When Ben Johnson ran 9.79 in the 1988 100-meter, he not only shattered the world record, he shattered the Olympic ideal.
He shattered the naivety and innocence of sport when he subsequently tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol. He shattered that quaint notion of the Corinthian Spirit. You could almost imagine the gods on Mount Olympus shuddering as they looked down upon him on the starting blocks, his massively over-developed trapeziuses straining, eyes bulging. The man with the physique of a minotaur, who exploded out of the blocks in a whirr of muscular motion, forever changed the face of Olympic sport.
Famously, six of the eight finalists that day have tested positive or been implicated in a performance enhancing drug scandal. It’s worth noting that Carl Lewis would not have tested positive under current day testing standards, so his explanation of inadvertent use of Chinese herbal medicines has to be taken at face value, and he remains the greatest track and field Olympian in my mind.
Of course, drug taking had been part of Olympic and professional sport for many years before the Seoul Olympics. The East Germans had perfected the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in the 1970s.
However, the high-profile nature of the 1988 100-meter dash scandal began the process of skepticism greeting every new superhuman endeavor in the Olympics. Subsequent positive drug test results in many different disciplines, particularly in endurance and strength based sports (including many 100m winners) have only served to deepen skepticism and cynicism.
Sports fans have been thieved of the "wow" factor. Now a world record or sporting feat of greatness is likely to be greeted with "he/she must have a good chemist." This is truly sad.
However, there is hope. In Beijing 2008, a young, easy-going Jamaican lined up for the 100-meter final. He waved to the crowd, throwing shapes including his famous "archer" pose. What was absent was the steely eyed focus we expect to see from sprinters on the blocks. What was present in abundance was God given talent. He smashed the world record despite pulling up 10 meters from the line, before going on to break Michael Johnson’s 19.32 record in the 200-meter.
Watch the 2012 Olympics in the knowledge that the most rigorous drug testing program is in place. Don’t remember the cheats of past Olympiad but instead those glorious moments that no other sporting event provides. For the Olympics show us the best and worst of sport and of human nature.
Remember Michael Johnson in Atlanta blitzing all comers in the 200-meter and 400-meter. Remember Gymnast Kerri Strug nailing the vault with a badly sprained ankle to ensure her US team won gold in 1996 and Japanese gymnast Shun Fujimoto who nailed the dismount from the rings despite having a broken knee. Remember UK sprinter Derek Redmond in Barcelona finishing the 400-meter final, after pulling his hamstring and been helped across the line by his father. Remember Michael Phelps getting the touch for his seventh gold medal on his way to a record of eight gold medals in Beijing. .
Already only a few days into the 30th Olympiad we have seen great feats (some tarnished by suspicion) and incredible back stories. There has been the near flawless brilliance of the U.S. ladies gymnastics team. We have seen the excellence of the U.S. men's 200-meter freestyle relay team, including the Lord of the Pool Michael Phelps, who has just broken the mark for the most decorated Olympian of all time by winning his 19th medal and 15th gold. (It beggars belief that the New York Post saw fit to print a ‘Phlop! Flying fish smoked on the water' headline over a picture of Phelps after he finished fourth in the 400m individual medley final). The displays of the French swimmer Yannick Agnel in the 200m freestyle and South African Chad Le Clos (pipping Phelps in an enthralling 200m butterfly) have been extraordinary.
There are those athletes with fascinating back stories who mightn't make it to the podium but add to the tapestry of the games—Irish gymnast Kieran Behan who was twice told he would never walk again (once after an operation to remove a tumor and once after a gymnastics accident) competed in the men's gymnastics qualifier. His mother sold homemade cakes in his local gym to raise money for him to attend events.
Yes, in London, as the games continue apace, we will see cheats but we will also see courage, sacrifice, selfishness, drama and brilliance.
The Ancient Greeks set aside petty tribal differences every four years to celebrate the human form. We too should revel in the beauty of elite athletes performing to the edge of human endeavor, whether it is the poise and grace of a 4'9" gymnast or the power of a 6'5" sprinter. Cheats can only shatter the Olympic ideal if we let them.