Monday, December 18, 2017

The Ben Johnson dilemma


FLASHBACK: Ben Johnson wins the 100m in Seoul in 1988

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They should just let athletes use anything they want in sport.

Just for the record, before you ask yourself what scene Wattley is on, let me say I don't agree that is what should happen.

But thinking about the subject, so very much in the public domain these days, it did enter my mind that competitors across the board are being pushed to cheat to succeed.

It is not just the Lance Armstrong drama that has sent me down this road.

Every so often the world of sportswriting throws up a book that really does give food for thought rather than just stuff to make some money. The Dirtiest Race in History, written by a fellow called Richard Moore is proving to be one of those thoughtful, insightful pieces.

The Dirtiest Race in this instance happens to be the 1988 Olympic 100 metres final in Seoul, South Korea; the Ben Johnson race if you will.

Even as the book details, drug-taking in athletics could be traced back to the 1950s, it was Johnson's positive test following his 9.79 run that eclipsed defending champion Carl Lewis that really put the spotlight on illegal drug-taking in track and field.

On the book's jacket cover is the now famous/infamous photo of Johnson, muscle-bound but triumphant, his right arm pointing to the sky, daylight between himself and his bitter rival. On the face of it, just as back in '88, it seemed a case of hero and villain–Johnson the villain, Lewis the hero.

But through Moore's dispassionate portrayal of the principal characters and their supporting cast– Johnson's deceased coach Charlie Francis and Joe Douglas, the man behind Lewis' Santa Monica Track Club–a different impression is being created. For the first time, I an beginning to see Johnson more as a victim.

At tender age 19, he was offered the chance to start a drugs programme–by the father-figure Francis– according to all indications, a brilliant brain in track and field and an excellent coach.

Francis wrote in his own book Speed Trap: "...Then our conversation turned to steroids. It was immediately apparent that Ben understood how widespread they were, that he saw who was improving and why....I estimated the steroids represented at least one per cent performance–or one metre in the hundred–at the elite level. Though the decision to take the drugs was Ben's, he had little choice if he agreed with my conclusions. He could either set up his starting blocks on the same line as his international competition, or he could start a metre behind."

Johnson himself tells Moore of his eventual decision to accept Francis' offer: "...I thought, 'Why should I do it clean when everybody else is doing it dirty?' Where would that leave me?"

This was happening back in 1982, six years before Seoul. But that passage encapsulates the dilemma that so many athletes across a range of sports are faced with. Johnson, a simple youth who had emigrated from Jamaica to Canada–and a victim of bullying at school in a strange environment--is faced with the reality that his hard work under expert coaching alone may not get him gold medals.

Armstrong is a much less sympathetic figure. By his own admission he was an intimidator. But like Johnson, he was also clear in his mind that taking drugs was a necessary step if he wanted to win the Tour de France.

Reader, honestly, put yourself in the shoes of a young, ambitious sprinter, swimmer, whoever, who has heard from time immemorial that no one remembers the fellow who comes second; who has come to realise that attaining excellence in the sporting world really means coming first, full stop...What would you do if a trusted, well respected coach suggested that you needed to take drugs, to cheat?

I am nowhere near the end of the book yet, but it has already impressed upon me that these "dirty" athletes, the Johnsons and Marion Joneses and the rest, have really succumbed to the sporting world's own double standards.

On the one hand, the message is that winning is the only real standard of success and that true champions do whatever it takes to succeed–"total dedication"–even though that means sacrificing time for family, sometimes education and even worship, to achieve one's athletic dreams. But at the same time, in order to reach their goals they must not bend the rules--when in fact that is the only way they can get the silverware and big bucks!

If you look carefully, the contradiction is everywhere to be seen.

Take basketball.

Teams are actually allowed to commit a certain number of fouls--infringement of the rules--during games before they are penalised. So it is quite common to see players deliberately fouling opponents as a tactic.

In football, commentators sometimes speak of a player committing a "good foul," that is, hindering an opponent to stop a potential goal-scoring chance against his side.

The offender reckons that getting a yellow card is worth it in that instance.

And while divers in football are getting negative publicity, lunging for maximum impact and pulling on opponents' shirts and shorts in the penalty area is as old as the game itself and largely accepted aspects of professional football. So why suddenly get moral when some players master the art of bending the rules?

Why strip Armstrong of his titles and medals when he was merely best at what from the documented evidence was a competition full of dope users?

Coming home, it is good to know that there have been relatively few locals who have been exposed as drugs cheats. But does that necessarily mean that there are not more of the country's sportsmen and women who have gone the Ben Johnson route? Time, as they say, will tell; especially now that the IOC is freezing blood samples for up to eight years.

It is time though people decided what they want: clean sport without necessarily superstar feats, or superstar feats with assistance.

Both, for the most part may not be possible.