When Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson faced off in the 100-meter finals at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the race to determine the world’s fastest human was the marquee event of the Games. It was America vs. Canada; the lithe Lewis against the hulking Johnson; the reigning Olympic champ against the reigning world champ; Lewis’s personal-best 9.93 against Johnson’s world-record 9.83.
On the morning of September 24, as fans and journalists flocked to Seoul Olympic Stadium for the biggest moment of the Games, Sports Illustrated staff photographer Ron Modra was expecting a light day shooting a minor event away from the stadium. He knew that SI’s “A-Team” photographers from the magazine, including Heinz Kluetmeier and Manny Millan, were slated to shoot the track-and-field action.
But then Jerry Cooke, SI’s photo editor in Seoul, directed Modra to join his colleagues at the stadium. “I said, ‘Where do you want me to shoot from?’” Modra recalled asking Cooke. “Jerry said, ‘Just find yourself a spot.’”
Modra pondered how he could take an original picture of the 100 while competing against the hundreds of photographers already in the stadium. He decided to try a “panning” shot. That is, instead of trying to “freeze” the action, he would employ his 35-millimeter Nikon almost like a movie camera: tracking the runners as they raced by him and shooting them with a slow shutter speed in an attempt to capture their raw velocity.
There were two potential drawbacks to his plan. First, Modra had never attempted such a shot before. Second, he would have to pick one runner to focus on and then hope that his choice would be in front when they sped past him. Otherwise, as Modra put it, he would end up with “a blurry bunch of fuzzballs.”
The 100-meter field was loaded. Besides Lewis and Johnson, there was Great Britain’s Linford Christie, the reigning European champ, and American Calvin Smith, whose personal record was 9.93. Still, like most of the experts handicapping the race, Modra assumed either Lewis or Johnson would win the gold medal. And so, Modra debated with himself: Ben Johnson or Carl Lewis? Carl Lewis or Ben Johnson?
Modra’s pick would prove prescient. His two “pan” pictures of the first man to cross the finish line in this epic race would become an iconic cover of and inside spread in Sports Illustrated. But in the aftermath of the showdown, the story would take an unexpected twist that would forever change the context of Modra’s images, not to mention the legacies of the sprinters themselves.
Ronald Modra was born and raised in Milwaukee. He began his career on production side of the business, helping out at his father’s small printing company. He began shooting displays for the business while in high school, and then combined his interest in photography with his love of sports, particularly baseball. He grew up listening to Braves games, smuggling a transistor radio underneath the covers and thrilling to the heroics of Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn and Eddie Mathews.
After high school he served in Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division. “I was your basic grunt,” Modra said. When he got out of the Army in 1970, he eschewed college and started shooting for local newspapers like the News Graphic and the Post.
A self-taught “grinder,” Modra finagled credentials to shoot Milwaukee Bucks games. The Bucks were an expansion club, but behind their big three of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor), Oscar Robertson and Bob Dandridge, they won the 1970-71 NBA championship in only their third year of existence. Modra’s work was noticed by the PR department for the other new pro team in town: the Brewers, owned by Bud Selig, a local car dealer who had bought the Seattle Pilots out of bankruptcy and moved them to Wisconsin in the spring of 1970.
The Brewers hired Modra to be their team photographer in 1973. “The money was crappy,” he said, “but I thought, ‘Wow, this is a really good opportunity for me.’ I took the job, and it was the best thing I ever did. I worked my butt off.”
His big break came two years later. Legendary Sports Illustrated photographer Herb Scharfman came to town to shoot Aaron after the aging slugger had come back to Milwaukee to finish his career with the Brewers. Modra assisted Scharfman for several days, then got up the courage to show him his portfolio.
“I really wanted to work for Sports Illustrated,” Modra said. “Really badly. And Herbie was a true gentleman. He said, ‘I think you may have the right stuff.’”
Scharfman spoke to his editor in New York, and soon Modra was getting small freelance assignments, like shooting black-and-white pictures for the baseball column. In early 1980, photo editor John Dominis (himself a legendary shooter) offered Modra a contract position with the magazine.
