Smith, the true Seoul champion?

In a race dubbed as the 'dirtiest', the American had better credentials than the rest

Smith, the true Seoul champion?

If anti-doping regulations had been strictly enforced, Calvin Smith, a gifted American sprinter with a distinctive upright style, would have left the 1988 Seoul Games as the Olympic 100 metres champion and world-record holder.

On the day that changed the face of the Olympics and his sport forever, Smith finished fourth behind Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and Linford Christie. Today he is the only man among the first five finishers in Seoul untouched by a drugs scandal.

“I should have been the gold medallist,” Smith has said of a race that has been variously described as the dirtiest and most corrupt in history.

“Throughout the last five or 10 years of my career, I knew I wasbeing denied the chance to show that I was the best clean runner,” he told journalists. “I knew I was competing against athletes who were on drugs.”

Canadian Johnson was infamously hustled out of Seoul after testing positive for the steroid stanozolol following his victory in a world-record 9.79 seconds.

Lewis, who clocked 9.92 seconds, was promoted to the gold medal ahead of Britain’s Christie who then took the silver in front of Smith. Lewis’ time was eventually recognised as the official world record when Johnson’s mark of 9.83 seconds, set at the 1987 Rome World Championships, was also erased.

Johnson’s time in Rome was an astonishing tenth of a second faster than Smith’s then world record of 9.93 seconds set at altitude in 1983. Smith won consecutive world 200 metres titles but never a global 100 gold.

In the popular mythology of the time Lewis, a glorious sprinter and long jumper who won four gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, was the clean-cut hero and Johnson a scowling villain.

It was an image Lewis was keen to foster.

“In the old Westerns they had the guy in the white hat and the black hat,” Lewis said years later. “I felt like the clean guy going out and trying to win, I was the guy in the white hat, trying to beat this evil guy.”

Not everybody warmed to Lewis and his incessant self-promotion coupled with a holier-than-thou attitude to drugs offenders. The sceptics felt vindicated when it was revealed in 2003 that Lewis had failed three drugs tests for stimulants during the 1988 Olympic trials.

Under the rules of the time he should have been banned from the Games but the results were covered up by the US Olympic Committee after it accepted his plea that he had innocently taken a herbal supplement.

Christie failed a test for the stimulant pseudoephedrine after the final but was cleared on a split decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) medical commission when he argued that he had taken it inadvertently in ginseng tea.

If Lewis had been banned from the Games and Christie disqualified, Smith would have been next in line for the gold medal and his world record would have stood once Johnson’s times were scrubbed from the books.

The noise and furore at Seoul airport when Lewis and Johnson arrived for the Olympics resembled the frenzy associated with a world heavyweight prize fight featuring Muhammad Ali.

At the opening media conferences, Lewis was as articulate as always. Johnson, whose natural shyness was exacerbated by a stutter and an accent showing traces of both his native Jamaica and his adopted homeland, said little.

Johnson’s coach, the intense and ambitious Charlie Francis, was both fluent and relaxed while continuing to conceal an explosive back story which shocked the world when he revealed all to a Canadian government inquiry in the following year.

During the 1976 Montreal Games, Francis realised drugs were a vital ingredient in the East German success story and, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, formerly secret documents showed he was right.

Francis also knew that drugs, which allowed athletes to train harder and longer, were only one element in a sophisticated programme but at the elite level, as he explained to Johnson, a one percent difference in performance meant a one-metre advantage in the 100 metres.

“Steroids could not replace talent, or training, or a well-planned competitive programme,” Francis said. “They could not transform a plodder into a champion. But they had become an essential ingredient within a complex recipe.”

In Seoul there were those who thought a bigger cheat than Johnson had gone unscathed. Florence Griffith-Joyner, who died 10 years after the Games at the age of 38, had been a glamorous and successful sprinter in the years leading up to Seoul but had always finished among the minor medals.

In 1988, her physique noticeably altered and her voice deepened dramatically, both signs of possible steroid abuse.

Of more enduring significance were the times she set in that unreal year. No woman, even 2000 Sydney Olympics triple champion Marion Jones who eventually confessed to years of systematic doping, has even come close to Griffith-Joyner’s times of 10.49 and 21.34 seconds for the 100 and 200 metres respectively.

Griffith-Joyner announced her retirement in 1989, the year mandatory random drugs test were introduced. Eleven women’s world records in Olympic events remain unchanged since the 1980s.

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