(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.