Infamous 1988 race at Seoul Olympics still resonates 32 years later
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
Ben Johnson was Canada’s greatest hope to bring home the gold medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea. The men’s 1oo-metre final was the most anticipated race in the late 1980s.
Johnson was competing against US sprinter and rival, Carl Lewis. Lewis had won gold in the men’s 100-metre final at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles with a time of 9.99 (Johnson finished third winning bronze with a time of 10.22). Johnson would later get revenge a year prior to the race in Seoul—winning a race at the World Championships in Rome, Italy in August 1987 with a time of 9.83 (then a world record). Lewis finished second with a time of 9.93.
On September 24, 1988, Johnson and Lewis would meet once again at the Olympics in Korea for the men’s 100-metre final. The anticipation, build up, and hype with the two rival sprinters competing against each other was like a heavyweight title fight. The race was broadcast live on CBC television, American television networks, and other international media outlets.
When the race began, Johnson stormed out of the starting blocks and accelerated—quickly leaving a significant gap between him and the other seven sprinters. He won the race convincingly in an astonishing record-breaking time of 9.79. And in a show of what some might consider arrogance, he had slowed down while raising his right arm in the air as he hit the finish line. After the race had finished, Lewis walked over to congratulate Johnson—who refused to shake Lewis’ hand.
Carl Lewis, in a television interview years later that was uploaded on YouTube in July 2011, said he was perplexed and angry that Johnson refused to shake his hand. “When I went over to congratulate him, the first thing he did was, he kind of turned away from me,” Lewis said. “He wouldn’t shake my hand back. And I had to physically grab his hand and put it in my hand. I’m not going to walk across here—you don’t deserve it. But I’m not going to congratulate you in front of the world and not allow you to do it. You’re not going to shun me. Now, I came over here when I shouldn’t have.”
Unfortunately, two days after the historic race, Johnson tested positive for stanozolol—an anabolic steroid. He would be stripped of his gold medal by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). He went from a national hero to a national villain. Carl Lewis, who had finished second and winning the silver medal with a time of 9.92, was now awarded the gold medal after Johnson’s disqualification.
A year after the infamous race in Seoul, Ben Johnson admitted he had been using steroids between 1981 and 1988. The IAAF (then known as the International Amateur Athletic Federation) removed his world record of 9.83 from the 1987 World Championships and stripped Johnson of his gold medal from that race. Carl Lewis, who had finished in second place with a time of 9.93, would be given the gold medal.
Significantly, the Dubin Inquiry was later formed to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the problem of doping in competitive sports. Johnson testified, along with his coach, Charlie Francis—and other Canadian athletes. After the investigation, Charlie Francis would be banned for life. Johnson would be banned from competitive running for two years.
In the documentary, Lost Seoul, Johnson was defiant and felt his ban from competitive sprinting was unjust: “Everybody cheats. Who doesn’t cheat in life? Everybody cheats in taxes; everybody cheats in everything. Why Ben Johnson? I’m not the only one in this world.” Notably, of all the eight sprinters competing in the men’s 100-metre final at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, six of the finalists would later be found to have connections to doping.
In September 2013, the CBC marked the 25th anniversary of the men’s 100-metre final at the Seoul Olympics with a special segment. Ben Johnson gave an interview where he conceded that he did use steroids to enhance his performance because it was the only way to compete on the highest level—with other sprinters doping as well. “It was necessary at the time,” Johnson said. “I didn’t have any second opinion. I was a young boy, that’s it. Then I win the gold medal and I lost it. So, that’s life.”
Diane Clement—author, chef, and former Olympic athlete—was the team manager for Canada during the 1988 Summer Olympics. Clement says Ben Johnson being stripped of his gold medal was very devastating and had a negative impact on the Canadian team morale.
But Clement states that the fallout from the Ben Johnson scandal should be a lesson for those who choose to take shortcuts. “Life is not simple, things do happen,” Clement said in a phone interview with the Other Press. “[I believe] he’s survived this [scandal]. The lesson is that when you fall, you get back up and keep going. It was a lesson to our track and field team, and for athletes in any sport. If you do it dishonestly, it’ll come back to haunt you. Compete honestly and be the best you can be, whether it is in sport and in life—and you will succeed.”