Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis, and the Dirtiest Race in Olympic History

The 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, were rife with controversy. Track, in particular, experienced notable issues with potential PED abuse. The women’s side saw Florence Griffith-Joyner’s dominant appearance derailed by accusations of using human growth hormone. Then, she came up clean.

On the men’s side, events didn’t pan out as well. In the 100m final, Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis were the star athletes. Johnson, a Canadian, ended up beating American favorite Lewis. The massive moment for Canada was a shocking upset for a likable athlete. But things quickly spun out of control.

The dirtiest race in history

CBC Sports reports that, at the time, the 1998 Men’s 100m final was dubbed “the dirtiest race in history.” But as it played out in real-time, it seemed destined to be definitive in a different way. It should’ve been a historic upset. Forgotten is the long-running, intense rivalry between Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis.

This race in particular was one of the most highly anticipated events of the Olympics on an international scale. Lewis was the most dominant runner of the era. But Johnson, throughout 1987, started blowing him out whenever they met. The sudden shift in outcomes set the stage for an explosive final. Could Lewis have been saving himself for a final stand at the Olympics?

It didn’t go that way. Johnson continued his streak in the 100m final, breaking a record in the process according to The Island Journal. His 9.79-second finish was mind-blowing. Lewis thought it was too good. After a year where his times only improved, somehow a cohort of runners blew past him. He called foul, claiming there must be something nefarious going on. Lewis was right.

The athletes in the 1988 100m final who got nabbed for PEDs

According to The Guardian, Lewis had good reason to think his competitors might be doping. He tested positive himself during the Olympic trials. While he denied that he intentionally took the drugs, it cast a pall over his own pushback in the immediate aftermath of the 100m final.

The same report also notes that Lewis tested at a rate that’d count as negative by modern standards. Overall, 20 runners tested positive by 1988 standards, including eight from the 100m final. The participants of the 1988 100m final have one thing to be thankful for: an even more infamous race.

The 2012 London Olympics Women’s 1500m final wrapped up with an exciting finish. Then doping allegations piled up, as Secret Base reports. Four athletes were stripped of their finishes, with only a bronze medalist left out of the top three.

Where are Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis now?


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Johnson’s reputation, in a pop-culture sense, was shattered by his doping. He immediately went from a Canadian hero and beloved international sports figure to a cautionary tale. That didn’t mean he fell out of sports entirely, however. He developed a talent for conditioning young hockey players, according to TSN Hockey.

Lewis regained his status as one of the best runners of his generation, a sympathetic figure who had his rightful win stripped from him. He leveraged that celebrity by turning his other passion, singing, into a career. While his album went gold, with objectively great vocals overall, he’s most famous for his botched rendition of the national anthem.