I can’t get this image out of my mind. It seems so foreign to the spirit of athletic competition on the one hand, and yet it is as entwined in world-class competition as excellent coaches and dedicated training.
The image I am referring to is a particular odious one, described in the book, The Dirtiest Race in History: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 Olympic 100m Final, by Richard Moore. The Second World Athletics Championships were held in Rome, Italy in August 1987, a year prior to the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul Korea. Ben Johnson has set a world record in the 100 meters with a time of 9.83 seconds, beating rival Carl Lewis who also had a personal best of 9.93 seconds.
Moore related a story told by Doug Clement, a former Olympic middle-distance runner who was a coach and a doctor for the Canadian Olympic Association, and was at those World Athletics Championships in Rome.
Next to the Olympic Stadium was one of Mussolini’s smaller excesses, the Stadio dei Marmi, the Stadium of the Marbles, filled with statues depicting athletes in classical poses, which during the championships was being used as a warm-up area. ‘Inside it was a catacomb-like area, lots of little rooms,’ recalls Clement. ‘They were dark and dingy, there were multiple caves. There were syringes everywhere. All over the floor. It was like a drug den.’
It was a drug den – and a metaphor for the sport. In the sunshine of the Stadio Olympico the triumphant championships were played out in front of 75,000 people; near by, in the shadows of the statues that adorned the Stadio dei Marmi, lay the dingy reality.”
A year later, Ben Johnson won the gold medal at the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988, only to have it stripped from him after testing positive for drugs in his system.
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