At a time when ESPN was just a startup, Sports Illustrated was the undisputed leader in sports journalism. Modra picked the brains of the more experienced photographers: Not only SI’s vaunted crew, including Walter Iooss, Neil Leifer, and Heinz Kluetmeier, but also the masters who plied their trade for Time and Life: Carl Mydans, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Co Rentmeester, John Loengard, Bill Eppridge.
“It was unbelievable,” Modra recalled. “You grew up looking at these guys’ pictures week after week, and now you’re part of it. On Sundays, when we came back from assignments, a whole bunch of photographers would gather at an old broken-down Chinese restaurant called the Ho Ho waiting for the film to be processed in the lab. For me, it was like going to photo school listening to Bill, listening to Neil, listening to John Dominis.”
Modra scored his first cover with a photo of Detroit Lions running back Billy Sims in September 1980. He also learned that SI had a pecking order. “I shot baseball all season long, but I didn’t go the World Series in my early years,” he said. “When it came time for the World Series, Walter went, Neil went, Heinz went. The ‘A-Team’ went. I never resented that. You had to pay your dues.”
His first Olympic experience came in 1984. He was assigned to shoot a photo essay about athletes who would have been gold-medal contenders in 1980, but because of the boycott of the Moscow Olympics were unable to compete until four years later. It was a plum assignment; he traveled to China, Japan, Australia, Germany, and more.
But after the Soviet Union and other nations announced their boycott of the L.A. Olympics, managing editor Mark Mulvoy killed the story. “He felt that there was going to be another set of athletes affected by the boycott, and so he didn’t see that the original story was relevant anymore,” Modra said. “It was part of the job, as painful as it was. Your favorite pictures don’t run a lot of times. You just gotta roll with it.”
Then came unanticipated success while covering the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics inside the cavernous Los Angeles Coliseum. It was a dismal experience, he recalled, “sitting for hours with the sun straight in my eyes. It was flare city. I’m like, this is going nowhere.”
The sun gradually shifted, and Modra found himself with “this golden light” over his shoulder just as Rafer Johnson began climbing a set of steps to light the Olympic cauldron. When the 1960 decathlon gold medalist turned to face the Coliseum crowd, holding the flame aloft, Modra was perfectly positioned to capture the stunning tableau.
“I got the cover out of the deal,” Modra said. “Patience paid off on that one.”
Journalists and track officials at the Seoul Olympics remember how, in the days leading up to the 100-meter final, Ben Johnson looked almost inhuman. The whites of his eyes were tinged with yellow; his body was an armor of sculpted flesh, with muscles so highly developed that “they seemed to be separate beings on the verge of exploding out of his skin,” according to Olympic historian David Wallechinsky.
Born in Jamaica, Johnson followed his mother to Canada when he was 14. He joined the Scarborough track club in Toronto and fell under the tutelage of Charlie Francis, a Stanford-educated coach who had competed in the 100 at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Canada had become the first and still the only host nation not to win a gold medal at the Summer Games. Francis was convinced that the only way for his athletes to break through at the elite level was to take steroids. It was widely known within international sports circles that the success of East Germany, particularly its female athletes, was due to wide-scale doping.
“If you don’t take it, you won’t make it,” became the rallying cry for Francis’s squad.
Canada was slow to embrace Johnson in the early years of his career. He spoke with a heavy accent and a persistent stutter. He was an also-ran on the track. His record was 0-8 against Lewis in the 100, including a bronze-medal showing behind King Carl’s triumph at the 1984 Olympics.
But using the most explosive start in sprinting history and, as would be revealed later, a regimen of steroids overseen by Francis and physician Jamie Astaphan, Johnson closed the gap and then some. Starting in the summer of 1985, he consistently trounced Lewis in the 100, at one point winning five consecutive outdoor races, climaxed by his staggering 9.83 at the 1987 World Championships in Rome, a performance that lowered the record by one full tenth of a second.
