Thursday, 7 June 2012

Richard Moore Q&A

Out today (Thursday 7th) The Dirtiest Race in History on Bloomsbury Press and part of the Wisden Sports Writing - an imprint designed  to bring any and every sport the qualities that have made Widens Cricketers' Almanack famous since 1864, books not just about sport, but about life. Richard Moore is an award winning sports writer specialising in cycling and has written In Search of Robert Millar.  

Moore's new book focuses on one of the greatest and darkest Olympic moments - the Men's 100m final in the 1988 Seoul Olympics - when Ben Johnson won the gold for Canada in a World Record time of 9.79, denying Carl Lewis a second consecutive title as the fastest man on Earth.  Two days later, Johnson was disqualified and stripped of his gold medal.  Moore takes us into the narrative of the piece, how it was formed over years of training before by both men, their backgrounds, the need to win, the character building and why Johnson cheated and took drugs.

Moore is a great writer and is clever to not paint Johnson as the total villain of the piece, also bringing up the murky past of officials and administrators, most importantly Primo Niobolo of the IAAF, who would look the other way when there were positive drug tests.  Moore takes all the parties of the race, all 8 competitors and how 6 of them have been banned for drug cheating either during those Olympics or since.  Calvin Smith who finished fourth, feels he should have had the gold as he was clean and the three in front of him - Johnson, Lewis, Linford Christie - have all tested positive.

Luckily, I was granted the opportunity to interview Richard Moore before the book was released, and he was happy to answer my questions.

Jamie Garwood: You are known for your coverage of cycling, what drew you to this story in athletics?
Richard Moore: Actually it probably owes a lot to the fact I was 11 when the LA Games were on in 84, and at my most impressionable. I loved them, and loved Carl Lewis -- they were the Carl Lewis Olympics. When Ben Johnson emerged as a rival over 100m it only made the event more interesting; and the world champs in Rome in 87, where Johnson won in a new world record, set up the Seoul Games perfectly. You have to remember that athletics was huge in those days: the Rome world champs seemed as big a deal as the Mexico World Cup had been the previous year. That's how I remember it, anyway. When Seoul came along, the men's 100m was the race everyone was looking forward to. And yet it surpassed all expectations...
It took about a year to write the book, though I'd been thinking about it since the last Olympics. I was keen to do a non-cycling book, yes, just for a change, and for the challenge, and because this, for me, is one of the great sporting stories. 

JG: The story broke in 1988, what were your memories of it when it happened in Seoul?
RM: What I most remember is the sight of Johnson being bundled out of Seoul. He was jostled and manhandled as though he was guilty of an atrocity. I remember, at that moment, feeling sympathy for him. I thought: whatever he's done, he doesn't deserve to be treated like a murderer, does he? But I also felt sympathy for Lewis and the others who'd been cheated by him. I felt...conflicted. 

JG: Were you a fan of athletics growing up?
RM: It wasn't my main sport -- that was football, then cycling in my later teens. But you couldn't be a fan of sport in the UK in the 1980s without following athletics. Not really sprinting, though Allan Wells was a hero. I was just slightly too young to get really into the Ovett-Coe rivalry, but I really loved watching Steve Cram -- a beautiful runner. And, being Scottish, I was a big supporter of Tom McKean. He always seemed to be boxed in. And of course Liz McColgan. At school I ran 800s and 1500s myself, though preferred cross country -- the longer, the better. 

JG: Your tone of the book is very neutral. Where do you stand now, are you pro-Johnson and anti-Lewis or vice versa?
RM: I wouldn't say I'm pro- or anti- either of them, though I have sympathy for both for quite different reasons. But I really wanted to research the story, meet the key players, describe those people and events, and then let the reader make up their own mind -- or not as the case may be. 

JG: The Johnson ban changed athletics doping policy due to the high profile nature of the crime.  How did it change athletics?
RM: I'm not sure if it changed athletics very much at all. It's always been a hard sport to police. I think things have got better, in all sports, since the formation of WADA, which was the IOC's response to the Festina scandal at the 1998 Tour de France. Really, though, such a body should have been set up after Seoul. The fact it wasn't meant things continued as before, I suspect. 

JG: Why is cycling still caught out?
RM: Because riders still cheat...

JG: Where is Athletics now in terms of drug cheating?
RM: I wouldn't pretend to have a really detailed knowledge of doping in athletics now. But, as I said earlier, it is a hard sport to police. I think cycling's slightly easier in that respect -- it's organised in teams and most riders race on a regular basis. Compare that to athletics and you can see some of the challenges. I'm sure people still cheat in all sports. There's stricter testing but, as one drugs tester told me last year, if there's still a gap between the testers and the athletes, and if there are still ways to beat the tests (and there is a gap, and there are ways to beat the tests through micro-dosing, undetectable drugs, etc), then people will still be cheating -- impossible to say how many. 

JG: If Johnson and Lewis were around today, would they be able to compete? Or has Usain Bolt taken it to the next level?
RM: It's an interesting question. Why is Bolt running faster? Is it -- as Johnson claims -- because the tracks are faster? Have training methods improved? Or is Bolt a physiological freak? If he is then perhaps he would beat Johnson and Lewis easily. But if he isn't then I suspect that Johnson and Lewis would be very close.  

JG: And as for cycling? Should David Millar be allowed to compete for Britain?
RM: I don't think there was any choice about whether or not Millar competed, and couldn't understand why the BOA went to the trouble and expense of taking on WADA. I think the only way to tackle doping is to take a global approach and have agreed, worldwide rules. Otherwise the anti-doping effort will become fractured and the rules will become impossible to enforce. I think now the time has come for four-year bans for a serious first offence, which would keep athletes out of the next Olympics. I'd have preferred to see the BOA put their efforts into lobbying for four-year bans rather than going out on a limb to preserve their bylaw banning British offenders. If rules aren't global there doesn't seem much point to them. 

JG: Will you be covering the Olympics? And what is next for you?
RM: I'm covering the Olympics. It seems to me that several athletes are close to medals but it could go either way. Perhaps home advantage could make a difference. I would enjoy seeing Mo Farah win a gold medal. I'm working on a photographic book for next year's 100th Tour de France... out next June. 

Kind regards and thanks for the opportunity to ask you some questions.

Next Wednesday 13th June, Richard Moore will be in discussion with John Inverdale at Bloomsbury Publishing about the book, drugs and the forthcoming Olympics, tickets cost £8 each and would be a great evening.

My thanks to Richard Moore for his time and to Bloomsbury for giving me the chance to review the book.
Follow Richard on twitter @RichardMoore73 and his website

The Dirtiest Race in History: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 Olympic 100m Final is out from Bloomsbury ( for £18.99RRP

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