Canadian Ben Johnson won the gold medal in the 100m final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics with an awesome display of power and a world record time of 9.79 seconds. However, three days later his urine sample tested positive for a banned substance and he was stripped of his medal and record. Johnson was sent home in disgrace, but that wasn’t the end to the Johnson story.
The 100m final was about the bitter rivalry of two men. On one side Carl Lewis, the precociously talented all-rounder from the USA and the Jamaican born sprinting powerhouse Ben Johnson. Not only did they contrast in running styles but they also had two very different public personas. It was a very personal battle that would take the most dramatic of twists.
Lewis had established himself as the best in the world when he won gold in Los Angeles in 1984, with Johnson finishing in third. The next year after seven consecutive loses to the American, Johnson finally beat Lewis. His form began to rise dramatically and Johnson beat Lewis regularly. By the time of the 1987 World Championships in Rome, Johnson was very much the man to beat. He smashed the world record with a time of 9.83 and claiming the gold and the position as fastest man in the world.
Lewis didn’t take the defeat well and tried to explain it, first by claiming Johnson false started, then by alluding to a stomach bug, then he said ‘there are a lot of people coming out of nowhere. I don’t think they are doing it without drugs’. This was the moment the American started to call on the sport of track and field to be cleaned up of performance-enhancing drugs. Lewis began to allude to Johnson as guilty of drug use. ‘There are gold medallists at his meet who are on drugs. That race (the 100m final) will be looked at for many years, for more reasons than one.’
To many, Lewis’ call was a righteous crusade against cheats in the sport, to others it was arrogance and lack of humility. Either way, the world was split into two camps for the 100m final in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Two very different types of athletes took their marks before the start of the race. Lewis’ was more languid, leaner body shape, Johnson was muscle-bound menace. His neck and arms bulged with muscles. Scarily, his yellowed eyes gave him a look of a wild animal. Those yellow eyes however, were a telltale sign of anabolic steroid use.
Johnson came first smashing the world record, well ahead of second placed Lewis who, in turn, was well ahead of third placed Linford Christie. Johnson’s home country of Canada was ecstatic; this was one of the nation’s proudest sporting moments. However, when his sample tested positive for stanozolol, an anabolic steroid, he was stripped of his medal, his world record and sent home in disgrace. The world was shocked and Canada distraught. Lewis was installed as the rightful gold medallist and Christie as silver winner.
The American had been proved right and Johnson agreed with him. He admitted that taking steroids had played a part in his 1987 World Championship gold and was subsequently stripped of that title and world record. Johnson claimed that his drug use was necessary to keep up with other top athletes who were using drugs, and that the sport of track and field had been rife with drug use for years. The whole affair started a crackdown on the use of drugs in sport, which still continues today. Johnson's supporters pointed to the fact that Johnson could have been tested and banned long before the Olympics, but the authorities had waited for the highest profile moment to lance this boil therefore gaining maximum effect.
Johnson sat out his ban and attempted a comeback in 1991. He made the Canadian Olympic team again for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics but failed to make the final. At a race in Montreal in 1993, he again tested positive for a banned substance. This time for excessive testosterone. He was immediately banned for life. Any goodwill for the one-time golden boy of Canadian Athletics evaporated and Johnson became a liability. No one would race against him. In 1999, in an effort to get himself reinstated, Johnson imposed a new test on himself, a test he duly failed for hydrachlorothiazide, a banned diuretic which was used to hide the presence of other drugs.
In 1998 it was revealed that Ben Johnson was training with Diego Maradonna. The Argentine was sitting out a ban imposed for drug use and he turned to the Canadian for fitness advice ahead of a new contract with Boca Juniors. It was a cause of some international interest that the two most famous disgraced athletes were training together.
The surreal life of Johnson again hit the front pages when it was revealed that he had been hired as a football coach by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to train his son AL-Saadi Gadaffi, who wanted to join a Serie A football club. Gadaffi did eventually make it to Italy, playing for Udinese and Peruggia playing a total of 26 minutes in 3 seasons. Johnson’s publicist at the time claimed that his work in Libya would win him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Shortly after his stint as coach to the dictator's son it was reported that Johnson had been pick-pocketed in Rome and his wallet, which contained $7,500 – his earnings form his time in Libya, stolen. Johnson gave chase but the man who was once called the fastest man alive couldn’t catch the thief as he disappeared into a metro station.
According to reports, Johnson spent the later part of his life living in his mother in Ontario. He passed the day by reading and watching movies and bringing his mother to church. He claimed he lost his Ferrari when he put it up as collateral for a loan from an acquaintance, which he used to make a house payment.
In 2010 Johnson self-published is autobiography ‘Seoul to Soul’. In it he suggests that Carl Lewis was somehow involved in ‘sabotaging’ him after the 100m final in Seoul. Johnson never denies that he took drugs but he has always claimed that the drugs he tested positive for were not the ones he was taking. He claims he was drinking beer with a American football player, who was a close friend of Carl Lewis (something Lewis has admitted), and he suggests that his beer had been spiked prior to giving the sample. He believes he was an Egyptian Pharaoh in a former life, that Seoul is ‘unfinished business’ and that one day, the gold medal will rightfully be returned to him. He continues to coach and claims that Usain Bolt follows his fitness regime.
One of the Olympics’ most dramatic moments was also a watershed moment for athletics and sports in general. Most sports have been rigorously policed for doping ever since. Sports are much cleaner now for what happened in 1988. The interesting thing is, is that sports have, if anything, become more competitive and standards have raised without drugs in sport.
It is clear from Johnson’s book that he has not moved on from what happened at Seoul in 1988. And perhaps he has some right to feel aggrieved, for although history will remember Johnson as the ‘disgraced cheat’, it is clear that at that time, the sport of track and field was rife with drug use. In retrospect of the 100m final in Seoul, five of the runners later tested positive for banned substances or were implicated in drug scandals at some time in their career, including gold and silver medallists Lewis and Christie. In 2003 Dr. Wade Exum The United States Olympic Committee’s head of drug administration from 1991 to 2001 gave copies of documents to Sports Illustrated that claimed that some 100 American athletes had tested for banned substances and should have prevented from competing in the Olympics had nevertheless been cleared to play, among them was Carl Lewis.
Allegedly Lewis tested positive three times before the Seoul Olympics for banned stimulants that could also be found in over-the-counter cough medicine and had been banned from Olympic competition for six months, however the USOC accepted Lewis’ claim of inadvertent use and cleared him to compete.
The plot twists, intrigue, claim and counter-claim in this case continue even today. What is sure though is how history will remember Johnson, as the disgraced sprinter and drug cheat and Carl Lewis as one of the greatest Olympians of all time. The drama and pain of that particular moment led to a more level playing field for all athletes. In particular, we could not have had today’s fastest man Usain Bolt compete as he did in Beijing, without the shadow of drug use cast over his performances. In some ways we perhaps owe Johnson a debt for allowing us to usher in a new golden age of Olympic sport.
By Hugo Mc Cafferty