Tag Archives: politics

Johnson, Maradona, Tyson: defiance through sport



Guest post by Sam Grove

Today is the 25th anniversary of Ben Johnson’s run of 9.79 at the Seoul Olympics; a race in many ways more glorious and shocking than Usain Bolt’s 100m in Beijing or his 9.58 run a year later in Berlin. If Bolt had both races won within 50 meters, Johnson had destroyed the field within 10 meters. Caught up in the exhilaration of the race I took a look at the splits for Johnson and Bolt’s respective records


Reaction Time 0.146_0.132

0-10m                1.89_1.83

10-20m              0.99_1.04

20-30m              0.90_0.93

30-40m              0.86_0.86

40-50m              0.83_0.84

50-60m              0.82_0.83

60-70m              0.81_0.84

70-80m              0.82_0.85

80-90m              0.83_0.87

90-100m            0.83_0.90

=                          9.58_9.79

There are a number of things to note from these splits:

– Johnson would have had a lead of 0.07 seconds translating to approximately 0.7m after just 10metres. It was the greatest start in the history of the 100m.

– However Johnson’s lead was down to 0.02 seconds at the 20m mark, approximately 0.2m. That is Bolt pulled back half a meter on Johnson in just 10 meters.

– From 10m mark onwards Bolt took 3 meters off of Johnson.

– Johnson’s pick up was what won him the race in Seoul. From 30-60m he was almost stride for stride with Bolt. He left his rivals, Carl Lewis among them, completely behind in those 30m.

– Bolt’s 60-70m is the fasted 10meters anyone has ever run (0.81). By quite a margin. The fastest anyone else has ever gone is 0.83.

Of course the statistics don’t tell the whole story; or at least not in Johnson’s case. The story of Bolt’s race really did last less than ten seconds. Johnson’s run in Seoul had a prologue and postscript which prolonged its narrative for many years. The story arguably began back in the 1984 Olympics when the rivalry with Lewis started (Johnson was run into third place by Lewis), and continued to build over the next four years culminating in their last ever race together. The story then obviously continued when Johnson failed a drugs test a couple of days later. Arguably the story continues today as the shadow cast over the sport has not gone away. If anyone ever runs faster than 9.58 Bolt’s legend will be tarnished. Johnson’s notoriety is timeless.

If I was ever to write a book about sport it would be to draw upon the elective affinity between Mike Tyson, Diego Maradona, and Ben Johnson. All three were short explosive men that would literally tear through much larger taller men. Watching Johnson run, Tyson fight, and Maradona play football is unlike anything else their respective sport has ever seen. Before or since. It isn’t beautiful, its obscene.

Their sporting peaks were as shocking as much as beautiful, as outrageous as they were dominant. Maradona’s finest hour was the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. In the quarter final against England the first goal was brazen, the second majestic. England were left cheated and humiliated. Tyson’s destruction of Michael Spinks a couple of months before Johnson’s run in Seoul lasted for about as much time. Within twenty seconds the referee, Frank Capuccino, was already warning Tyson for throwing elbows. A minute later Spinks was down for the first time in his career. Seconds later he was down for the second time and lying through the ropes. If Johnson in hindsight had the race won in 10m, that wasn’t the expectation. Everyone knew Johnson had a great start, but Lewis was the fastest finisher in the world. For Johnson to have extended his lead over Lewis from 30-70m was impertinent.

Their performances were as much defined by the manner of their opponents defeat. The two moments that stand out in the England/Argentina quarter final were the wretched look on the England manager Bobby Robson’s face when the referee awarded the first goal, and Peter Reid’s somnambulation for Maradona’s second goal. If many experts had picked Spinks to win before the fight, they weren’t by the time the fighters touched gloves. Spinks had the look of a man condemned giving the iconic end picture a sense of inevitability. Lewis was so flustered by Johnson’s start that he twice ran out of his lane. If the defining moment of Johnson’s career was his raising his hand in victory with 10meters to go, what made it so emphatic was the anguish on Lewis’s face as he looked across to witness Johnson’s celebration.

All three performances were within a two year period of each other. It was the latter half of the 1980s when the commercialisation of sport was really taking off. All three represented huge commercial prospects, but none of them were equipped to handle what this entailed. These were basically young troubled kids from very poor backgrounds. Tyson grew up in the notorious district of Brownsville in Brooklyn New York where from a young age he had got into trouble with gangs. Johnson was a Jamaican immigrant living in Canada who had turned to sprinting as a defence against being bullied. Maradona was from a shanty town in Lanus, with an indigenous heritage. All three had their problems with drugs. Johnson infamously so. Maradona was also on steroids from an early age and then was a cocaine addict for most of his career. He was sent home from the ’94 World Cup in similar circumstances to Johnson. Tyson was a drug addict for his whole career (although there isn’t any evidence he used performance enhancing drugs).

