The Dirtiest Race In History

Last night I finished reading The Dirtiest Race In History, a book about the 1988 Seoul Olympics and Ben Johnson’s shortlived gold medal. A bit like a 100 metre sprinter, it starts powerfully and then loses momentum towards the end. But perhaps I ended up disliking it because it was described as “compelling” by the Sunday Express, that Beaverbrookian source of middle-England vituperation.

Perhaps it’s also because the first part of the book is where the most surprises are, documenting the rise of the athletes involved in the race. The last part suffers because it’s about the race itself, which is something people know (or think they know) a lot more about. Although even the start is a little deceptive; the author, Richard Moore, mentions meeting Carl Lewis “in a shop on Oxford Street in London”, which sounds like a chance encounter while they’re both shopping for tracksuits at JD Sports, or buying counterfeit perfume in one of the perptually going-out-of-business shops down at the Tottenham Court Road end, or even that they were both shopping for underwear in Marks & Sparks. In fact, as the epilogue reveals, he talked to Carl Lewis at an event organised at the Nike Town flagship store on Oxford Circus; the description given at the start is minimally true in that it leaves out pretty much everything but the barest fact.

Interestingly, part of Ben Johnson’s defence was that he was caught for the wrong anabolic steroid; the one he tested positive for, Stanozolol, was not the one he was taking, Estragol. “I don’t want my guys on Stanozolol on race day! It tightens them up. I want them loose…” – well, that’s one way of fighting for/against your convictions. “I wasn’t on crack, your honour. It was regular cocaine, you have to acquite me” is not going to be a great defence, and neither is arguing about the particular steroids you were using. I think Moore does feel sorry for Johnson, on the basis that almost every other man in the 1988 100m final (including Carl Lewis) tested positive for banned drugs at some point, but again, it’s a matter of degree. If Lewis’ positive test was just for a trace of pseudoephedrine he accidentally took, rather than a sustained programme of steroids … but then do we assume Lewis really was that clean and give him a free pass?

It’s also a bit of a stretch to claim this was the dirtiest race in history. 10 years later there was the Festina affair when it felt like everyone in the peloton was doping. Then there’s been Lance Armstrong and every other avowed anti-drugs cyclist who turned out to be stuffed to the gills with EPO or worse (and, as is argued in The Death of Marco Pantani, EPO is a much more powerful drug than steroids. Steroids might be worth 1% to a highly trained athlete, whereas EPO really would turn an also-run into a world champion. Or is this part of a pissing contest about which sport has the strongest drugs?)

But you can feel sorry for Johnson, deified then made out to be the devil himself, as if there were no other drug cheats but he. You can also feel quite sorry for the athletes who came before him, not earning millions of dollars and ending up as janitorial staff in later life – modern, professionalised sport is something that seems as if it would have been incomprehensible even forty years ago, compared to what it came from and what it became.

So, in total it’s an ok read. By the end, there’s too many people to keep track of, which may be why the story founders under its own weight. (A problem with something based on fact, rather than where you can just make things up to fit the plot.) The earlier chapters, with the more colourful characters and less concentration on the bureaucracy of modern sports organisations, are definitely more compelling, and I also wish they’d sprung for a photographic section rather than leaving me to search the internet for pictures of the protagonists. Not up there, then, with other books I’ve read on sports lately, but some interesting perspective on track events and drugs.

One response to “The Dirtiest Race In History”

  1. […] and the kids are fairly docile: there’s lots of extra time. I’m halfway through The Dirtiest Race In History, an account of the 1988 100 metres at the Seoul Olympics, and for a quick break i paused to read […]

Leave a Reply

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