WITNESS: Rest day gave no rest after Johnson news

Thu Sep 25, 2008 9:32pm EDT
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Mike Collett, now Reuters soccer correspondent, was covering the athletics competition at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games and vividly remembers the day Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for drugs following his victory over Carl Lewis in the 100 meters final. By Mike Collett LONDON (Reuters) - The biggest sports story of the 20th century came to light in the early hours of a South Korean Tuesday, September 27 1988, when many of the reporters covering the athletics at the Olympic Games were either asleep or in the bars and clubs of Itaewon, Seoul's lively entertainment district. There was a good reason reporters were out on the town. After weeks of pre-Olympic preparation and non-stop work since the Games had begun more than a week earlier, the Tuesday was a rest day with no athletics competition so most of us were having a rare night off. None of us imagined we would not see our beds again for the best part of 24 hours as September 27 turned into one of the most dramatic days in sport and one of the most infamous in the history of the Olympic Games. Three days earlier Ben Johnson of Canada had blitzed the field in the Olympic 100 meters final, leaving his arch-rival Carl Lewis of the United States trailing in his wake as he took the gold in a world-record time of 9.79 seconds. A few days before that, a colleague and myself had discovered where Johnson was secretly putting the final touches to his training at an anonymous little track in the vast hinterland of Seoul. We watched him work out, bare-chested and muscular, in the hot sunshine. We were both convinced nothing was going to stop him winning the gold in the final. The race between Johnson and Lewis had been eagerly awaited for months. Johnson had beaten Lewis the previous year in a world-record time of 9.84 seconds in the world championship final in Rome. Lewis insinuated, without naming him, that Johnson was a drug cheat. They did not race again until three weeks before the Olympics when Lewis beat Johnson in Zurich. The ultimate decider, in front of a global television audience would come in Seoul. Rumors began to circulate on the Monday evening that a Canadian had failed a drug test, but back in 1988 there were always Rumors circulating that athletes were failing tests and so it was dismissed fairly swiftly as just more of the usual gossip. Except it wasn't. A Canadian had failed a drug test and that Canadian was Johnson. It later transpired that the authorities were desperate to keep the news secret until their daily briefing on the Tuesday morning, but the story was leaked. The first I was aware that it was true was at about 3 a.m. on the Tuesday. As I got out of the taxi taking me back from Itaewon to the media village, an acquaintance of mine from British television news service ITN virtually hauled me out of the back seat and jumped in himself. "Where are you going, it's three o'clock in the morning?" I asked him. With a mad urgency in his voice he uttered the words that sobered me up, in rather less than 9.79 seconds: "Haven't you heard?" he replied, "Johnson's been done." As I walked back into the village, thinking that I should have stayed in the taxi with him, I heard telephones ringing and saw bedroom lights being switched on, but when I got back to my apartment my colleagues were still asleep. I woke them up with the news. Within a short time we had the story verified by a high-ranking International Olympic Committee (IOC) source. Within a couple of hours of leaving Itaewon I was at Seoul's grandest hotel, The Shilla, with about a thousand other journalists looking for officials, looking for quotes, looking for Johnson. Mobile phone technology was in its infancy and reporters found other ways to call their desks and file their stories. The most bizarre sight of the morning was a bellboy walking through the throng of reporters holding a blackboard with Johnson's name on it and shouting: "Phone call for Mr Ben Johnson. Will Mr Johnson please go to reception. Phone call for Mr Johnson." Mr Johnson had already gone, bundled out of Seoul, on to a plane and out of South Korea. The IOC eventually staged its news conference and announced that he had been stripped of his world record and his Olympic title and medal after testing positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol. The repercussions of what Johnson did lasted for years and I feel that the sport has never recovered properly from his treachery. September 27 1988 was a day that changed sport, and certainly athletics, forever. (Editing by Clare Fallon) ʘ

<p>Ben Johnson celebrates after setting a new world record in the 100 meter race with a time of 9.79 seconds at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, September 24, 1988. REUTERS/Stringer</p>