All three saw themselves as outsiders to the sports that wanted to make them their public face. And of course they were outsiders. Despite being money making machines the authorities quickly became highly ambivalent about them; an ambivalence that climaxed with their peak performances. They had provided the defining moments of their respective sports for a generation, but the authorities were not prepared to accept them. Tyson had originally been marketed as the troubled kid come good. By the time he fought Spinks and with a host of tabloid scandals behind him he was ‘the baddest man on the planet’. Maradona had only recently left Barcelona having fallen out with the president. This was his last game for the club. The scandal surrounding Johnson began at the 1987 World Championships. Upset at the manner of his defeat, Lewis, the biggest name in the sport, initially claimed that Johnson had false-started, then complained of a stomach virus, before finally making this famous allegation—‘There are a lot of people coming out of nowhere. I don’t think they are doing it without drugs.’ It later transpired that Lewis himself had failed a drugs test the following Olympic year. The golden boy of athletics kept his gold medal.

Johnson, Tyson and Maradona were far more comfortable playing the roles of rebels. Tyson and Maradona embraced this status in a much more overt political way than Johnson ever did. Both sport Che Guevara tattoos and have spoken out harshly against racism and imperialism respectively. Johnson kept to the micropolitics of his sport – claiming, with some justification, that he was a scapegoat for a problem that is endemic.

The Seoul Olympics spelled the end for Johnson as a competitive sprinter. He made a forlorn attempt to make a comeback in 1992 only to stumble in the heats. Maradona enjoyed a few more successful years with Napoli before being effectively chased out of Italy and then Spain. Tyson defended his title a couple of times, before succumbing to the greatest upset in boxing history when he was knocked out by a 40-1 underdog. In the same year that Johnson retired and Maradona left Napoli, Tyson was convicted of the rape of Desiree Washington, an 18 year old beauty contestant from Rhode Island. She was just 18 years old. Her treatment, both by Tyson and subsequently by the media (who having spent years character assassinating Tyson were suddenly hellbent on closing ranks behind him) casts light on some of the contradictions within the concept of “defiance” presented here and serves as a reminder that the roles of victim and victimizer aren’t invariable. By the time he came out of prison he was a shadow of his former self.

Of course Maradona, Johnson and Tyson defeated themselves. No one made them take drugs or commit rape. However the drug addictions they were afflicted by and the violence at least Tyson inflicted were symptoms of a larger system of exploitation they were born into. When they became athletes they encountered this same system only more intimately. Their sports chewed them up and spat them out. What is more, all three of them understood this. This meant that even at their peak, when they had the appearance of being unstoppable, their display of power and domination had an element of defiance and rebellion to it. For one summer’s day in Seoul, Mexico City and New Jersey the tables had been turned—‘three small men tearing through much larger opponents’ is both graphic depiction and political metaphor. It is this that makes them and their performances so compelling.

Workers’ democracy and the politics of wrath


I am glad that Socialist Worker has just published an article on socialism and democracy. After the disaster of our own making which the party has just been through, this would clearly be a good time to send a message to the movement that we are very serious indeed about democracy in the workers’ movement. That said, it is disappointing that Dave Hayes’ piece ‘Can we win real power?’ (http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=30931) is the best we could manage.

Nine paragraphs are devoted to the lessons of the Paris Commune without any acknowledgment of Karl Marx’s great pamphlet ‘The Civil War in France’ (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/index.htm), in which he announced his conversion, under the influence of the Commune, to the idea that a workers’ state would be possible without workers having to make any use of the old, capitalist machinery of repression.

No-one else’s summary could improve on the clarity of Marx himself: “Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune…” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm.

This is hardly an “unknown” socialist text. Lenin drew on it heavily for another famous text strangely unacknowledged by Hayes: The State and Revolution (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ch03.htm).

Normally Marx’s reading of the Commune is something in which socialists take pride; missing something this obvious inevitably causes any sceptical reader (of which there are more now, let us be honest, than there were three months ago) to wonder: what is the point of Hayes’ article? Is it, really, about socialism and democracy at all?

Hayes writes that the Russian Soviets of 1905 and 1917 “brought democracy into all areas of life. Special pay and statuses of all representatives, from judges to militia officers, was removed.” I appreciate the enthusiasm, but this paints a little too glorious the achievements of the St Petersburg Soviet of 1905, which was originally very little more than an enlarged strike committee, with no coherent system of election save that any sympathiser was welcome to attend its meetings. If the Soviet took on more of a representative character, it was because of the action it called – workers voluntarily sent representatives to its gatherings (see eg Trotsky’s description of how the Soviet grew during the strikes of October 1905 here: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1907/1905/ch15.htm).

The Soviet of 1905 did take decisions, but it lacked the power to control anyone’s pay or status, still less depose judges or army officers.

“The Russian revolutionaries led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks”, Hayes writes, “won a majority in the soviets in early October 1917. By then, they made up 51 percent of delegates elected to the workers’ council, reflecting the changing mood within the class.” This figure of 51% is implausibly solid; while the single form of “workers’ council” (not councils) tells another story too.

