A Great Face for Radio and the Hero to Zero in 9.79

Twenty-one years ago this week, Ben Johnson beat Carl Lewis at the Seoul Olympics in what remains the most infamous race in sporting history. Here, in an extract from his new book, A Great Face For Radio, JOHN ANDERSON recounts a torrid working week as he made his own Olympic debut

Commentating on a 100 metres sprint is a strange, complicated and extremely nerve wracking experience. There is absolutely no equivalent to it in any other sport. A football match lasts 90 minutes, a Test match five days and even the shortest of boxing contests will offer a minute or so to in which to gather your thoughts and choose your words carefully.

If you get a goal scorer wrong in a football commentary (especially on radio) you can quickly recover. How many times have you heard phrases like “in fact it was Scholes who got the final touch” or “it might have gone in off the defender”?

In the 100 metres, you have less than 10 seconds from start to finish. That’s it. There’s no hiding place, no second chance. In less time than it takes to recite the alphabet, you have to follow and describe the positions of the eight runners in the field and correctly identify at least the first three across the line while checking the clock for the winning time.

Most human beings generally speak at a rate of about three words per second, so by the time you’ve said “And they’re away”, you’ve already used up 10 per cent of your allocation. Add “Bolt’s got off to a great start but Powell’s also going well in lane three”, and you’re well over half way through.

That leaves about three seconds to untangle a hurtling blur of velocity at the finish line. More often than not there’s only a couple of hundredths of a second separating the leading competitors, so you’re making judgement calls with the naked eye based on less than the thickness of a vest. There’s a worrying amount of stuff that can go wrong.

It seems incredible, nay impossible, now that any commentator with no previous experience would be thrown blindly into all this in the midst of the biggest single event of the biggest sporting show on earth. But that’s the position I found myself in on September 24, 1988, at 1.30pm local time in Seoul, South Korea, and my first Olympic Games. I thought about all the times I’d sat watching the Olympic 100 metres in the past, never imagining that one day I’d be a tiny part of it.

Even before the final, you sensed that something extraordinary was about to happen, with Canadian world champion Ben Johnson and American reigning Olympic champion Carl Lewis going head-to-head for the right to be crowned as the fastest man on earth.

Johnson had beaten Lewis to the world title in Rome the year before, smashing the world record in 9.83 seconds. But his run up to Seoul had been hampered by injuries while Lewis was in the form of his life and had won the meeting between the two in Zurich the previous month. For added spice, Britain’s Linford Christie was hoping for a medal but would have to hold off Lewis’ team mates Calvin Smith and Dennis Mitchell.

There’s something magical about the stillness which envelopes a stadium of 80,000 people in the seconds leading up to the start of a 100 metres final. It’s as if the whole world has gone into slow motion, stopped what it’s doing and settled down for a 10-second adrenalin rush. In order to define the global impact of that moment, I’ve often stolen a TS Eliot phrase. For the next 10 seconds the Olympic Stadium was “the still point of the turning world”.

I was glancing down the track at the eight men lining up and desperately trying to remember who was in which lane. I kept whispering the same mantra: “da Silva one, Stewart two, Lewis three, Christie four, Smith five, Johnson six, Williams seven, Mitchell eight”. It’s only just struck me now that, apart from da Silva, you couldn’t pick a less exotic list of surnames. It sounds more like the roll-call at a Surrey primary school than a gathering of the greatest sprinters on Earth.

I’m sure I was more nervous than the competitors as they crouched in their blocks as my grip on the microphone tightened.

Heart pounding, I waited for the gun. I can remember my words even now.

“They’re away in the final….Linford Christie got off to a slow start but Johnson’s flying”

This, of course, was bollocks. Johnson had produced one of the greatest starts of all time. In hindsight, to suggest Christie had got out of the blocks slowly was ridiculous but, at that moment, compared to Johnson, he resembled an old age pensioner struggling out of a bath chair.

“It’s Johnson…Lewis coming up behind”

Many felt that Lewis, traditionally the strongest finisher, might rein Johnson in over the final 50 metres but the Canadian’s start had been so good that there was simply too much ground for him to make up.


At this point the comrex signal dropped out, meaning that there was a split second of Dalek interference, but happily the forces for good ensured that their intervention was short lived.

“But it’s Johnson…..and Johnson wins…..he’s upset the form book. Lewis second and Linford Christie’s got a bronze, he’ll be delighted with that.”

