THE DIRTIEST RACE IN HISTORY: BEN JOHNSON, CARL LEWIS AND THE 1988 OLYMPIC 100M FINAL
By Richard Moore
THE SECRET OLYMPIAN
THE Olympic men's 100 metres final is the rarest of moments, and this is no hyperbole for it is scarcely more than an iota of time. Sitting trackside it seems that you are at the centre of the world - a feeling never really replicated anywhere else. That every eyeball on Earth is fixed on the here and now, on this very place, for somewhere approximating 9½ seconds. From those seconds legends will be born, villainies forged and rivalries bitterly seen off.
Those nine or so seconds during the 1988 Seoul Olympic men's 100m final form the subject matter for Richard Moore's The Dirtiest Race in History, a race in which the avowedly anti-drugs American Carl Lewis took on the world and - it seemed at the time - the world of chemistry. Rumours swirled about many in the sport, led (in a position to which he was becoming accustomed) by Canadian Ben Johnson.
Johnson was the newcomer, having unleashed a string of muscular, brutal victories in the preceding months - many of them over the previously dominant Lewis. The American, a global superstar, had starred four years earlier in Los Angeles, earning four gold medals, comparisons to Jesse Owens and a portfolio of blue-chip endorsement deals. He had also become an increasingly strident critic of what was a growing but nascent problem - drugs in sport.
Herein begins a series of contradictions that Moore teases out and from which detailed, flawed and very human pictures emerge of both men: Lewis the aloof celebrity athlete who for some reason never won over the press corp or his fellow runners; Johnson the challenger about whom many in the sport professed extreme scepticism but cheered for anyway, such was their distaste for Lewis.
The American was urbane, fashionably dressed, articulate but obsessively private. Johnson was portrayed as brutish, muscle-bound, disadvantaged and unintelligent. Under Moore's spotlight both sketches are rendered unfair and inadequate.
The two came to detest each other and their rivalry was mammoth. The lead-up was long and draining but Seoul was the denouement; scandal the only winner.
Moore delves into and successfully re-creates a milieu in which doping was both open secret and infantile science, still emerging and yet trailed miserably by the even-more-infantile science of detection. Rumours flew - some real, some ridiculous - and the very integrity and future of the games themselves seemed in question.
It is also a world expertly rendered in this fascinating tale, of mysterious middle-men, unscrupulous doctors and maniacal coaches driving their prized athletes to the brink and beyond.
The blue- ribbon event in Seoul was one of sport's biggest scandals and Moore peels away the layers to it with expert, forensic skill. Johnson crossed the finish line, arm famously aloft. Then he tested positive for steroids. The Canadian does not deny taking them and yet claims he was set up by the Lewis camp. Moore examines these claims and finds some striking, if not entirely convincing, evidence.
Either way, history also recalls that six of the eight finalists in that race eventually tested positive during their careers (including Lewis himself, who had done so at the Olympic trials months before and had the result covered up). Thus emerges the book's title, its sympathy for the devil (in the form of Canada's fallen star) and, most interestingly of all, its examination of the historical context and moral ambiguity of a time when men and women took hideous risks with their bodies in pursuit of sporting glory.
Early in this tale we are told the young Lewis and Johnson gravitated away from team sports towards running because athletics was devoid of the politics and relationships team sports required. It offered self-sufficiency and certainty - the best would always win. How sad, then, that both men ended up in a time when this became inverted. Drugs meant the best might not be enough; drugs brought fear and that fear led to temptation. Moore depicts Seoul as the moment the Olympics passed a liminal point, tipping entirely into a carnival of big-time sponsorship, corporate entertainment and media spectacle and abandoning the fading vestiges of the amateur sporting contest it had once professed to be.
From this meticulously researched reconstruction it is a (Lewis-like) long jump to the strange confluence of publishing trends that has produced the anonymously penned The Secret Olympian.
Presenting itself as a tell-all, authorless account of what really goes on behind the scenes at every Games, this book hints at tales of excess in the Olympic Village; of sex, drugs and gymnastic rolls.
This could have been a good idea, and must have sounded like one at the pitch meeting. Call it Fifty Shades of Gold or The Bronze Stripped Bare, perhaps?
But as anyone who has ever covered elite sport - specifically individual sports such as track and field and swimming - will attest, these people are for the most part boring.
They live monastic lives, rise early, train hard and eat sensibly, they forsake fun in pursuit of victory. Aside from those few minutes or moments as they compete for precious metal, their lives - for the most part - lie on the dullish side of prosaic.
The secret Olympian, basing his story on a mixture of his own Athens experiences and interviews with other athletes, explores the lead-up to an event, the hours of training, the psychology of fear and confidence and the goings on inside the village (they get free energy drinks, there's a giant McDonald's, athletes trade team uniform items, there's a lot of sunbathing).
And so, what emerges is a strange book, informative without ever being captivating, well-written certainly - The Secret Olympian clearly has a brain and an excellent Oxbridge education (limp internet speculation pins him as a rower, which seems a decent stab). There's a whole section on sex in the village containing, basically, no sex in the village. There is reference to wild parties but description of ones that appear decidedly tame.
In the end this book sets out to unmask the Olympic experience for a general audience but probably achieves the opposite. Its chief appeal must surely be for aspiring athletes and those who wish to pursue such a life; the information it holds will be manna for them, hungry as they are for minute detail about how the sporting elite conduct their disciplined lives.
For the rest of us - however nicely told - it is decidedly less interesting than turning the telly on and just watching the Games.
Even if you do it for only 9½ seconds.
■Dan Silkstone covered the Beijing Olympics for The Age.