Most Soviets were local to a workplace or an army division; a few Soviets had a regional character. Only one, the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, could pretend to play a national role, and its meetings were very few. There was no pre-historic Vincent Hannah totalling up the votes at the local Soviets especially not when Bolshevik party barely existed in many regions independently of its parent (the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party) and when by far the largest and most popular party in the country the Socialist Revolutionaries was in an advanced condition of decay. Autumn 1917 was a revolutionary situation where allegiances moved fast; obtaining a majority was about winning insurgent workers to a series of temporary, local consensuses. There was nothing solid from which the magic “51%”, or any other numerical estimate of support, could credibly have been constructed.

After the October revolution, it is true that for several months Lenin and Trotsky relied on the moral authority that they gained from the initial backing of the Second Congress of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, held on the morning after the uprising succeeded; the revolution was indeed timed to coincide with its sitting. But Lenin did not wait for the Congress to take place to confirm his majority before launching his bid for power. The October Revolution was planned in advance, and based on the guess (which is all it was) that the Bolsheviks, plus the Left SRs, plus anarchists and other “floating” supporters of further uprisings would win a majority there. It was the act of a minority hoping to become a majority.

The policy of “Soviet legality” (i.e. governing in the name of the Soviet) lasted at most until March 1918, i.e. until the Civil War. The seven sittings of the All-Russian Soviet lasted three days at a time and none were organised after 1919. I wonder how many readers could name even a single delegate who was elected by workers or soldiers to its crucial, Second Congress, which gave the October revolution its backing?

So far the mistakes are those you would expect of a piece written in haste with little sympathy in the topic which it is supposedly investigating. Far worse are the passages in which Hayes sets out how workers’ democracy (i.e. democracy in the trade unions – it never occurs to him that there might be democracy in the tenants’ associations or in the co-operatives, or in the women’s movement or anti-racist campaigns, etc) operates in Britain today.

“Most workers representatives are subject to election and re-election annually”, Hayes writes. That would be fantastic, it is sadly untrue. Tell it to the Union General Secretaries (most of whom are indeed elected, but on five year terms), the regional officials (almost none of whom are elected, save with some rare exceptions such as the RMT), the branch secretaries and chairs (all of whom are elected at the start of their appointment; but only a minority of whom then face any election, contested or otherwise, during the entirety of their tenure).

This is not how it has always been; there are reasons why our present workers’ democracy has become weakened, and more organisations suffer from an absence of workers’ democracy than just the trade unions alone.

This subtlety is lost on Hayes. “They”, meaning workers representatives, “are also subject to the democratic will of the majority”, he continues. “If they break a majority decision they face the wrath of other workers.”

It is worth pausing for one, two … a full three seconds to savour that key word “wrath”. The message it expresses – that workers’ democracy is characterised by its violent hostility to minority opinion – has never previously appeared in any publication of the Socialist Workers Party or either of our predecessors (the Socialist Review Group, the International Socialists).

There are many good reasons why the several thousand people who have written for our publications have never once before claimed this idea for our tradition.

Revolutionaries in the unions are a minority; always, in the past, we have admitted this fact. Admitting you are a minority enables you to plan how to become a majority. Imagine if you were the SWP members of the national executive of the teachers NUT union. In January 2013, these comrades argued within the NUT that there should be strike action by the union. There was a majority decision, which they lost, and the union voted not to take action.

Far from accept a majority decision, the comrades then produced a petition to overturn that decision, and are hoping to have enough delegates elected to the NUT’s conference, to ensure that the vote will, in effect, be reversed. Well done them! As a result of their refusal to accept majority decisions, the possibilities of struggle by that union over the next few months are very much increased.

If union majorities regularly disposed of minorities with “wrath”, the NUT’s General Secretary would be entitled to force the SWP members who “broke” a majority decision out of her union. Why hasn’t she turned her anger on us? Because in the lived world of union democracy, everyone is aware that even the most robust vote is binding only until next year’s conference. All of us know too that the number of trade unionists (like the number of socialists) is pitifully few, and therefore that socialist “democracy” consists very often of trying to ensure that at least enough people remain in the room, at the end of any internal controversy, so that the organisations exist to fight again on another occasion. An organisation whose leadership, on winning a narrow majority vote for an unpopular position, pushed on regardless, is an organisation which will lose a large part of its membership. Some leaders of some political parties may consider this expedient; few unions are stupid enough to agree.

The idea behind Hayes’ piece is to make it seem that the Bolsheviks (with their permanent factions, their leadership elected by individual election, and their fragile majorities dependent not on force but on political argument) were a monolith, and our present unions equally monolithic too, in order to buttress a further claim, that by threatening the pre-conference SWP minority with the anger of the leadership, any disciplinary action the leadership takes against the remaining supporters of the faction will have anything in common with democracy, socialist or otherwise.

If our leadership CC maintains its present strategy, it will reduce the membership, activity and profile of our party. This year’s Marxism remains to be built; will it be easier or harder to sign people up if members of the organisation who have been invisible for several years are authorised wed to visit those who have been active with threats of aggression? Last year, 6000 people attended the event, with comrades speaking in around 150 separate sessions; where will the 150 speakers be found this year? On the next public demonstration, they will want 100 comrades to sell the paper; how will they do so if they have forced out of the party every student and every independently-minded comrade with them?