Late on Friday night I arrived in Bhubaneswar, southern India, for the first Ekamra Sports Literary Festival. I was to appear the following morning to talk about my book, The Dirtiest Race in History, with one of the main protagonists, Ben Johnson, on the 30th anniversary of the race in question: the men’s 100 metres at the Seoul Olympics.
The talk was scheduled for 10.45am. At 9.30 I awoke, groggily got up, and at 10.15 made my way to the hotel lobby to meet the escort who would take us to the conference centre across the road.
There was no sign of Johnson.
“Do you want to speak to Ben?” asked the escort. I thought that would be a good idea.
But Johnson could not be found. He wasn’t answering his phone. Was he at breakfast? Somebody was dispatched. He was not.
“This lady will take you to his room,” I was told as I was led out the lobby and across the forecourt to an annex. A door was ajar and a security guard sat outside. This was Johnson’s suite.
“Ben’s in the bath,” said the security guard. “Come, please,” said my guide, pushing the door open and ushering me in.
“It’s OK, I’ll wait out here.”
“No, please,” she said, insisting that I wait in Johnson’s air-conditioned room.
Reluctantly I entered and just as I was sitting on the sofa a door swung open and Johnson emerged from the bathroom, his modesty preserved by a small white towel. “How are you, Ben?”
“I’m good, man. Still alive, so that’s something.”
Since the book came out, in 2012, I have met Johnson a few times. Considering how difficult it was to arrange a meeting in the first place, these encounters have always seemed strange – though never as strange as this.
Though still groggy, I was pretty confident I wasn’t imagining it. I looked at my watch: 10.41.
There were other strange aspects, not least the fact that I had been been asked to share a platform with Johnson to discuss a book that doesn’t exactly paint him in a flattering light.
How could it, when the race’s notoriety owes so much to the fact that he tested positive for anabolic steroids after winning it. Then again, it doesn’t villify him, either.
Johnson is now 56. He remains in decent shape – I say this with confidence, having seen him in a small white towel – and claims that with a few months’ training he could run 100m in 10.7 seconds.
He doesn’t drink alcohol, avoids sugar and eats meat sparingly. He still signs his name Ben Johnson, 100m, 9.79 seconds – the world record he set in Seoul – even though he lost the record along with the gold medal.
“These people tell me nothing,” said Johnson as he pulled on a pair of smart trousers, bent to slip on his shoes, then pulled a neatly ironed shirt from the wardrobe.
“I haven’t shaved or nothing.” He buttoned up his shirt and, as we were walking across the forecourt, did up his trousers. 10.44. We were due on stage in one minute.
The schedule was pretty relaxed, I would learn. In the conference room 500 people sat and listened to Johnson and me discuss ‘the dirtiest race in history’ – a title that now seems a bit of a joke, given how many other contenders there are.
‘Ben and Carl’ may have been better, since the story was as much about the rivalry between Johnson and Lewis.
Our event began with a replay of the Seoul race on the big screen: it was followed by a burst of applause.
There was no postscript, no Des Lynam moment – when the dapper TV presenter was momentarily ruffled on being handed a piece of paper with the news that Johnson had tested positive.
The applause was spontaneous and understandable, because the race is still thrilling to watch.
And it was Johnson’s electrifying start and the sheer power and muscularity of his run, coupled with the elegant Lewis’s vain pursuit, that made it so thrilling.
It might be only half the story, but it’s the half that people prefer to focus on when confronted with the man who crossed the line first. Johnson poses for selfies every single day, he tells me later; and although they must all know him on account of his notoriety, they never mention that.
Thanks in part to this kind of reception Johnson is able to, on the one hand, inhabit an alternative reality where only the race exists, without the postscript.
On the other, he is still haunted by what happened and bitter because he is convinced he was set up by the Lewis camp.
He may well have been, though this doesn’t alter the fact that he was using the “full enchilada” of drugs in the years between the LA Games, where he won a bronze medal, and Seoul.
For 30 years Johnson has clung on to the hope that one day he might get “his” gold medal back. Now he clings on with renewed optimism.
On the occasion of the 30th anniversary a Canadian newspaper unearthed the report from the Seoul lab: it included altered lab codes and scribbled revisions.
It cast some doubt on the lab’s findings, not least with the revelation that the Canadian delegation was not shown the report at the time. Johnson says more is to come. He wants to take the fight to the IOC.
I am not so sure any of this would have made a difference at the time. The lawyer who represented Johnson in 1988 was Dick Pound, later the founding chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
As Pound told me for the book, he would not have wanted to get Johnson off the hook with clever lawyer’s tactics.
“If I get the medal back, do you know what I’ll do?” said Johnson on Saturday evening as he drank water, ate dahl and watched the Odisha dancers.
“I’ll put it in a gold case – made of proper gold – and I’ll auction it, starting at $1 million. Then I’ll go to Jamaica, to Falmouth [where he was born, and where he keeps the old family home, in which his father lived until his death in 1990].
“I will build a track for kids, and I will coach them,” Johnson continued. “But I’ll do it all myself, coz I don’t trust no one. And I’m only getting started with the IOC, man.”