Honesty in sport: a value at the heart of our society

A new book is due out in June – ‘The Dirtiest Race in History’, by Richard Moore – which deals with Ben Johnson’s victory in the 100m men’s finals in the 1988 Olympic Games, and his subsequent disgrace when he was discovered to have been taking drugs. To this day, I remember that race well – it was the summer just before I went up to Oxford – and I cannot imagine that I am alone in this memory. I remember the exhilaration and then the disbelief and the disappointment when this hero turned out not to be as we had thought. It made an enormous impact on me.

To understand the build-up to the race, you have to recall some of the background. The great names in the men’s 100m sprint at the time were Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson, and their rivalry was captivating, because it reflected the striving to beat the 10 second mark in the 100m. The first man to run 100m in less than 10 seconds was in fact Jim Hines, who broke the existing world record with 9.99 seconds in Sacramento in June 1968, and then ran a race of 9.95 seconds in the Olympic Final at the 1968 Mexico Olympics in October, but the intense competition between Johnson and Lewis made for exciting viewing.

It was in 1985, after seven consecutive losses, that Ben Johnson beat Carl Lewis, the giant of the running track, for the first time. The 1986 Goodwill Games were even more remarkable – Johnson beat Lewis, running 9.95 seconds for first place, against Lewis’ third-place time of 10.06. He also won Commonwealth Gold at the 1986 games with a time of 10.07. By the time of the 1987 World Championships in Rome, Ben Johnson had won his four previous races against Lewis and in Rome, he beat the world record, with a time of 9.83 seconds. He was the fastest man on the planet.

1988 was not though a good year for Johnson; in February he pulled a hamstring, and in August, when he faced Carl Lewis again, Lewis won in 9.93, while Johnson finished third. But then came the Olympics, and on 24th September 1988, in Seoul, Johnson beat Lewis in the 100m final and beat his own world record too. 9.79 seconds: this was how long  it took him to run the race. It was astonishing – a race replayed again, and again and again on the television. We were seeing history in the making – the fastest man in the world coming back from injury to become even faster. It was just amazing. Usain Bolt may now have run 100m in 9.58 … but back then, this was amazing.

And then … Ben Johnson was tested for drugs, and his urine was found to contain steriods. He was disqualified three days later and Carl Lewis was awarded the gold

It is hard to communicate the intense sense of disappointment which heralded this news, not least in Ben Johnson’s home country of Canada, but in fact around the world, from ordinary people just watching the race and caught up in the excitement of the build up and the competition. Ben Johnson later admitted having used steroids when he ran his 1987 world record, which caused the IAAF to annul that record as well, and which just added to the despondency. We had all thought that we were seeing something special, something incredible – testimony to the powers and endeavours of mankind – when in fact all that we were watching was actually a form of deception.

Doping in sport rears its head regularly, and is rightly condemned. As one of our national sports organisations puts it, “Doping is cheating: it fundamentally harms the essence of sport – enjoyment and fair competition. It is crucial to the enjoyment of sport that all individuals participating in sport also condemn doping in sport to ensure it is eliminated from the sporting environment. We want to promote the best athletes: athletes who have worked hard and who have got to the top without taking drugs to cheat.”

All those years after Ben Johnson’s false victory in Seoul, the memory lives on – a lesson to us all not to take values and integrity for granted. We should strive to succeed – but we should do it with honour.

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