Dirtiest Race in HistoryBOOK REVIEW:

THE DIRTIEST RACE IN HISTORY: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 Olympic 100m Final

By Richard Moore

Wisden Sports Writing

7 June 2012

£18.99 Hardback/eBook

Richard Moore’s first book, ‘In Search of Robert Millar’, won the best biography category at the 2008 British Sports Book Awards.

His next three were all on the subject of cycling, so this first foray into athletics is intended to coincide with the men’s 100m final in London, always one of the most eagerly awaited Olympic events. Can it really be 24 years since Ben Johnson rocked the sporting world on its axis twice in the space of three days – first with a jet-propelled 9.79 sprint and then by testing positive for Stanozolol and being stripped of the title and medal?

Johnson himself has contributed freely to the writing of this excellent book and, while admitting the use of various drugs at different stages of his career, vehemently defends himself against the presence of Stanozolol in his system at the Games, with the finger being pointed at a Lewis acolyte who was passing Big Ben (eight) cans of beer in the doping-control room in those easier-access testing days. There’s still a film in all of this, you know. 

Many of the characters at the heart of the drama have since died, including Johnson’s coach Charlie Francis, all the members of the doping panel and IAAF President Primo Nebiolo, but not the mystery man with the Budweisers. He has gone on to become an African-based diamond entrepreneur and offers no admission or denial of his role in the most famous dope test of all time.

The ‘Where Are They Now’ section of the book concludes that just two of the eight finalists from one of track and field’s darkest days went through their careers untainted by drugs: Calvin Smith (whose son, of the same name, was a semi-finalist at 400m in the recent US Olympic Trials) and Robson da Silva of Brazil.

There is also an interesting cameo from former UK 400m record holder David Jenkins who shocked British athletics when he was jailed for steroid trafficking on a very large scale in the 1980s.

The book follows the two main protagonists through the years leading up to the South Korean denouement, from the days when Carl Lewis was 8-0 ahead in races against Johnson. Along the way, we meet some of the people who were calling the shots, including Lewis’s central casting manager Joe Douglas and some of the people they upset, including the USA sprint relay head coach.

With the passing years, some elements of the story might be expected to become sepia-tinged and faded but this is a painstakingly-researched and vivid account. Johnson, we learn, was asleep in suite 2718 of the Hilton Hotel in Seoul, when Charlie Francis received the news of the positive test. He was left to sleep on and it was Francis who drove to the laboratory to meet the testers, seemingly neither ashamed nor alarmed at his part in the breaking of the biggest-ever Olympic scandal. In his eyes, it was an unfathomable fail in the chemistry experiment that he had been conducting on an athletics Frankenstein over a five year term.

There is no real redemption for either of the main players in the years that follow. Lewis continues to cast about for a role in sport and life. Johnson failed drugs test twice more and now coaches young athletes in Toronto. He takes pleasure in the news that his nemesis is struggling with arthritis. The enmity continues.

The 1988 Olympic 100 metres was not the finest hour for athletics but this is one of the sport’s finest books. Read it. You know the outcome but we all need to know why and how it happened and whether we should ever be prepared for such a shock again. A real page-turner.