatic sanction.”
Whether that timeline will be respected and/or another sanction applied is another matter; we can only wait and see. But, rather like international banks getting away with stricter sanctions (and arrests), following the crash which they precipitated in 2008, because ‘they were too big to fail,’ the over-riding impression is that Russia is too big to exclude from the Olympic movement for any longer. That doesn’t give much succour to the vast majority in Olympic sport who play by the rules. And credit to the IAAF, whose immediate reaction to the WADA decision to let the Bear off the chain was that its own strict conditions still apply, and will have to be discussed at the next council meeting in December, before anything else happens in athletics.
Whatever the case, the increasing regularity with which drug busts have been announced elsewhere in the world throughout the last three decades suggests that we still have a long way to go. The scourge did not begin with Ben Johnson; maybe it just seems that way. Because it remains an extraordinary event, which has marked athletics ever since.
It was thirty years ago today that Johnson won the Olympic 100 metres in Seoul. Three days later, he left Korea in disgrace, after the most infamous drugs bust in the history of organised sport. A team colleague of Johnson’s scrawled, ‘From Hero to Zero in 9.79sec’ on the walls of the Canadian quarters in the Olympic Village; and Canadian daily newspapers went from, ‘Ben Johnson, a National Treasure,’ to ‘Thanks a Lot; You Bastard’.
In the decade or so prior to Seoul, athletics had grown in importance and publicity; partly due to the mess that the principal world sport, football/soccer had become enmeshed in – hooliganism, crowd violence and stadium deaths, rendering it a no-go zone for women and the children of worried parents; but partly due to the extraordinary rivalry between the British middle distance stars, Seb Coe and Steve Ovett in that most accessible and newsworthy event – the Mile.
Athletics, the principal Olympic sport was, for those worried parents a ‘safe’ pursuit; it remains a sport, watched equally by women and men, and the same numerical equality will doubtless soon apply to competitors too. And here were Coe and Ovett, heroes as distinct as Apollo and Dionisus – the ‘goodie’ and the ‘baddie’ – who swapped world records with headline writing regularity. They were accompanied by a strong supporting cast, who provided the best imaginable warm-up acts – Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, Saïd Aouita, Ben Johnson, Butch Reynolds, Evelyn Ashford, the emerging Kenyans and Ethiopians, and the East German and Russian women; and dozens more – elevating the atmosphere on the circuit of meetings, which appealed equally for being in exotic places like Rome, Paris, Nice, Berlin, Oslo, Zurich, Brussels. International television bought into it big-time, the rest of the media followed.
When the Coe-Ovett rivalry began to wane in the mid-80s, the baton was taken up by Lewis and Johnson. The contrast was even starker than that which defined the British pair. Lewis’ elegant sprinting and jumping talent was matched only by his inaccessibility, a trait which was quickly determined as arrogance. Johnson, in contrast, was a bull of a man who equally said little, but in his case that was because he had a pronounced stutter. It was easy to classify the pair as the matador and the raging bull. Among their peers, the down-home blunt instrument, Johnson was far better liked than elusive Lewis. Similarly, while the public admired Lewis’ talent and competitiveness, he was too remote to like. So when, in 1987, Lewis began to be matched then beaten by Johnson, there was no small satisfaction, tempered only by the increasing suspicion that the Michelin-man frame and yellow eyes betrayed Benjo’s increasing steroid use.
From losing his first eight races against Lewis in the early 1980s, Johnson then won four in succession, culminating with his first major title, and world record, at the IAAF World Championships in Rome 1987, Expectation began to wind up towards the Olympic Games the following year. Lewis came back in style, and seemed to take a big advantage by relegating Johnson to third in the last big pre-Olympic meeting, the Grand Prix in Zurich. Johnson disappeared back across the Atlantic, to try and salvage his Olympic dream (by any means possible, as it turned out).
By the time Seoul rolled around the excitement, as with Coe and Ovett in Moscow, was palpable. And the build-up could not have been better. It looked like Lewis had the edge throughout the rounds, the more so since Johnson only got through the quarter-finals as a fastest loser. And in the semi-finals, Lewis was again faster; except for one, overlooked factor. He won with a tailwind while Johnson won into a headwind.
As you know, in the final, Johnson burst from the blocks like that raging bull intent on ripping the matador apart; which he duly did, in 9.79sec. He had three days to enjoy his gold, his success and his fame and adulation, and then it all fell apart. And he was on a plane back to Toronto, to widespread vilification and a lifetime of disapproval.
The biggest problem for this writer is that the Olympic men’s 100 metres in Seoul remains one of my most indelible memories in 60 years of athletics.