Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson: The Dirtiest Race in History

Carl Lewis and ben johnson 2From: That 1980s Sports Blog

Richard Moore’s account of the 100m final at the 1988 Olympics is perfectly planned, painstakingly researched, and brilliantly told

When I started writing this blog eighteen months ago, there were numerous sporting events that immediately sprung to mind when I considered which topics to cover. One certainty was that at some point I would try my very best to research, investigate, and compose a piece about the 1988 Olympics Men’s 100 meters final in Seoul. And then I read The Dirtiest Race in History by Richard Moore and realized that, in comparison, my amateur efforts would struggle to qualify from the heats.

Moore’s book not only focuses on that race on September 24, 1988, which according to the author some still see as the greatest race in history. It digs deep down into the very soul of the two main leads in Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis, analyzing their backgrounds from boys to men, their rise to the top – and in Johnson’s case his fall – and charts a course in history through their compelling rivalry. Along the way we discover what made both men tick, and the key personnel involved in shaping the careers of the sprinting heavyweights of the 1980s.

Johnson’s route to the top was not particularly smooth. Moore recounts tales that even make you feel some sympathy for a man who would go on to cheat his way to gold medals, for example, the development of a stutter, which coincided with his mum moving to Canada. It would be a full four years before Johnson joined Gloria in Toronto, but his early years in Canada were hardly idyllic, with Johnson subjected to bullying at school. One particular bully was finally silenced by Johnson, after he challenged his tormentor to a race. Johnson won that battle, before meeting the man who would change his life forever.

The Dirtiest Race in Sports HIstory

The Dirtiest Race in Sports HIstory

Charlie Francis coached Johnson for eleven years. The book covers Francis’ time as a Canadian sprinter, his last place in the 1972 Olympic 100 metres quarter final, the eye-opening conversations he had with fellow athletes about the widespread use of drugs, and his conviction that, as a coach, his athletes were not going to be handicapped in the same way as he had been. The beauty of Moore’s book is the way he lays out the crucial pieces of the jigsaw, which results in us seeing the full picture before the defining moment in Seoul. Francis’ involvement in Johnson’s journey to the top is laid out before us, as is that of Doctor ‘Jamie’ Astaphan. They are an integral part of the saga, and Moore has left no stone unturned in this regard.

Francis approached Johnson in September 1981 about the issue of drugs. Initially Johnson was reluctant, but soon the sad mantra within athletics of “if you don’t take it, you won’t make it” seeped into his conscience. Johnson’s progression from scrawny kid to the muscle-bound figure we all grew aware of in the mid-eighties had begun. A silver medal in the 100m at the Commonwealth Games of 1982 was followed with a bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, a games in which Carl Lewis should have emerged from as America’s national hero. But as Moore explains, this certainly was not the case.

In my naivety, I had assumed that Lewis must have been adored by all Americans, especially during the LA Olympics. Moore’s investigation into Lewis and his relationship with the American press, team-mates and fans soon put me straight, however. The author describes an article in Sports Illustrated prior to the games which described Lewis as “vain, shallow and self-absorbed”; highlights the backlash to Lewis delaying his entry into the Olympic Stadium with Michael Jordan; how his absence from the Olympic Village further alienated Lewis from his team-mates; how Lewis was booed after only jumping once in the long jump final; and astonishingly, how some of the American press called Lewis the “Flying Faggot”, due to rumours about his sexuality.

Before the Olympics, Joe Douglas (Lewis’ manager) had predicted that Lewis would be as big as Michael Jackson. It was of course poppycock. Moore informs us that none of the big-hitters came in for Lewis, even though the American had emulated Jesse Owens’ achievement of four golds. No Coca-Cola, no Pepsi, McDonalds or American Express. If Lewis was to continue to pull money in, then he would need to do so through appearance fees at European meetings. Johnson’s emergence from the pack to challenge Lewis’ supremacy would cause the American a lot of pain and angst through the years, but he would openly admit that the growing rivalry between the pair earned him fantastic riches.

The second part of the book deals with the clashes between the duo, in particular charting the races between Johnson and Lewis from 1985 onwards; the first time in which the Canadian beat the Olympic champion. Moore chooses a chapter title which sums up the score at the time: Lewis 8, Johnson 1, but from Johnson’s maiden triumph at the Zurich Weltklasse meeting in August 1985, things began to change.

Ben Johnson's win over Carl Lewis; of wh ich he was DQed for drug use.

Ben Johnson’s win over Carl Lewis; of which he was DQed for drug use.

The final win of Johnson’s four consecutive victories over Lewis before the World Championships in Rome in 1987 came in Seville. It was a feisty affair, won by Johnson by 0.01 of a second, although Moore recalls how Lewis seemed sure that he had sneaked it: “Lewis throws an arm in the air, a gesture reminiscent of a boxer who suspects he’s been defeated but celebrates in a desperate bid to influence the judges.” The row became heated and the pair had to be separated by Mel Lattany, a former American sprinter. It is another insight into how the pair had grown to dislike each other. All of a sudden, their rivalry was being spoken in the same breath as Ali-Frazier and Borg-McEnroe.

