Gaining Ben Johnson’s trust
(Editor’s note: Gary Hershorn, now Global Editor, Sports Pictures, for Reuters, has covered sport for 35 years. A Canadian, he gained the trust of compatriot Ben Johnson in the run-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics and had special access to the sprinter’s training. Here, Hershorn, looks back at that time and at Johnson’s downfall.)
By Gary Hershorn
Standing shirtless on the training track, Ben Johnson looked at me, then dropped his running shorts. He stared at me, apparently willing me to take a picture and prove I was just another paparazzo desperate to get a sensational shot of the world’s most famous athlete ahead of the Seoul Olympics.
I stared back but did not put my camera to my face. Training over, Johnson told me everything was fine and I could come back and watch him train as often as I liked. I had, it seemed, passed the test and won his trust. Johnson, who generally distrusted the media, completely opened up that July, telling me what time he would train each day, showing up on time and taking me inside his private world, to the weight room and massage room.
Toronto, where I was working, was also Johnson’s home. Knowing that pictures of him, the world champion and world-record holder, would be published the world over I had set out to try to get exclusive time with him while he prepared for Seoul. With the help of sports journalist Mary Jollimore, who had been writing about Johnson for a number of years, I was able to spend time at the Toronto Track and Field training center with him and his fellow sprinters Desai Williams, Mark McKoy and Angela Taylor.
By the time Johnson arrived in Seoul in September the interest in the men’s 100 meters, and his clash with American Carl Lewis, had attracted the level of attention usually reserved for a heavyweight title fight. In the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Lewis had won the gold medal with Johnson taking the bronze. At the 1987 world championships in Rome, Johnson won the 100 with a world-record time of 9.83 seconds while Lewis placed second. The stage was set for their South Korean showdown.
Johnson’s arrival at Seoul airport was fitting for a rock star and the media horde was one of the largest I have ever seen. The crowd encircled him and followed him to his waiting car. I somehow ended up on the hood of his car with my face pressed against the windscreen as he clearly laughed at me.
For the first three days in Seoul, Johnson trained at a secret location that he had told me about. It was another great opportunity to have him to myself. The world’s media eventually found him and he switched his training sessions to the practice track adjacent to the athletes’ village so everyone could easily watch his workouts.
The first week of the Games is something of a blur to me and I remember little other than American diver Greg Louganis hitting his head on the springboard, I was focused so much on Sept. 24, the day the 100 meters final was to take place. While trying to stay impartial I believed that my fellow Canadian was going to win in a spectacular way. Williams also made it to the final so I was doubly happy.
The race, the first Olympic 100 meters final I would cover, was set for 1.30 p.m. on a Saturday. For photographers, the day began at about 6 a.m. when the stadium opened to us. Quite simply, if you did not get to the stadium then, you would not get to photograph the race from the spot you wanted. Our Reuters crew was small, with only five photographers compared to the 12 we had covering Usain Bolt at the London Olympics last year.
We placed one photographer at the start, one at the side of the finish line, two head-on to the finish line and one on the elevated platform looking straight down lanes 4 and 5, perfectly centered between Johnson in lane 6 and Lewis in lane 3.
Looking back, photographing a 100 meters final in 1988 seems so simple compared to what we do now. As we were using film, there was no special technology involved. The cameras we used were slow compared to today’s ones which shoot 14 pictures a second. In 1988, each photographer used one camera and one roll of film that contained 36 pictures, giving the editor a maximum of 180 pictures to select from.
In London, we had 12 photographers shooting the race along with another 12 remote cameras producing thousands of images all because of the advancement of digital cameras and networking technology.
After hours of waiting and photographing the morning athletics session in Seoul, the time came for the final. Eight sprinters lined up in the starting blocks to see who the fastest man in the world was going to be. I was positioned on the side of the finish line. My job was to produce a picture showing how far the winner won the race by.
I pre-focused my camera on lane six, Johnson’s lane. There was no auto focus in 1988 so in order to ensure I had a picture of him in focus, I set my camera to a spot and waited for him to run through it. The gun went off and about nine seconds later Johnson was in my viewfinder. What was unexpected was that I saw him but not anyone else. How could a runner in a 100 meters race be so far ahead?
In the moment of shooting it seemed like Johnson ran through my viewfinder and then the rest of the field did. In reality, the photo that I captured had Johnson on the right side of the frame with Lewis, Linford Christie and Calvin Smith on the left edge and a lot of empty track between them. A quick look at the clock showed a time of 9.79 seconds. Johnson was the first person to run a sub 9.80 race.
The celebrations that followed were short-lived. By early Monday, the Canadian Olympic Association was dealing with a positive drug test on Johnson’s ‘A’ sample. When my phone rang in the early hours, I knew before I answered it that there was only one reason for such a call – Johnson had been caught doping.
Johnson left Seoul pursued by a media horde even larger then the one when he arrived.
I have always referred to the second week of the Seoul Olympics as my lost Olympic week. I do not remember anything that happened. I continued to cover the athletics but in reality the story of the Games had moved to Toronto where Johnson returned home. Pictures of Johnson washing his Ferrari Testarossa car with the license plate 9.83 for his world-record time set in Rome were what the world’s media were publishing on their front pages, not the competition at the Olympics.
I returned home and sought out Johnson, finding him back at the training facility in Toronto doing what he did best, running.
The race will stay with me forever. It was an event that lived up to its hype, excited the world and produced an extraordinary world record, if only for 48 hours, and it still stands out as one of the most exciting events I have photographed in 35 years of covering sport.