by | Sep 25, 1988 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments


SEOUL, South Korea — It began as the race everybody wanted and ended as the race that nobody could believe. Was that really Ben Johnson Friday night, leaving earth in a godly burst of speed? Was that really 9.79 seconds on the clock as he took his victory lap, a world record in the 100 meters, the fastest race of the fastest men on the planet? “BEN! BEN! BEN!” the crowd roared when it was all over, and he smiled finally — finally! — because the glory now belonged to him and him alone.

“I could have gone faster if I didn’t raise my hand at the end,” Johnson would say hours after this was over — and jaws would drop. He what? HE WHAT? But Johnson shrugged because time was not what he coveted most on this historic evening. Nor was the gold medal that sat at the end of the Olympic rainbow.

“I wanted to beat Carl,” Ben Johnson would say, without apology. For this was more than an Olympic final, this was a showdown for bragging rights, for history, it was, and forever will be, Carl Lewis vs. Ben Johnson.

And it was all Johnson. What goes into a destruction? How did this 26-year-old, Jamaican-born Canadian do what he did — so fast, so lethal? The answer lies not in what took place Friday in the Olympic stadium, but what took place one year earlier, on a sticky, warm evening in Rome. It was there in the world championships, that Johnson first set the world record (9.83) and beat Lewis in an explosion of power.

And the difference Friday — in a race they are calling the best Olympic 100 ever — was that, thanks to Rome, Johnson knew he could do it again, while to Lewis, it was still a dream. JOHNSON EXPLODES OUT OF THE BLOCKS! HE’S AHEAD AT 10 METERS, CHRISTIE, SMITH,


Remember that in an Olympic final, with the whole world watching, nerves and pressure play a huge role. Carl Lewis has always based his success in the 100 on his ability to relax. When other runners tighten up down the stretch, Lewis maintains his form and actually appears to be accelerating. To do this requires extraordinary calm. But then, Lewis never used to worry about other runners.

In Los Angeles, 1984, he was clearly the favorite in the Olympic 100. Nobody could catch him. He zipped to the gold medal with barely an extra breath. Relaxed. Calm. Easy.

In fact, he had been racing that way for several years, until 1985, when Johnson burst to the forefront. Then things began to change. Suddenly, there was someone alongside Lewis in the closing meters. Suddenly, sometimes, that man was . . . ahead. It bothered Lewis, although he rarely admitted it. In fact, he often declines to say the word “Ben” unless forced. But if you watch the replay of Friday’s race you see Lewis looking over at Johnson not once, not twice, but three separate times — an unforgivable faux pas in a sprint this big.

“All I have to do is run my race and concentrate on my lane,” Lewis, 27, had said over and over during the week. “I’m not even thinking about anybody else.”

Oh yes he was.

And that would be his downfall. LOOK AT HOW FAR AHEAD JOHNSON IS! FORTY METERS. FIFTY METERS. THIS IS WHERE LEWIS MAKES HIS MOVE! IS HE COMING? IS HE COMING? . . . Ben Johnson, a once-scraggly 93-pound teenager, had come to Toronto’s Charlie Francis because he wanted to be a runner like his older brother. Born in Jamaica, a quiet kid with a stutter, he was fascinated by one event, the 100 meters (unlike Lewis, whose curse may be that everything fascinates him). The kid had speed. Three days after meeting Francis, he entered a meet, without cleats or knowledge of the starting blocks. He ran the 100 in 11 seconds flat.

At Francis’ urging, Johnson began to build his body with constant weight lifting. Strength, the coach knew, meant acceleration in the starting blocks.
“What Ben does better than anyone else is keep his back foot down longer as he pulls his body up,” said Francis. That gives Johnson an explosive start without fouling. You need enormous strength to whip your torso that way. Then again, have you ever seen Ben Johnson’s torso?

So the start is where he blows away his competition. But in the semifinals Friday, Johnson had been called for a false- start violation. Watching in the TV room, Lewis felt a shiver of confidence. If Johnson would be hesitant in the final, Carl could beat him. And after all, the Canadian had not shown impressive times in the qualifying heats — running in the 10s while Lewis posted a 9.99 and 9.97.

But that, it would turn out, was part of the strategy.

“I did the same thing at Rome during the heats,” Johnson would later admit. “I ran easy, and had plenty left for the final. I don’t care about running fast in the qualifying. That stuff doesn’t matter.” IT’S JOHNSON WAY AHEAD IN LANE 6! LEWIS IS NOT GOING TO CATCH HIM! LEWIS, CHRISTIE, SMITH, ALL IN THE SECOND PACK! SIXTY METERS! SEVENTY METERS! LEWIS LOOKS OVER AND SEES HE HAS NO CHANCE. IT’S BEN JOHNSON! BEN JOHNSON! . . Nothing motivates like anger. Johnson, a quiet man due both to his speech impediment and a natural preference for action, nonetheless had burned inside for years over Carl Lewis. He was envious of all the attention Lewis received following the 1984 Olympics (in which Johnson took the bronze and left the stadium virtually unnoticed). Lewis was getting rich while Johnson, the son of a Jamaican telephone repairman, was being ignored. But OK. Lewis was the winner then. What really hurt was the way Lewis would constantly shrug off his defeats.

