Review of The Dirtiest Race in History by Richard Moore (Wisden, 2012)
Seoul, 1988. In the most anticipated event of that summer’s Olympics, Ben Johnson beats Carl Lewis and six other sprinters to win the 100 metres gold medal, breaking the world record in the process. Less than forty eight hours later Johnson’s post-race urine sample has tested positive, he’s been stripped of his medal, and the story has become a worldwide media frenzy. Lewis is awarded the gold medal and Johnson returns to Canada in disgrace. As Richard Moore details in The Dirtiest Race in History there was much more to this event than this short precis. Lewis and Johnson had been engaged in a battle for sprinting supremacy for a number of years, a battle that extended beyond the track into the media, mind games, and dirty tricks. Even at the Olympics, Lewis’ coach managed to place someone into the doping centre at the time when Johnson was being tested, providing the runner with several beers while he waited to be tested. While Johnson and his team later admitted to doping, at the time they were mystified at the runner testing positive for a drug he didn’t think he’d taken (he thought he'd been taking a different one) and when his body should have been clean because he’d stopped taking the drugs weeks prior to the event. Of the eight runners in the race, six tested positive or were banned from athletics for drugs offenses at some point during their career. Indeed, as Moore details, drug use was seemingly rampant in track and field in the 1980s and extended well beyond Eastern bloc athletes. Sports body’s such as IAAF and IOC were reluctant to take the issue seriously and actively covered up potential scandals, supressing test results and letting athletes off with behind closed doors warnings. Moore does a good job of setting out the careers of Lewis, Johnson, and the other runners in the race and detailing the personal battle between the two main protagonists and their respective coaches, while also positioning these within the wider context of drug testing in athletics and the political battles inside of track and field governance. It would have been nice to get a bit more information on the other runners in the race and also their views on what transpired, and also a bit more depth on the development of anti-doping in the sport. Nonetheless, the book is an engaging and interesting account based on a number of interviews that sheds new light on affair.