I was very fortunate that the first two places had been about as easy to call as is possible but equally very pleased to have spotted Christie grabbing third just ahead of Smith to claim a medal for Britain.

“The time…9 point 7… 9.”

Of course, I should have gone into raptures about the world record having been smashed in the first sub-9.8-second run of all time. But I didn’t. Although I’d got the correct words out, I’m sure I was so incredulous that, in my mind, the clock read 9.97, which would have been relatively modest. It could have been worse though.

“The time 9.79… nothing to write home about.”

As first attempts go it wasn’t bad at all and I slumped back in my seat relieved, elated and exhausted. I felt like Johnson did as he took his lap of honour and looked up to see the beaming face of the IRN news reporter, Michael O’Neill.

“That was fucking great….well done mate.”

THREE DAYS LATER we got the news that Johnson had failed a drug test. We received a call from London to say the story had been broken by the French news agency AFP, so I quickly bashed out a holding voicer full of ifs and but and maybes to cover our arses in case this was some kind of gigantic hoax.

My next port of call was the entrance to the Athletes’ Village. This resembled Checkpoint Charlie and only those with Athlete or Official accreditation were allowed through the gates. Reporters had to hang around and hope someone interesting would turn up. It was the middle of the night, so almost everyone was fast asleep in their beds dreaming either of gold medals or the Brazilian synchronised swimming team and blissfully unaware of the drama that was gradually unfolding.

Eventually I sidled up to a tall, lean guy in a USA tracksuit and his jaw dropped as I told him the news. As luck would have it, he turned out to be a member of the American 4 x 100 metres relay team called Emmit King who’d raced against Johnson many times and gave me one of the earliest athlete reaction interviews.

The next day the IOC called a press conference at the Shilla Hotel to confirm the positive test and Johnson’s disqualification from the Games. A French press spokesperson called Michele Verdier read from a prepared statement:

“The urine sample of Ben Johnson collected on Saturday 24 September 1988 was found to contain the metabolites of a banned substance namely stanozolol, an anabolic steroid. The IOC Medical Commission recommends the following sanction: disqualification of this competitor from the Games of the 24 Olympiad in Seoul. Of course, the gold medal has been withdrawn by the IOC.”

And that was it, no real details, no elaboration, no follow up questions permitted. As Ms Verdier rose to leave I was among a crowd of reporters (mostly British I hasten to add; if there was a gold medal for being awkward fuckers, we’d be home and hosed) who surrounded the poor woman haranguing her for the lack of information and demanding to be told more. When she explained that they had nothing further to say, I shouted aggressively: “Oh come on, you’ve got to give us more than that.”

All of which was filmed by an ITN camera crew and appeared on News at Ten that night. My sister was in the kitchen when her husband suddenly called out: “Get in here quick, your brother’s harassing some poor woman in a blazer on the telly.”

One of the most enjoyable jobs in Seoul involved doing what we call “two-ways”, in which you are interviewed by a presenter in order to explain a story more fully. I had been appearing frequently on LBC’s breakfast show hosted by Douglas Cameron and had to suddenly become an expert in dope testing.

To be honest, at the time, I didn’t know Stanozolol from Stan Ogden, but thanks to the knowledge passed on by radio colleague Andy Edwards, I was able to sound as if I’d spent a lifetime in a laboratory whizzing test tubes full of piss round in a centrifuge.

“Well of course Douglas, the thing about steroids is they enable athletes to undergo more punishing training schedules and thus build up unnatural levels of muscle bulk. It’s similar to how farmers increase meat production in beef cattle. And increasingly the labs are developing masking agents so the athlete can continue his doping regime right up until the start of a competition without fear of detection even in random tests.”

If they introduced a random test for blatant plagiarism, I’d have been banned for life.

BY NOW, OF COURSE, the Johnson scandal had completely overshadowed everything in the Games and we devoted 90 per cent of our time to covering it. Because we were spreading ourselves so thin, the actual sporting side of the Olympics was getting brushed aside. On the very same day as the now infamous 100 metres, Great Britain had won a rowing gold medal in the coxless pairs without much of a fanfare from us. Oh well, you can’t be in two places at once, and anyway, what were the chances of Andy Holmes or Steve Redgrave ever being heard of again?

To add insult to injury, when we did announce their moment of triumph it was spoilt by a newsreader describing them as the cock-less pairs.