His appearance fees soared, followed by multi-million-dollar endorsement deals. And, just like that, Canadians warmed to “Big Ben” — both for his immigrant success story and his conquest of America’s best athletes. In the immediate aftermath of the blockbuster trade that sent Wayne Gretzky south of the border to the Kings in August of 1988, Canadians pinned their sporting hopes on Johnson.
Lewis was seen as a latter-day Jesse Owens after he swept to four gold medals in L.A. (In the long jump, 100 and 200 meters, 4x100 relay.) He was hoping to repeat the trick in South Korea and cement his legacy as the greatest sprinter and long jumper of all time. But for all his success on the track, Lewis never inflamed fans’ passion, not even in the U.S.. It was whispered that he was gay (he was cruelly nicknamed by some “The Flying Faggot”). The Santa Monica Track Club star was chastised for taking only two long jump attempts at the 1984 Olympics — ostensibly to protect his body from the rigors of four events — and not attempting to set a world record at home. His gold-medal haul was met largely with indifference from corporate America.
His manager was alleged to have arranged with meet promoters that Lewis not be tested for drugs, a charge he denied. Meanwhile, Lewis publicly called out his competitors for doping.
In early 1988, Johnson pulled his hamstring, curtailing his training and racing in the crucial months before Seoul. Then, at a meet in Zurich just five weeks before the Olympics, Johnson broke well and led early, only to have Lewis overtake him in the last 20 meters. It was Lewis’s first victory over Johnson in two years.
The injury and the defeat in Zurich apparently motivated Johnson to undergo a final round of steroid injections, administered by Dr. Astaphan, less than a month before the 1988 Olympics.
Sports Illustrated sent a small army of 64 journalists to Seoul, including nine photographers. In those years, SI was the most important U.S. print outlet covering the Olympics; its preview issues were must-read tomes, with writing from the likes of William Oscar Johnson and marathoner-turned-scribe Kenny Moore, and visual artistry from photographers Leifer, Iooss and Kluetmeier. (SI also utilized talent from Time Inc.’s other publications.)
SI’s Seoul Olympic preview issue picked Lewis to defeat Johnson in the 100. (The two were also scheduled to meet in the 4x100 relay.) This was accompanied by a profile of Lewis that dissected his rampant unpopularity. The editors hedged their bets by dispatching Ron Modra to shoot a portrait of Johnson in Toronto. The photo showed Johnson, shirtless, poised at the starting line. (Modra also contributed a spread of pole vault star Sergey Bubka.)
The traditional start times of the semifinal heats and the final for the 100 had been moved to early Saturday in Seoul to allow the TV audiences in North America to watch on Friday night. Despite the unorthodox start time, the venue was packed to capacity for the main event. The Johnson-Lewis confrontation was, according to New York Times columnist Dave Anderson,“the Olympics’ answer to Ali-Frazier III, to Nicklaus and Palmer in the 1967 United States Open, to Borg and McEnroe in the 1981 Wimbledon.”
In the first semifinal, Lewis advanced easily in 9.97. Johnson was called for a false start in his heat, but he gathered himself and qualified for the final in 10.03.
To this point, Modra had primarily shot what he called “the satellite sports,” including judo and baseball (which was an exhibition sport in Seoul). Because he was hastily assigned to shoot the 100, he had no assigned spot when he arrived at the stadium.
The crush of photographers positioned at the finish line was overwhelming. With time to kill between the heats and the final, Modra decided to wander up toward the starting line. About 20 meters from the start, he spotted photographer David Burnett in the narrow photographers’ moat that ran between the stands and the straightaway section of the track.
Burnett was renowned for his news photography; he also shot the iconic image of Mary Decker’s disastrous fall at the 1984 Olympics. In Seoul, he was shooting for Time. Modra said he thought, “if it’s good enough for Dave Burnett, it’s good enough for me.”
Modra climbed into the moat and readied his equipment for his panning shot. He was using a Nikon F4 camera with a 300-millimeter lens on a pistol grip, which helped him to steady the camera while shooting at a slow shutter speed. He set his exposure and put a fresh roll of film into the camera.
