100m Final – Seoul Olympics, 1988
There’s something special about those five interlinked rings. I can sit down in front of the TV when the Olympics is on and be entertained by any sport… all right, maybe not the synchronised swimming, but most everything else.
The Seoul Olympics in 1988 was the first time that I was old enough to watch live and understand what the hell was going on. The 100m final was the blue riband event and was always billed as Lewis the Olympic hero versus Johnson the world record holder – the other six guys could have stayed in the blocks for all the attention they were getting. I was a club-level runner back then and Carl Lewis was my favourite athlete, and I was ready to watch him retain the gold he had won four years earlier in Los Angeles.
And that’s just what he did. Well, kinda. Eventually.
As it played out, Canada’s Ben Johnson won in 9.79 seconds. That’s not blisteringly fast by today’s standards, but then it was a world record run, and my mate Carl trailed what felt like miles behind in 9.92 seconds.
I remember my disappointment as I was watching it, but – revisionist history of a bitter twelve year old fan or not – I also remember thinking something wasn’t quite right. As the race began Johnson was the only man to run the distance in under 9.9 seconds, and now here he was breaking 9.8 seconds. He flew down that track, and seemed to be picking up speed as he crossed the line.
Three days later, Johnson had his gold medal stripped and his record quashed after the most infamous drug scandal in the sport’s history, but even during that brief window between glory and castigation, it was becoming increasingly evident that Johnson had a devil sitting on his shoulder.
In some respects, the stigma of that race remains to this day, and track and field has never fully recovered; because for every Usain Bolt there’s a Justin Gatlin to remind everyone of the sport’s dark past.