What was clear at the time, and is accurately portrayed in Moore’s version of events, is the growing sense of injustice felt by Lewis post-Rome. Johnson destroyed Lewis by a tenth of a second to win the world title, setting a new world record in the process, and despite the possible accusations Lewis may have faced about sour grapes, he decided that he had to speak out. “A lot of people have come out of nowhere and are running unbelievably, and I just don’t think they’re doing it without drugs,” stated Lewis on an ITV interview, although Moore reveals another quote which did not make the final edit that would have been sensational if it had: “If I were taking drugs, I could do a 9.80 right away-just like him.” Strong stuff, but with no out of competition testing back then, Moore rightly points out that Johnson seemed untouchable.

With the success came new challenges for Johnson. In 1988, he would split from Francis over differences of opinions towards training, although eventually the two would get back together to plot Johnson’s attempt at gold in Seoul. A hamstring injury threatened to ruin Johnson’s preparations, and an ever expanding entourage surrounded him as never before, with the growing influence of Astaphan a key part of the tale.

Lewis had problems of his own, however, not that we knew this at the time. Unbeknown to the general public until 2003, Lewis had failed a drugs test at the US Olympic trials, his urine sample containing banned stimulants. Although the volume of substances found in Lewis’ urine would not see him banned today, at the time he should have been kicked off of the Olympic team. The Americans managed to clear him on appeal, under inadvertent usage, yet how different would sporting history have been if Lewis, who had been spent the last year dropping strong hints about his rivals’ drug use, had been prevented from running in Seoul due to a failed test?

Naturally the book moves towards the final showdown, yet Moore manages to pace the arrival at the starting blocks in Seoul superbly. At no point are you thinking “just cut to the chase”, as you realise that what you are reading in the lead-up to the Olympic final is a crucial part of the narrative. Lewis beating his rival for the first time in five meetings at Zurich; details of Johnson’s final steroid programme twenty-six days before the Olympics; the brewing tension between Francis and Astaphan; the threat from Astaphan to Johnson that he wanted a million dollars, otherwise he would spill the beans. Like a good film, all the threads of the plot begin to entwine, as Moore expertly captures the mood, and works his way to the seismic conclusion.

The race itself is portrayed succinctly, as I guess is fairly inescapable for such a short race, yet still the depiction of the 9.79 seconds of action is painted excellently. The explosive start from Johnson, which for once was almost matched by Lewis; the look of utter concern on Lewis’ face as the race unfolds; the fact that Lewis ran out of his lane, such was his preoccupation with the Canadian; the emphatic celebration of Johnson (“…his right arm shoots straight up in the air, finger pointing decisively skyward. Take that”); the total blanking Johnson gave to Lewis when the American shook his hand.

Of course, this isn’t where the story ends. Johnson’s subsequent disqualification rocked the sporting world – you do wonder what would happen in the age of 24 hour channels and the Internet if a similar thing were to happen today – with Moore covering the dramatic events from the perspective of the laboratory testers, to the media gathered in Seoul, via Johnson, Lewis, Francis, Astaphan, and numerous other parties involved.

Moore somehow managed to make me feel a little bit of sorrow towards Johnson, especially when a Canadian official asks for his medal back. “I can’t lose something I never owned,” said Johnson, in a very matter of fact way, although it doesn’t take too long for the feelings of anger to return, as Moore tells us of the hurt caused towards Canadians back home, and Johnson’s argument that the shady mystery man Andre ‘Action’ Jackson had set him up during the drug testing procedure sounded pathetic.

If Johnson had been set up, then that was an unfortunate incident and one which cannot be pardoned. But as Moore describes the details of the Dubin Inquiry, when Francis, Astaphan and then Johnson revealed the full extent of what had gone on, it wasn’t as if Johnson was speaking from a position of strength about the conspiracy theory. He was a cheat regardless of whether he was framed or not.

It is always a sign of a good book that you pick it up and never want to put it down. The kind which you rattle through forty pages or so without realising, due to the brilliant writing and readability of the material. Richard Moore has managed to write a book so well thought out, so painstakingly researched, that you cannot fail to appreciate just how good it is. A book which covers every aspect of the Johnson-Lewis story in such minute details, that it should be the first port of call for anyone who wants to learn anything about the subject.

I could only ever dream of writing a book along the lines of The Dirtiest Race in History. But as a sports nut, and for someone fascinated in the Johnson-Lewis rivalry, you have to be thankful that Richard Moore has produced such a high-quality book on one of the biggest sporting events of the 1980s.



Check out the book How to Keep Writing

This book shares key practical strategies on how to become an author and a working writer. It helps you to get over the everyday nuisances that hinder the writing process. You can follow each strategy, at your own pace until you are writing frequently. It is geared towards both aspiring fiction and nonfiction authors and working writers who produce content, on a daily basis.

Available at all online book retailers and


2 thoughts on “Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson: The Dirtiest Race in History

What did you think about this? Please leave a reply.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.