Olympics

Looking back on the Ben Johnson scandal, 25 years later

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TSN.ca Staff
9/24/2013 6:50:55 PM
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It was 25 years ago - Sept. 24, 1988 - that Ben Johnson became a newly-minted Canadian hero and an internationally-recognized track superstar.

Sure, before that day he had already been a respected member of track and field nobility. He had endorsement deals, admiration from his peers and a seemingly bright future. But winning the gold medal at the Seoul Summer Olympics had sealed the deal: Johnson now transcended the niche culture of track - he was an absolute megastar. And he was Canada's megastar. But that was on Sept. 24.

Just three days later, Johnson was a national disgrace and a symbol of everything that was wrong with track and field. Shockingly and very suddenly, an event that was one of the shining sporting moments for a country of 25 million turned into an embarrassment.

TSN's Brian Williams, who covered the Seoul Games in 1988, joins tonight's editions of SportsCentre to reflect on the Johnson scandal, its impact on sport and its legacy in the Canadian sporting culture.

You can also watch ESPN's 30 for 30 film documentary, 9.79* on TSN2 tonight at 7:30pm et/4:30pm pt.

The International Olympic Committee announced that Johnson's urine tests had been found to contain Stanozolol, a synthetic anabolic steroid that could enhance the conditioning and performance of an athlete. They said he had cheated. They said his medal was being given to his rival, American Carl Lewis. The wind was taken right out of the sails right when most Canadians thought the voyage was just starting.
 
And a quarter century later, remembering the footage of Johnson winning the gold with the benefit of hindsight is an eerie, almost uneasy exercise.

The cameras focused mainly on Johnson and his American rival Carl Lewis. The final of the men's 100-metre dash - the most popular and exciting event in the Summer Olympics - had the track equivalent of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry going for it, which only made it that much sexier.

Regardless of the debate and accusations that just about every runner that day was on a performance-enhancing substance, the perception of that day - according to official record and fair or unfair - is that Johnson was the cheater. In 1988, Johnson's victory was a breathtaking moment of athletic excellence, an achievement unrivalled in the history of the 100-metre dash, let alone Canadian track and field.

Twenty-five years later, it's still breathtaking to watch that race - but for entirely different reasons; namely the unpleasant knowledge of what was about to follow.

The Backstory

Benjamin Sinclair Johnson was born Dec. 30, 1961 in Jamaica. He emigrated to Canada at the age of 14 and settled with his family in Scarborough, Ontario. He soon established a very promising track career, garnering a solid reputation and arguably first breaking through to mainstream awareness when he won a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles (the gold medal winner that year was a 23-year-old sprinter from the U.S.A. by the name of Carl Lewis).

On the heels of successful results in several subsequent high-profile races, Johnson was named the winner of the Lou Marsh Award as Canada's top athlete for 1986 and 1987 and was also invested as a member of the Order of Canada.

In August of 1988, in anticipation of the pending Olympic matchup with his arch-nemesis Johnson, it was Lewis who brazenly said, "The gold medal for the 100 metres is mine. I will never again lose to Johnson." If the rivalry had already been heating up, it was now hitting a fever pitch. And that's when it happened.

The Fallout 

Without question, the Johnson debacle was the topic of conversation at every single office water cooler in the country in the days that followed. Shock, surprise, and disappointment abounded from Canadians coast-to-coast.

The disgraced sprinter was named Newsmaker of the Year for 1988 by The Canadian Press. One couldn't help but wonder if Johnson looks back now and reflects on whether he could have had that very same honour for an entirely different reason: having won that race without using steroids. No one will ever know.

After his fall from the top, Johnson kept a public profile roughly on par with that of Salman Rushdie and J.D. Salinger. In 1998, the man who had been arguably Canada's biggest sporting hero ever (albeit for three days) had sadly hit near sideshow status, reduced to participating in a novelty race against a horse and a stock car, and later appearing as a pitchman for 'Cheetah' drinks on television.

The Lasting Impact

Johnson wasn't the first athlete to cheat and he certainly won't be the last. But part of his legacy is that Johnson helped to create the deep, brooding skepticism that now sits with most sports fans. What used to be a knee-jerk reflex to cheer when a new feat of excellence was achieved, has since turned into a collective sense of cynical indifference. Things that were once a cause for celebration are now frowned upon and doubted.

Fans are often hesitant to embrace a new accomplishment for fear of a scandal about its legitimacy. The cheers have been muffled - fans are too busy waiting for the other shoe to drop. In Canada, this is the legacy of the Ben Johnson affair.

Ben Johnson, Sept. 24, 2013 (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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