The Sports Examiner: September is the darkest month in Olympic history

Ben Johnson, disgraced winner of the 1988 Olympic 100 m. His disqualification for doping changed the way sport is viewed worldwide.

Our “Lane One” commentary from the September 26 edition of The Sports Examiner:

PALM DESERT, Sep. 26, 2016 – September is almost over and from an Olympic history standpoint, good riddance.

The ninth month of the year is easily the worst in the history of the modern Olympic Games, for two incidents which changed the way the Games are viewed and the way they are run. They are known, collectively, by three words:


Ben Johnson.

The Munich massacre of 11 Israeli Olympic team members occurred on 5 September 1972 during the Games of the XX Olympiad in Munich, in what was then known as West Germany. Carried out by a Palestinian terrorist organization called “Black September,” the attack, subsequent negotiations carried out while live television was broadcasting the crisis and then the botched airport rescue attempt by West German police was a turning point in the history of the Olympic Movement.

Among many other changes the massacre made was a complete change in the nature of security at the Olympic and Olympic Winter Games. Munich’s desire to make the 1972 Games a showpiece of the changes since the infamous 1936 Nazi-supported Games led to an astonishingly low level of security support, especially in and around the Olympic Village.

The result at the Games was a carefully-planned attack on the Israeli team which ended with the deaths of five Israeli athletes, four coaches and two sports officials.

The result for subsequent Games has been an increase in security to levels rarely seen outside of wartime. And the seemingly-limitless cost of such security is one of the reasons why few cities wish to undertake the task of organizing (and paying for) an Olympic or Olympic Winter Games.

The International Olympic Committee’s decision that “The Games must go on” still generates controversy today, even though the Israel Olympic Committee supported the decision. Under the supervision of the IOC’s President, Thomas Bach (a German), a formal ceremony remembering the massacre took place in Rio de Janeiro a few days before the opening of the 2016 Olympic Games.

Ben Johnson:
While Munich changed the way the Games were viewed and organized, the announcement that Olympic 100 m champion Ben Johnson had tested positive for steroids and would be disqualified changed the way the public looked at superstar, world-record-setting athletes forever.

Johnson was a Jamaican-born, Canadian sprinter who had won the World Championships 100 m over Carl Lewis of the U.S. in 1987 and set the world record in doing so at 9.83. Their showdown in Seoul in 1988 was one of the most eagerly-anticipated events of the Games.

The race, on 24 September 1988, was no contest: Johnson set a world record of 9.79 seconds with Lewis second at 9.92.

But three days later, on 27 September, Johnson’s positive drug test and disqualification were announced and sent him home without his medal or record. He later admitted using steroids prior to his 1987 World Championships and his victory and records were erased from that competition also.

The story was huge and the reaction equally furious. Now every spectacular performance was questioned, and with good reason. Several years later, after the collapse of East Germany, it was confirmed that an enormous program of state-sponsored doping had powered the rise of East German athletes to Olympic medal-winning levels.

Through today, the parade of doping issues, problems and scandals has continued, essentially unabated. And state-sponsored doping is back in the news, thanks to revelations of such a program in Russia, including the swapping of samples at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, held in Russia.

But it was the announcement of Johnson’s positive test, on 27 September 1988, that opened the Pandora’s Box once and for all on doping. Sport has never been the same since.

After the 28th anniversary of the Johnson doping announcement on Tuesday, September will end quietly on Friday. And the worst month in Olympic history will, once again, pass into memory. I, for one, can’t wait.

This Lane One commentary comes from The Sports Examiner, an all-in-one briefing on international sport. You can subscribe to ensure prompt delivery to your e-mail inbox here.

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Rich Perelman has served and supported organizing committees of 20 multi-day, multi-venue events, including five Olympic Games, in the U.S., Canada and Europe. In addition to nearly 100 books and pamphlets, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, Track & Field News, Universal Sports and many other publications.

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