Ben Johnson, the disgraced former sprinter who was banned from competition in 1993 for using steroids, said athletics is fortunate to have Usain Bolt but the sport lacks the kind of rivalries that marked his time in the spotlight.
Johnson, who waged a memorable rivalry with American Carl Lewis during his prime, said Olympic and world champion Bolt is capable of running even farther away from the pack and could lower his 100 meters world record of 9.58 seconds to 9.4.
“Track and field has not the excitement like there used to be anymore. The excitement is gone,” Johnson told Reuters in Harlem on Thursday after participating in a sports symposium.
“We know Bolt is going to win all the time.”
Bolt has electrified the sprint scene since setting the 100 metres world record two years ago in New York, registering an Olympic and world record triple in the 100, 200 and 4×100 relay at the 2008 Olympics, and lowering the current 100m standard at last year’s world championships in Berlin.
Johnson was clocked at a world record 9.79 seconds when he beat Lewis for gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics before he tested positive for steroids at the Games and had his medal and record stripped away in a startling plunge from prominence.
“Carl Lewis and I were a big rivalry,” Johnson, 48, said.
“We didn’t like each other. But Carl Lewis brought the best out in me and I brought the best out in Carl Lewis. Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson was like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier back in the ’70s boxing.”
Johnson, banned from competing for life in 1993 after a second positive doping test, now helps train young sprinters in Toronto. The Jamaican-born Johnson does not attend top track events but said he noticed that Bolt has room to improve.
“From what I’ve seen on the replays, I think if he can work on the first 10 metres on his start — he doesn’t have to work on the 30 and 40 — just get the reaction, he can run a 9.4.”
Before the symposium on the future of Jamaican athletics, Johnson, still looking fit in a dark dress suit with his familiar shaved head and sad eyes, told a news conference that his autobiography “Seoul to Soul” would reveal new evidence of sabotage related to his positive dope test.
Saying he was “singled out” as a doping cheat and “wrongfully convicted”, Johnson defended his prowess as a sprinter and said his use of steroids only served to allow him to train harder, not to run faster.
“Usain Bolt and I come from different generations,” he said. “When I was running, I was running 9.79 on a slow track. Now technology has changed and he is running 9.5. So things have changed over the years.
“I’m not saying he is not good. He is great. And it’s good for Jamaica and it’s good for all the kids in Jamaica to say I want to be a part of that.”
(Editing by Frank Pingue; To query or comment on this story email email@example.com)