And then, the decision: Johnson or Lewis? “I kept going back and forth, back and forth,” Modra said. “I must’ve drove Burnett crazy. I was like, what am I going to do here?”
Finally, Modra settled on Johnson. The Canadian had drawn lane 6 for the final, which meant he was closer to the moat than Lewis. Plus, Modra had recently worked together with Johnson. “I’d just shot him in Toronto, and so I thought, I’m sticking with him. And I did. Right before the gun went off I thought, ‘Boy, this could be a really stupid idea.’”
It was about 1:20 p.m. when the eight finalists were summoned to the track. The crowd of 70,000 hushed as Johnson, wearing number 159, settled into his wide stance, a thick rope chain of gold around his neck. To his immediate left was Calvin Smith, then Linford Christie, with Lewis, wearing number 1102, in lane 3.
At the gun it was immediately apparent that Modra had chosen wisely. Johnson blasted from the blocks with a surge so extraordinary that American Dennis Mitchell, in lane eight, wondered if Johnson had again false-started.
“He was so far in front he could have sent a postcard to the other guys,” Charlie Francis later said.
The ultra-aggressive start gained Johnson a stride’s advantage on the field: feet churning, arms pumping, gold chain taut around his neck. From the moat Modra had just enough time to snap “no more than four frames” of the runners as they accelerated past him.
Lewis glanced over at Johnson three times, as if wondering when he would falter, but this time his rival did not fade. Johnson held the advantage through 60 meters, then 80. Just before he crossed the finish line, Johnson turned his head to stare at Lewis and raised his right arm in triumph, index finger pointing to the sky.
Three lanes over, Lewis’s face was a mask of disbelief. He had run 9.92, a personal best and what would have been an Olympic record if Johnson hadn’t just demolished it. Video and still pictures suggest that Lewis ran out of his lane during the race, but he was not penalized for this transgression.
“UN-BE-LIEVABLE!!” screamed NBC announcer Charlie Jones at Johnson’s breathtaking display of speed and power.
The fiercest rivalry in track had yielded the fastest 100 meters the world had ever witnessed. In 46 strides, with a top speed measured at 26.961 miles per hour, Johnson’s time of 9.79 shattered his previous world record by .04. Four men were timed in under 10 seconds for the first time — with Christie third and Smith fourth — and four national records were broken.
“The most hyped race in the history of the Olympics had achieved something utterly remarkable: it had surpassed its billing,” wrote author Richard Moore in his book, The Dirtiest Race in History. “It was magical, thrilling, the stunning denouement to one of sport’s most compelling rivalries.”
Johnson and Lewis shook hands briefly on the track. On live TV, Johnson accepted congratulations from prime minister Brian Mulroney, as all of Canada rejoiced.
Meanwhile, Ron Modra was certain he’d nailed the precise moment when Johnson took control of the race — or at least he hoped so. “I could see that Johnson was sharp as he came past me and he was in front,” Modra recalled. “I thought, you know what, I think I have something. But back then, until the film was processed, you really didn’t know what you had. It’s not like today, where you can look at the back of your camera and immediately see what you got. We had to go with our meters and our sense of what needed to be done.”
Modra dropped off his roll of film at the press center and went off to shoot another event. Later that evening, an editor called him. “He said, ‘Hey, Ron, you really smoked that Ben Johnson race. It looks like it’s gonna be a cover and the opener.’”
Of the four frames he had shot, Modra had captured two iconic pictures of the race. One showed Johnson silhouetted against a background of the green grass of the infield and the spectators in the distant stands. Everything about Johnson seems to be in motion — his outsized muscles, his hands, his feet, the red uniform — except his head. (The image would be cropped for the SI cover.)
The other photo caught Johnson perfectly in stride while showing the huge early lead he’d built. The other runners register as an impressionist blur straining to catch him: Lewis, Christie, and Smith are bunched together in the order that they would finish behind Johnson, with Canada’s Desai Williams, who ran outside of Johnson in lane seven, in the immediate foreground. (Dennis Mitchell is the only competitor who does not appear in the picture.)
