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If Bolton’s own Calvin Smith were to walk into your living room, you would never guess he was once the world’s fastest human. Smith, an humble, soft-spoken man, would never tell you.
Smith, as unassuming as he was fast, has never tooted his own horn. He never sought the spotlight, even when he broke the 15-year-old 100-meter dash world record on July 3, 1983. Smith’s record stood for nearly four years. No telling how long his record would have lasted had it not been for other runners, juiced on steroids, running a fraction of a second faster.
That’s what makes Smith’s new book — “It Should have Been Gold: The Silent Runner Speaks” – all the more compelling. In it, Smith, long reticent on the matter, tells the world that, yes, he was cheated out of his world record and a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics — and it hurt.
Smith, now a 55-year-old social worker in Tampa, returns to Mississippi July 4 as the official starter at the 20th annual Farm Bureau Watermelon Run. Smith will be available to sign copies of the book after the race.
When asked why he authored the book, along with Kerry Kendall, Smith replied, “Because people need to know the truth. It’s part of history. I just wanted to have it down on record all the things that went on during the time I was running.”
In other words, he had some things to get off his chest. He wanted his side of the story to be a matter of record. And now it is.
Smith was part of perhaps the most famously sordid Olympic race of all-time. Remember?
It was in Seoul, on Sept. 24, 1988. Heavily-muscled Canadian Ben Johnson ran away from the field, finishing well ahead of Carl Lewis in second and Linford Christie in third. Smith finished fourth.
Johnson tested positive for anabolic steroids, elevating Smith to the bronze medal, which he received underneath the stadium, without ceremony, a day later. Of the five top finishers in the race, Smith was the only one who never tested positive for any banned substance. In his heart of hearts, Smith believes he deserved the gold.
“What can you do?” Smith said. “In many cases, the sport was condoning the athletes taking drugs. Ben was typical of what was going on in the sport then.”
Nearly 38 years later, track and field is still fraught with drugging controversy. Russia’s track and field team has been barred from competing in the Olympic Games this summer because of a doping conspiracy, an extraordinary punishment without precedent in Olympics history.
Smith, for one, was not surprised.
“When I was competing, we knew a lot of Russian athletes were using drugs,” Smith said. “That’s the thing. If you are involved in the sport, competing, you know what is going on. We knew who was cheating and who wasn’t.”
Smith was slightly-built for a sprinter and no doubt could have gained speed with muscle built from steroid-aided workouts.
“A lot of my speed was God-given, but a lot of it was just plain hard work,” said Smith, who says he decided while still in school at Alabama that he was going to remain drug-free.
“Whatever happened, I knew I was going to do it the right way,” Smith said.
Smith says reaction to his book has been “largely positive.” He’s not sure the book gives him a feeling of closure.
“It is what it is,” he said, and the medal from 1988 is still bronze.
“At least,” Calvin Smith says, “the truth is there in print. It’s there for the record.”
Rick Cleveland writes a weekly sports column running Fridays at Mississippitoday.org.