Sunday, July 6, 2014

Review: The Dirtiest Race in History (2012)

By Richard Moore

The subject of steroids and sports has become rather tiring.

How many more surprises are out there?

Just this week, at the time of this writing, a book revealed that Alex Rodriguez received permission from major league baseball to take testosterone in 2007, which may have helped him turn in a banner year and sign a $252 million contract with the New York Yankees. That's only the latest in a series of developments in baseball over the past several years.

Then there have been similar stories involving athletes in such fields as cycling and track. While the story of what happens to someone like Lance Armstrong for the rest of his life has some drama, some sports fans probably would prefer to simply write him off for good as an arrogant cheater.

This brings us to the biggest track story of the 1980s, the sprinting rivalry between Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis. It's all recounted in the book, "The Dirtiest Race in History."

You might remember the basics. Lewis won America's respect, if not love, for his performance at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He won four gold medals there, including the 100-meter dash. That put a target on him for the next Games, in Seoul in 1988. Lewis found his rival, and vice-versa, in Ben Johnson, a short, powerful Canadian.

There was all sorts of anticipation about the Seoul matchup, and the race met those expectations. Johnson set a world record, with Lewis right behind. That made it all the more shocking when, less than two days later, it was discovered that Johnson had failed his drug test. He was disqualified and Lewis was given the gold medal ... quietly, and out of the public eye, in an office. No use making a ceremony out of this result.

Author Richard Moore went back about a quarter of a century and more to review those times. Several people are quite open about what was happening in the 1980s. That includes Johnson, although some of his explanations and stories still don't add up. Lewis was less cooperative and remains a slightly enigmatic figure. Most importantly, Moore captures the feelings that the Eighties were the Wild, Wild West, when anything went, when it came to track and drugs. Most of the contenders were doing steroids, in part because they were afraid to be left behind.

Meanwhile, Olympic and track officials were more than happy to turn away from any evidence of steroid use. They didn't want to know what was going on, so they didn't look. That includes a study of Lewis, who had a small amount of illegal substances in his system at the Olympic trials; nothing was done from there. If you want to compare that to major league baseball in the late 1990s, well, feel free.

The best part of Moore's book comes when every arrives at Seoul for the showdown. The author gives a moment by moment description of what happened before, during and after the race. That includes comments from top officials like Dick Pound. Moore even talked to the woman who had to go retrieve Johnson's medal after the results of testing had been revealed. There are also some good stories here. For example, one official describes how he went under the grandstand of a major meet once, and found all sorts of syringes. Then there's the tale of the hot line for athletes set up after Seoul, designed to answer questions about steroids. Most of the questions were a variation of "How do I get what Ben Johnson got?"

I have little doubt that there's an audience for this, based on the reviews on It's a thorough job of reporting and writing. For those who qualify as track fans who want a full look back, this serves the purpose. Please give it an extra star.

Still, some of the material, particularly the scientific portions, is a little dry. And let's face it, we're not dealing with model citizens here. Instead, we are hearing from cheaters in many cases. Whether you want to hang around these people for 300 or so pages is entirely up to you. I came away feeling impressed by the work but not too enthusiastic about learning more about the subject.

In other words, don't make me read about A-Rod or Lance in the near future.

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

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