His experiment had, well, panned out. Modra’s pan is the one “that all others are now compared to,” wrote Sports Shooter editor-publisher Robert Hanashiro a decade later.
As it turned out, the next 72 hours also proved to be a blur. As all of Canada celebrated “Our Ben,” his urine sample was being analyzed at the Olympic Doping Control center. On Monday morning, Johnson was informed that he had tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol.
Johnson denied taking any drugs. His coach, Charlie Francis, defended his charge, claiming that someone had slipped steroids into Johnson’s beer while he was waiting to take his drug test.
A second test confirmed the original result, and the damage was done. The IOC stripped Johnson of his gold medal, which was awarded to Lewis, with Christie receiving the silver and Smith the bronze. The IAAF, the governing body of track and field, erased the world record and banned Johnson for two years.
The reaction in Canada was especially harsh. Wrote Ottawa Citizen columnist Earl McRae:
“So, thanks Ben.
“Thanks for the humiliation, the embarrassment, the international disgrace.”
Charles Pierce, who was covering the Games for a Boston newspaper, recalled a telling joke that circulated in Seoul after Johnson’s positive drug test:
Yesterday’s headline: “Canadian Sprinter Wins Gold”
Today’s headline: “Jamaican Sprinter Tests Positive”
Ron Modra was asleep in his hotel room when the phone rang at 2 a.m. “The editor said, ‘Hey, you need to go out to the airport. Ben Johnson got busted for drugs, and we need photographs of him leaving the country. [SI photographer] John Iacono and I went to the airport to shoot Johnson, and then they told us, ‘One of you needs to get on the plane with Johnson and photograph him when he gets home.’ I didn’t have my passport with me, but John did, and so Johnny went with him [along with SI reporter Shelley Smith].”
A dejected Modra returned to his hotel room, convinced that his photos of Johnson were yesterday’s news. “I thought, ‘Well, there goes that one down the crapper. It’ll never be a cover now.’”
The deadline for the magazine to go to the printer was fast approaching. As word of the drug scandal broke, writers William Oscar Johnson and Kenny Moore hurriedly reported and wrote a feature story detailing Johnson’s drug use before the Games.
But instead of switching to a photo of, say, Lewis, the editors decided to stick with Modra’s photo of Johnson. What changed was the headline. The cover copy was originally going to be “WHOOOOOSH!,” according to Slide Show, a book about photographs published in SI. That became “BUSTED!” And, Modra’s inside, two-page spread of the entire 100 field was titled “The Loser.”
The magazine hit newsstands while Modra and his colleagues were in Seoul, but he still recalls the moment he first saw the final result. “That was a defining photograph for my career,” he said. “To come out of the Olympics with two photographs I was extremely proud of, and to have people like Heinz and Walter and David Burnett compliment you on that, well, it really meant a lot to me.”
Modra didn’t learn until later that his editors in New York had navigated one last production hurdle. Some three thousand color slides shot by SI photographers in Seoul had been stolen from a delivery van parked outside the Time & Life Building. “Sports (Un)Illustrated” read the front-page headline in the New York Post.
Thankfully, the photos were found just blocks from the office and returned to the magazine.
Like every other Olympics, Seoul had its share of successes and flops. Janet Evans, FloJo and Jackie Joyner-Kersee won multiple gold medals. Not long after learning that he was HIV-positive, diver Greg Louganis smacked his head on the end of the board during the preliminary round of the 3-meter springboard competition. He managed to finish the competition and win another gold medal. The U.S. men’s basketball team, comprising college players coached by Georgetown’s John Thompson, had its worst-ever showing: a bronze medal. At the next Olympics, after the IOC voted to allow professionals to be eligible in all events, NBA stars took over United States hoop duties.
The biggest story in Seoul was — and is — Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and steroids. Elite athletes had been using performance-enhancing substances for decades, but most had avoided detection by taking advantage of the lax testing, enforcement, and investigation procedures that had, as one expert put it, “more loopholes than walls.” Indeed, Johnson’s transgression was the first time that a major sports star was caught, exposed publicly and penalized harshly for steroids.
