(Reuters) – If anti-doping regulations had been strictly enforced, Calvin Smith, a gifted American sprinter with a distinctive upright style, would have left the 1988 Seoul Games as the Olympic 100 meters champion and world-record holder.
On the day that changed the face of the Olympics and his sport forever, Smith finished fourth behind Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and Linford Christie. Today he is the only man among the first five finishers in Seoul untouched by a drugs scandal.
“I should have been the gold medalist,” Smith has said of a race that has been variously described as the dirtiest and most corrupt in history.
“Throughout the last five or 10 years of my career, I knew I was being denied the chance to show that I was the best clean runner,” he told journalists. “I knew I was competing against athletes who were on drugs.”
Canadian Johnson was infamously hustled out of Seoul after testing positive for the steroid stanozolol following his victory in a world-record 9.79 seconds.
Lewis, who clocked 9.92 seconds, was promoted to the gold medal ahead of Britain’s Christie who then took the silver in front of Smith. Lewis’s time was eventually recognized as the official world record when Johnson’s mark of 9.83 seconds, set at the 1987 Rome world championships, was also erased.
Johnson’s time in Rome was an astonishing tenth of a second faster than Smith’s then world record of 9.93 seconds set at altitude in 1983. Smith won consecutive world 200 meters titles but never a global 100 gold.
In the popular mythology of the time Lewis, a glorious sprinter and long jumper who won four gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, was the clean-cut hero and Johnson a scowling villain.
It was an image Lewis was keen to foster.
“In the old Westerns they had the guy in the white hat and the black hat,” Lewis said years later. “I felt like the clean guy going out and trying to win, I was the guy in the white hat, trying to beat this evil guy.”
Not everybody warmed to Lewis and his incessant self-promotion coupled with a holier-than-thou attitude to drugs offenders. The skeptics felt vindicated when it was revealed in 2003 that Lewis had failed three drugs tests for stimulants during the 1988 Olympic trials.
Under the rules of the time he should have been banned from the Games but the results were covered up by the U.S. Olympic Committee after it accepted his plea that he had innocently taken a herbal supplement.
Christie failed a test for the stimulant pseudoephedrine after the final but was cleared on a split decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) medical commission when he argued that he had taken it inadvertently in ginseng tea.
If Lewis had been banned from the Games and Christie disqualified, Smith would have been next in line for the gold medal and his world record would have stood once Johnson’s times were scrubbed from the books.
The noise and furor at Seoul airport when Lewis and Johnson arrived for the Olympics resembled the frenzy associated with a world heavyweight prize fight featuring Muhammad Ali.
At the opening media conferences, Lewis was as articulate as always. Johnson, whose natural shyness was exacerbated by a stutter and an accent showing traces of both his native Jamaica and his adopted homeland, said little.
Johnson’s coach, the intense and ambitious Charlie Francis, was both fluent and relaxed while continuing to conceal an explosive back story which shocked the world when he revealed all to a Canadian government inquiry in the following year.
During the 1976 Montreal Games, Francis realized drugs were a vital ingredient in the East German success story and, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, formerly secret documents showed he was right.
Francis also knew that drugs, which allowed athletes to train harder and longer, were only one element in a sophisticated program but at the elite level, as he explained to Johnson, a one percent difference in performance meant a one-meter advantage in the 100 meters.
“Steroids could not replace talent, or training, or a well-planned competitive program,” Francis said. “They could not transform a plodder into a champion. But they had become an essential ingredient within a complex recipe.”
In Seoul there were those who thought a bigger cheat than Johnson had gone unscathed.
Florence Griffith-Joyner, who died 10 years after the Games at the age of 38, had been a glamorous and successful sprinter in the years leading up to Seoul but had always finished among the minor medals.
In 1988, her physique noticeably altered and her voice deepened dramatically, both signs of possible steroid abuse. “She sounds like Louis Armstrong,” exclaimed one journalist at her news conference in Seoul.
Of more enduring significance were the times she set in that unreal year. No woman, even 2000 Sydney Olympics triple champion Marion Jones who eventually confessed to years of systematic doping, has even come close to Griffith-Joyner’s times of 10.49 and 21.34 seconds for the 100 and 200 meters respectively.
Griffith-Joyner announced her retirement in 1989, the year mandatory random drugs test were introduced. Eleven women’s world records in Olympic events remain unchanged since the 1980s.
LOSS OF CREDIBILITY
Since Seoul, athletics, in general, and the sprints, in particular, have been battered by drugs scandals and the central sport of the Olympic Games has suffered increasingly in credibility as a result.
At the 2004 Athens Games, Justin Gatlin won the 100-200 double for the United States after serving a one-year ban following a positive test for amphetamines. The sentence had been halved when the world governing body accepted he had taken a prescribed medicine for attention deficit disorder.
Two years later he again tested positive, this time for excessive levels of the male sex hormone testosterone, and was banned for eight years, later reduced to four.
Gatlin worked with Trevor Graham, the coach who initiated a drugs scandal equivalent to the Johnson furor when he sent a syringe containing an undetectable steroid called THG to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
A test was quickly devised for the drug manufactured by the BALCO laboratory in California and a number of prominent athletes in track and field and baseball were implicated, including Britain’s European 100 meters champion Dwain Chambers.
Jones, who won three gold medals in Sydney after announcing she wanted to go one better than Lewis and Jesse Owens by winning five titles, was the biggest victim of the BALCO scandal.
After years of denial she finally confessed she had been on a drugs regime similar to Johnson and was imprisoned for lying to federal investigators. Other sprinters banned as a result of the BALCO investigations were her former partner Tim Montgomery, who was the first man to run faster than Johnson’s Seoul mark, and double world women’s sprint champion Kelli White.
To its credit, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has consistently uncovered drugs cheats over the 25 years since Seoul. It has also pointed out that other prominent Olympic sports, notably weightlifting and cycling, have been bedeviled by doping.
However, the positive tests keep coming and this year has been a bad one for the world of track and field.
Former 100 meters world-record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica and former world champion Tyson Gay from the United States both missed last month’s Moscow world championships after positive drugs tests which were revealed on the same day.
Jamaica, the Caribbean island which currently dominates world sprinting, was struck by another doping scandal when twice Olympic 200 meters gold medalist Veronica Campbell-Brown was suspended by her national federation after a positive test for a banned diuretic.
Officials said a dozen athletes had been sanctioned after positive drugs tests in the past five years.
Kenya, a country long regarded as a storehouse of natural long-distance talent, has also been implicated in doping with four positives in the space of 12 months. There has also been a rash of positive tests in Russia and Turkey.
Johnson, who is now an anti-doping campaigner after a lifetime of bad career choices, accepts his decision to take drugs ruined his life.
He said recently that athletes “are still testing positive week after week, still making the same mistakes I made. Athletes’ perceptions need to change. The system needs to change.”