Moments in time: Carl Lewis-Ben Johnson clash made an indelible mark, but super San San gets my vote as best Olympic memory
Privileged to be part of the Games, SCMP writers choose the moments they can’t forget
No matter how many Olympics a journalist covers, there’s always one moment that stands out – like the 1988 Games in Seoul and THAT 100 metres final.
We asked a few journalists who have had Olympic assignments for the SCMP to highlight their best memories and two – John Crean and Unus Alladin – chose Ben Johnson’s epic “victory” over Carl Lewis.
Another writer, Peter Simpson, was awestruck by Usain Bolt’s double-double in Beijing in 2008, while Jeremy Walker picked his time in hospital with a serious infection at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
As for myself, it was a choice between Lee Lai-shan’s Olympic gold in 1996 and the Centennial Park bombing in Atlanta. I went for San San, of course.
The interesting aspect about Crean’s and Alladin’s recollections was not so much the Canadian’s famous positive drug test but the preamble to the race.
While his steroid use was one of the biggest sporting revelations of all time, the build-up between two rivals who hated each other was even bigger; the theatre of drama, tension and expectation that played out was probably up there with Ali-Foreman.
“Everyone – fans, media and athletes – wanted to see the showdown between Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson at the Seoul Olympics in 1998,” said freelancer Crean.
“I, like hundreds of others, took time out from covering other events to be at the Seoul Olympic Stadium for what was being billed as the race of the century.
“I sat on the stairs of the media tribune with Steffi Graf a few rows in front of me. The atmosphere was electric and Johnson did not disappoint by blowing away Lewis in a new world-record time.
“It was one of those ‘I was there’ moments, which sports journalists are privileged to watch and write about. The hairs on my arms stood to attention that day.”
Alladin was also in the stands. “It was probably the most anticipated 100m showdown in history. When the race started, it felt surreal,” he said. “I kept one eye on the diamond screen and one eye on the track, and could clearly see Johnson in front. He raised his arm in that famous salute as he crossed the finish line. The cheers were deafening.
“I remember Johnson was late for the post-race press conference and he needed two or three cans of beer to produce a urine sample. We all know what happened next.”
Simpson, who earned plenty of praise from the world’s media for his reporting of the Beijing Games before and during the event, stood in wonder as Bolt blitzed both world records in the 100 and 200. “I have seen a lot of things,” he said, “but I will never, ever forget this moment.”
Walker, who now works for the Olympic Council of Asia, was struck by cellulitis, a bacterial infection.
He was watching the table tennis “wrapped in tin foil” and shivering from fever, but waited until the next day to seek treatment. “I staggered to the media village clinic, where a keen but clearly junior member of staff diagnosed my condition as ... wait for it ... sunburn.
“A short while later, a proper doctor appeared. After listening to my symptoms, the doctor went straight for my groin, pressed the right side and an excruciating pain shot through me.
“‘Ambulance,’ he ordered. ‘Intensive Care. Badalona Hospital. Now!’ It turned out to be cellulitis, a serious bacterial infection that had entered my body through a messy wound on my right heel – caused by my new training shoes shredding the bare skin because my entire supply of socks was in the laundry.”
As for me, it was the post-medal ceremony interviews with San San in 1996 along with dozens of other Hong Kong reporters on a grassy patch in Savannah, Georgia.
I waited patiently for a Chinese-language TV crew to complete their live interview before she was ready for my questions.
I had barely started my interview when suddenly the TV reporter shoved me out of the way for another live chat. Apparently, they were going in and out of live feeds.
Another few minutes’ wait and again San San was mine. But I was soon flying through the air before landing on a bed of hay after this reporter, emotional with tears in his eyes, shoulder-barged me out of the way for another live broadcast.
I took one more trip to the Savannah dirt before I finally had my interview with San San.