Four days after the infamous race, Carl Lewis, who’d ended up successfully defending his Olympic 100 metres title, albeit in such extraordinary circumstances, was back on the track in the final of the 200 metres. After every Olympic event, the three medal winners are compelled by the IOC to attend an official press conference just before they go on to the medal ceremony itself. Lewis had not actually spoken publicly on the drugs topic thus far, but as long as he finished in the top three in the 200, which barring disaster he would, we’d finally be able to get his reaction to the events of the past three days.

Normally these conferences are held in a special room in the stadium which holds about 100 journalists. The microphones on the top table are fed through a mixer with a plethora of output sockets which you can plug your tape recorder directly into to get the audio. If it was the 50km walk, you could probably conduct the whole process in a broom cupboard.

But the world and his wife were geared up for the 200 metres conference and it was wisely switched to a larger area outside so that everyone could be accommodated comfortably.

As it turned out Lewis was beaten into second place by his 21-year-old training partner and protégé Joe DeLoach but, as silver medallist, he was duly obliged to face the world’s press. An IOC official stood up and announced that Lewis would be willing to take three questions on the Johnson scandal, and then we would move on to the 200 metres.

“So could we have the first question please?”

A little Korean fellow stuck up his hand and was given the roving microphone as the world held it breath: “Mister Lewis, could you tell us how you are enjoying life here in South Korea?”

Gasps of horror swept the assembled hacks and even Lewis first reaction was to laugh before telling us how great the place was and how he’d been shopping in Itaewon.

Eventually, Lewis was asked the question the whole world wanted the answer to. His response was polite, understated and uncontroversial. There was no condemnation, he said he felt sorry for Johnson and hoped he could get his life back in order.

Having got Lewis’ reaction, I was hoping we could now move on from the story which had dominated the world headlines for what seemed like an eternity and move on to more routine matters. I’d hardly slept since the news had broken.

Fat fucking chance. No sooner had the Johnson saga finally started to die down than Linford Christie, now elevated to the 100 metres silver medal of course, came under the scrutiny of the drugs testers himself. His sample was found to contain traces of pseudoephedrine which, Andy Edwards informed me, was a lesser prohibited substance, not considered as serious as a steroid.

Nevertheless Christie now faced the prospect of disqualification and a three-month ban if found guilty. He protested his innocence, claiming the substance had entered his system via cups of Ginseng tea which he’d been drinking during the Games.

So we traipsed back to the Shilla Hotel, where the IOC was deliberating whether to send Christie the way of Johnson, or uphold his version of events. I actually dozed off a couple of times in a standing position as we waited in a corridor close to the meeting room as the discussions dragged on. We took it in turns to creep up to the door and try to earwig what was going on inside.

Finally, Andy came rushing back. “He’s been cleared, Linford’s been cleared.”

In the manner of those old black and white films where trilby hat-ed reporters dash for the telephones after the conclusion of a court case, Michael ran off to file a voicer from the lobby and I waited around to get the official British Olympic Association reaction from its marvellous and never adequately replaced press officer, Caroline Searle.

It was a huge relief to me, not necessarily because Christie had been reprieved, but because we finally felt we had put the whole saga to bed. And that’s where we headed after three days of virtual non-stop dashing about. Suitably rested, the following night we set out for Itaewon. On the way we got fake Yves St Laurent polo shirts made up bearing the legend “I Saw The Junkie Run.” I’ve still got mine.

When the Games ended, we were queuing for a bus to the airport when one of the Canadians I’d spoken to on the night the Johnson story broke came over with a group of friends and three huge crates of beer. We polished off the cans in world record time and one of the guys offered me a cigarette. I had given up smoking while at college on New Year’s Eve 1983, mainly on the grounds that I was too poor to afford it.

But I had come to the end of an extraordinary and sensational first ever foreign send and was still scarcely able to believe that, just four years after walking into County Sound’s newsroom for the first time, my life had taken such an extraordinary turn. I felt as if I deserved a moment of indulgence and lit up. As I inhaled I felt a profound sense of joy, achievement and relief. It’s not as if having one cigarette is going to hurt me, I thought. I’ll just have this one and then quit again.

Sure enough, 12 years later, I did.

John Anderson’s A Great Face for Radio: The Adventures of a Global Sports Commentator, with foreword by Terry Butcher, is to be published by Know The Score Books in October. Click here for more details

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