Johnson began to beat Lewis with regularity; yet each loss seemed to have an explanation. The 1985 Bruce Jenner Classic (Johnson 10.01, Lewis 10.18) was dismissed by Lewis as “a minor event.” The Goodwill Games in Moscow in 1986
(Johnson 9.95, Lewis 10.06), Lewis blamed on the fatigue of traveling. In Zurich that same year, where Lewis had predicted a victory and lost (Johnson 10.03, Lewis 10.25), he refused to attend the post-meet press conference. In Rome (Johnson 9.83, Lewis 9.93), Lewis admitted Johnson ran “great” then questioned whether his start was legal.

Johnson would press his lips tightly and say nothing. He did not like being snubbed. I wanted to beat Carl. But he knew until he did it in front of the whole world, where there could be no excuses, no ducking out, he would never be given his due.

The time was Seoul.

The answer was the perfect race.

And here was the one thing Johnson took to the blocks that Lewis, for all his confidence, could not: Johnson had already set a world record, he owned it; in his mind, if he said to himself, “It will take a 9.83 to win this thing,” he was soothed by the knowledge that he had already done it.

Lewis, meanwhile, had never set an individual world record in any of his events. If he said to himself, “I need a 9.83 to win,” he would also have to ask himself, “Can I go that fast?”

“According to all our observations of him,” said Francis, matter-of-factly,

“we didn’t think Carl could run below a 9.9.”

They would prove to be correct. IT’S ALL BEN JOHNSON. EIGHTY METERS, NINETY METERS, LEWIS WILL NOT CATCH HIM! JOHNSON LOOKS OVER AT LEWIS AND RAISES A FIST, HE’S GOING TO WIN IT! HE’S GOING TO WIN IT! . . . That moment of celebration, that brief second of Ben Johnson gloat, was a farewell to Carl Lewis’s best tactic — relaxation. Remember, in his best races, Lewis maintains his form down the stretch. But who could maintain against a hurricane?

“I didn’t relax the way I should have,” Lewis would admit. In fact, after his second glance at Johnson — around the 60-meter mark — Lewis fell victim to the most human of all emotions: panic. His arms began to tighten, his legs were burning, looking for more effort. All the things his opponents always did, he was now doing. He would run his best legal time ever (9.92) — but it might have been faster had he run his usual form.

But what was usual about this race? Nothing. Johnson found enormous acceleration in the middle (Francis: “He won this thing between 40 and 80 meters”) and down the stretch, he was untouchable. Lewis was straining. Johnson was a machine. He had finally succeeded in shaking Carl’s confidence
— in the biggest moment of the biggest challenge of their lives.

When the race was over, Lewis seemed mystified (if you watch the slow-motion replay you can see his face almost collapse in agony at the 90-meter mark). The NBC cameras grabbed him, and he launched into what seemed to be a victory speech. “All I can say is . . . my mother told me two days ago
. . . that she had a dream . . . and she spoke to my (deceased) father . . . and . . . he said everything would be all right . . . and. . . .”

Was this something he had planned to say after winning? Remember, Lewis had buried his 1984 100-meter gold medal with his father. The dash was Bill Lewis’ favorite event. He had wanted his son to be the first man to defend his Olympic 100- meter crown.

It would not happen.’

So be it. In a strange way, this defeat may boost Lewis at these Olympics
— at least in the long jump. He needs that now. And if, as many suggest, Lewis really thinks in terms of future earnings potential, then you can bet his agent is saying: “I don’t care what happens. You take all six leaps and you go for the world record every time.” Few Americans remember who won the 200 meters, or who anchored a relay. The ghost of Bob Beamon looms even larger for Lewis now, because it may be dangling the last slice of Carl’s immortality.

And what of Johnson, the mysterious “fastest man in the world” — who as a teenager ran one lap of the track, sat down and said, “I’m tired.” Could it be that, with his body-builder torso, Johnson is simply a better mousetrap? Will anyone duplicate his start? Is it Francis’ unorthodox coaching methods? How much faster can he go?

“I don’t know,” Francis said. “How many more races can you put together like this?”

And that is the point. Here was a classic affair in which two runners knew, before the starter’s pistol, that they would have to go out over the cliff and face the deep below of their potential. Johnson had done it before; he simply did it again. Lewis is still trying.

“How long will your record last, Ben?” Johnson was asked by a mob of reporters hours after that glorious victory lap.

“I think,” he said, “it will last for 50 to 100 years.”

Then he grinned and snorted.

“I will break it next season.”‘ IT’S JOHNSON! A WORLD RECORD! THIS IS UNBELIEVABLE, JUST UNBELIEVABLE! . . . CUTLINE Ben Johnson’s upraised finger tells who’s first in the 100- meter dash. No. 2 finisher Carl Lewis turns to see.


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