Doping in sports had finally escaped the tell-no-secrets confines of the locker-room and the training table — not to mention the bars where journalists tossed around rumors about who was using what. According to Grantland’s Bryan Curtis (now with The Ringer), the media breach began on Sept. 28, 1988 — exactly one day after Johnson was booted from Seoul — when Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell mentioned that Jose Canseco is “the most conspicuous example of a player who has made himself great with steroids,” while speaking to TV talk-show host Charlie Rose.
After Seoul, the Canadian government convened the Dubin Inquiry to investigate the incident. Johnson and Francis both testified and confessed that Johnson had been taking performance-enhancing drugs as early as 1981.
The IOC responded by tightening its anti-doping program (although critics complained that the reforms and penalties were still not as draconian as they needed to be). In 1989, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that placed anabolic steroids under Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act. Meanwhile, the fall of Communism revealed the sophisticated state-run doping schemes in East Germany and other Eastern Bloc countries. (Major League Baseball banned steroids in 1991.)
It should be noted that Johnson was not the only sprinter in the race to be tainted by drugs. According to ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “9.79*,” directed by Daniel Gordon, five of the other seven athletes in the 100-meter finals either failed drug tests or were implicated for steroid crimes. Lewis himself tested positive for three banned substances at the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials. But instead of facing an automatic three-month ban, which would’ve forced him to miss the Seoul Olympics, he was let off with a warning from the USOC. (This revelation only came out 15 years after the fact.)
Only Brazil’s Robson da Silva, who originally finished sixth, and Calvin Smith, awarded the bronze medal after Johnson was DQ’d, were never connected to drugs.
The film and Moore’s book lend some credence to the allegation of tampering in the drug-testing area before Johnson’s positive test. Turns out, a friend of Carl Lewis — a man later identified as Andre Jackson —had a credential that allowed him entry into the testing zone. A photo of Jackson sitting with Ben Johnson and a few cans of beers surfaced in, of all places, Lewis’s autobiography.
Jackson refused to admit whether he slipped drugs into Johnson’s beer, telling Gordon, “Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t … What has been carried out in 1988 cannot and will not be invalidated.”
Lewis “only” managed two gold medals in Seoul (the 100 and the long jump); he was credited with the world record (9.92) after Johnson was also stripped of his world championship title. Lewis went on to win two more golds at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and another gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He achieved universal acclaim — the IOC voted him “Sportsman of the Century” in 1999 — but still never widespread popularity.
Johnson served a two-year suspension after Seoul. He made the 1992 Canadian Olympic team in the 100, but he did not qualify for the final in Barcelona (won by Christie). He again tested positive for drugs in 1993 and was banned for life. He still lives in Canada.
Ron Modra continued to shoot for SI, with some 70 covers to his credit. He himself became an “A Team” staffer, shooting the World Series as well as multiple Olympics and Super Bowls during the last of the “golden years” of the print magazine.
He decided it was time to leave SI in the mid-2000s because “it got extremely repetitious. And then the age difference between me and the players started to become an issue. I’m chasing Barry Bonds up the tunnel to get five minutes of his time, and I started to think, I want to do some other stuff.”
Today, the 69-year-old Modra lives in Nashville with his wife, author and Parade magazine senior editor M.B. Roberts. He occasionally shoots sports and a couple years ago self-published a book of his baseball photographs, entitled A Baseball Life: Four Decades Inside the Game. He now concentrates on travel, fishing and outdoors photography, leading tours to the Galapagos, Cuba and beyond for Guy Harvey Outposts. Along with Ronnie Dunn, of the country music duo Brooks & Dunn, he recently opened a small photography space in Nashville.
He hasn’t shot the Olympics in years, but he treasures that moment in Seoul when he captured the world’s fastest men with a unique angle. “This was one of the times where I really thought about what I wanted to do and then executed it,” he said. “Everything came together. The reality is, if I had made the decision to photograph Carl Lewis, I would’ve just had frames of mush.”
David Davis is the author of Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku.