The Dirtiest Race

For my honour diploma project in high school I covered the topic of performance enhancing drug abuse in Track and Field throughout the decades, and the main focus of my paper centered on the 1988 100m finals in Seoul South Korea. I was fascinated by this race, the history leading up to it, the hype surrounding it, and in particular the athletes who were running it. Anyone who is into sports long enough will eventually hear about Ben Johnson, arguably one of the highest profile drug cheats in all of sport. And anyone who hears about Johnson is likely to hear about Carl Lewis, since they had one of the biggest rivalries in track and field. I get the general sense from most people that I’ve talked to who are familiar with the race that it was just a simple dichotomy: the drug cheat Johnson vs the honest Lewis.

As I researched the race more and more I began to understand that there was nothing so black and white about this race as cheater vs clean athletes. The fact that of the eight athletes in the final five would yield positive drug tests at some point in their career. Lewis, who I’ve never been particularly fond of, had tested positive for a number of drugs, including pseudoephedrine, ephedrine and phenomenological, but had been cleared by the USOC to run. I had always found this to be a little too sketchy to simply shrug off as unimportant. I was devastated when Linford Christie (England) and Ray Stewart (Jamaica) yielded positive results, as I’d always admired them as athletes.

A big part of the information I used for my project came from watching the documentary film 9.79* which was mentioned in class, and I highly recommend watching it. It really gives perspective past the general facade of just “Johnson is a big cheat”. The film gives great insight into the rampancy of drug use, the dodgy way that some drug testing facilities operated, and also a human view to these athletes as it lets them speak their own words. After watching the film I even found Johnson to be a somewhat sympathetic character. The quiet spoken Canadian was a drug cheat its true, but I think it is a little unfair that he bears the brunt of so much criticism when possibly as much as 80% of the athletes at the time also used performance enhancing drugs. Lewis I find comes across as a spiteful individual, who is so concerned with elevating his own status that he has no qualms in putting down others to do so, even though personally I find his own claim of being a clean athlete to be very suspect, and that is also something that the movie addresses as well. I think anyone who loves track or sports history (as I do) should definitely give the movie a watch.

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1 Response to The Dirtiest Race

  1. TinyTurtle says:

    I’m interested in watching the film, you really sold it. It’s amazing how many of the best in the world use illegal enhancements. I truly hope that the best ever (Usain Bolt, obviously) hasn’t used any, that would be epically disappointing.

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