When believing is an Olympian feat

'Nothing requires a journalist to live so uneasily with the possibility of propagating the Big Lie'

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Back in the Eighties, the American sports broadcaster Howard Cosell made a hugely publicised stand against what he considered the shameless immorality of professional boxing. After taking off the earphones at ringside, having delivered a commentary that amounted to a diatribe against the match-making which had just produced a world heavyweight title fight in which reigning champion Larry Holmes had pounded at will the face of his challenger Tex Cobb, Cosell announced that he would never work another pro fight.

Back in the Eighties, the American sports broadcaster Howard Cosell made a hugely publicised stand against what he considered the shameless immorality of professional boxing. After taking off the earphones at ringside, having delivered a commentary that amounted to a diatribe against the match-making which had just produced a world heavyweight title fight in which reigning champion Larry Holmes had pounded at will the face of his challenger Tex Cobb, Cosell announced that he would never work another pro fight.

Predictably, reaction was mixed. Some praised the principle of Cosell. Others pointed out that this hugely successful former lawyer had a genius for personal publicity and that he had ridden remorselessly on the coat-tails of Muhammad Ali.

Now that Ali, a shot-through fighter who had also been beaten fiercely in the ring by Holmes, was gone, Cosell was bailing out at a time when the richer pickings of the old game had disappeared. Certainly it was true that Cosell's high profile had hardly been based on affection. In the blue-collar bars across America that tuned in to Monday Night Football, a popular raffle prize was getting to throw a brick at the screen as Cosell pontificated.

Red Smith, the great columnist, said "I've tried hard to like Howard"; and once, when at a New York cocktail party Cosell bawled across the room, "Smith, tell these bozos how many great sports broadcasters there are in the world," he responded, "One less than you think, Howard."

But about one thing there was no doubt. Whatever its motivation, Cosell's gesture struck a chord. It still sounds today, and with a particular force as the Olympic flame wends its way through the Australian bush, ready for the opening of the games in Sydney on Friday.

Today, along with thousands of other sports writers, I am taking the plane for Sydney. But with some ambivalence. Hopefully, that doesn't sound too precious. It is, anyway, a fact - and one undisturbed by the conclusion that if there is anywhere on Earth more guaranteed than Australia to provide a jolt to a jaded spirit I have yet to find it. Though colleagues who cover world economic conferences or political conventions might provide evidence to the contrary, my hunch is that nothing requires a journalist to live so uneasily with the possibility of propagating the Big Lie to quite the extent that the Olympics does.

In all the Olympics I have covered, there has been a need to suspend the most nagging of doubts, on account of both the laws of libel and the elusiveness of the evidence fuelling the uncertainty that so regularly leaves a professional observer dangling between the summit of sporting achievement and the chasm of ultimate deceit.

On a terrace of the Olympic Village in Montreal in 1976, I encountered the broken figure of Olga Korbut, who had been the darling of the world, the gift to television, in Munich four years earlier. She was limping. Her eyes had dark rings. Clearly, she had been crying. You could only shudder at the difference four years had brought, four years of chemically retarded physical development, of joy through warping.

In Montreal I saw plenty of tears, mostly from young Africans pulled out of the Games on the day of their opening by some rancid political debate. Archie Moore, the old world light-heavyweight boxing champion who had coached the Nigerians, said: "After all their sacrifices, what will these kids ever believe in again?" The subsequent games in Moscow and Los Angeles were nothing so much as political dogfights launched by US President Jimmy Carter and the Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev.

But the reporter's greatest nightmare was Seoul in 1988. Then we had that ultimate deceit. Ben Johnson ran the 100 metres in a stunning new world record of 9.79 seconds. For 48 hours we had a suspension of doubt, with Johnson running "amid the stars" right up until the coldly matter-of-fact announcement of the International Olympic Committee, which said: "The urine sample of Ben Johnson (Canada, athletics, 100 metres), collected on Saturday 24 September, was found to contain the metabolites of a banned substance, namely stanozolol (anabolic steroid). The IOC recommends the following sanction: disqualification of this competitor from the Games of the XXIV Olympiad. Of course, the gold medal has been withdrawn by the IOC."

So we wrote again, in the small hours of Seoul. We wrote not about running amid the stars but grubbing in the dirt. It was a little like having to say that victory at El Alamein was really an abject defeat. The scale of the betrayal was huge enough, and only magnified by the resurrection of a Johnson statement to an athletics magazine three years earlier - and four years after, he admitted later to a Canadian government inquiry, he had agreed to a systematic use of performance-enhancing drugs proposed by his coach.

Johnson had told the magazine: "Drugs are both demeaning and despicable and when people are caught they should be thrown out of the sport for good. I want to be the best on my own natural ability and no drugs will pass into my body." The Inquiry heard that Johnson had taken a dizzying cocktail of drugs for seven years, including masking agents, and growth hormone extracted from cadavers. It was concluded that the injection which brought Johnson down in Seoul had been devised to fatten cattle.

There were other problems in Seoul. The hero of Britain, Linford Christie, also tested positive but was exonerated after pleading that he had fallen victim to a cup of ginseng tea. Even more troubling was the double gold of the late Florence Griffith Joyner, who had modelled her technique on Johnson. There were other similarities, including an astonishing improvement in her form and extraordinary muscle development. When "Flo-Jo" raced past the finishing line in world-record time, the dignitaries in the IOC section of the stand refused to celebrate. Perhaps more significantly, her American rival Evelyn Ashford had to be carried screaming from the stadium.

One of her helpers was Carl Lewis, who had watched in disbelief when Johnson sped away from him and later revealed his thoughts at that moment of defeat. "Damn," he thought. "Ben has done it again. The bastard got away with it again. It's over." When Griffith Joyner died at the age of 38, the cause of death, it was stressed, could not be linked to the use of steroids. She died of a genetic brain abnormality. But the doubts are relentless, and it was also pointed out that the announcement of her retirement soon after Seoul coincided with a new regime of random drug-testing.

Four years later, in Barcelona, Linford Christie won the 100 metres in what was celebrated as perhaps the finest moment in the history of British athletics. In the following Olympics, Irish swimmer Michelle de Bruin was the heroine of Atlanta with three gold medals - one of the most dramatic ascents from obscurity in the annals of swimming. Both are currently banned from their sports, one for testing 100 times over the accepted level for nandrolone, the other for tampering with urine samples collected by drug testers.

We do not know what Sydney will bring, not precisely. But of all the things we pack, we know one thing for sure. There will be absolutely no room for certainties.

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