Athletes are using more performance-enhancing technology than ever. But how much is too much?by David Edmonds / November 16, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Oscar Pistorius competing in the men’s 400 metres semi-final at the World Championships, 2011
What happened to Ron Clarke in the 10,000 metres at the Mexico City Olympics of 1968 is now virtually forgotten, though at the time it was headline news. That race continues to influence many elite athletes today, whether or not they know it. Clarke says he’s lucky to be alive.
Nineteen sixty-eight was the year of the Paris riots, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy. The Vietnam war was still raging. The Olympics were not shielded from these social and political currents. A widespread boycott over the participation of apartheid South Africa was only averted when the International Olympic Committee banned the country. And the iconic image of those Games is of the African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 200m medal ceremony: heads bowed, clenched fists in the air, giving the Black Power salute as the “The Star-Spangled Banner” played.
Ron Clarke never made it to the podium, though he was at the starting line for the first track event of those Olympics. The Australian was the bookies’ favourite to take gold in the 10,000 metres. At that time he was the greatest distance runner in history; he’d broken more world records than anybody else.
But in front of 55,000 horrified spectators, the event went disastrously wrong. In the third lap, one runner keeled over and with six laps to go, two more were carried away. Yet the race was being conducted at a relatively leisurely speed: the halfway time was the slowest since the Paris Olympics of 1924.
With two laps to go, Clarke was in the leading pack. “I’d never felt better in a race,” he says. But suddenly he too began to struggle, and as the frontrunners moved up a gear, a gap opened up. He remembers nothing of that last lap, which he ran in 90 seconds: “normally I would run 64.” He stumbled across the line in sixth place and collapsed, “looking like a zombie,” according to one account; a Los Angeles Times columnist wrote there were healthier-looking people in a morgue.