TSN25: The lasting impact of Ben Johnson's steroid scandal

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Matt Burt, TSN.ca
9/15/2009 11:59:44 PM
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It was on September 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. That was September 24.

By September 27, Ben Johnson was a national disgrace and a symbol of everything that was wrong with track and field. Shockingly and very, very suddenly, an event that was supposed to be one of the shining sporting moments for this country of 25-million people turned into an absolute catastrophe.

The International Olympic Committee said 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.
 
It is now 21 years later, and watching the video of Johnson winning that gold with the benefit of two decades of hindsight is an eerie, almost uneasy exercise.

The cameras focus mainly on Johnson and Lewis. The final of the men's 100-metre dash - arguably already 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.

The runners approach the start line. They get on their marks. They get set. The gun goes off and Johnson comes out of the gate like a hurricane. He charges ahead with overwhelming speed and power and never looks back. As he crosses the finish line in first place to win the gold medal with a new world record time of 9.79 seconds (beating his own previous mark of 9.83 - a mark that was later rescinded, along with the 9.79 time, because of the steroid use), Johnson raises his right arm into the air in what is the most memorable image of those Games - that very pose would probably be a statue in some downtown square right now if not for what was to follow days later. Johnson roars across the line in dominant fashion and Lewis, a few steps back, appears on the verge of tears as he finishes in second).  

Johnson, no doubt experiencing an incredibly powerful flow of adrenaline, trots down the track as a massive wave of applause rolls in from the crowd. With one arm, he hoists a massive Canadian flag, and with the other he embraces fellow Canuck Desai Williams, who had finished seventh*. The maple leaf is proudly displayed in several spots in the grandstand. 
 
* Interestingly, Williams later admitted to also being a part of the "steroid culture" that tarnished track and field - he had won a bronze in the 1984 Games.

Lewis himself was said by many to have taken several performance-enhancing drugs during his career, including at the 1988 Games, and there have been rampant accusations of a cover-up ever since. That said, unlike Johnson, Lewis retained his medals, leaving many Canadians and others wondering if the whole thing was really just a big sham and Johnson was made out to be the scapegoat. It is a point of contention for many people to this day that this has not been addressed or changed. Some argue that all the runners were using performance-enhancing drugs, thus actually making it a balanced field and a fair race. Either way, Johnson's name now is smeared by a black mark - officially, Lewis has not had anything taken away, despite the amount of evidence that some say proves he too, among others, was doping that day.

Regardless of the debate that still seems to hit close to the heart for many people north of the border, 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. In 2009, it is still breathtaking to watch that race, but for entirely different reasons; mostly because of the unpleasant knowledge of what's about to follow.

The Backstory

Benjamin Sinclair Johnson was born December 30, 1961 in Jamaica. He emigrated to Canada at the age of 14, settling 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 trophy as Canada's top athlete for 1986 and 1987 (no small feat - the previous trophy-holder was a young hockey player by the name of Wayne Gretzky). That same year, Johnson was invested as a member of the order of Canada – needless to say, this was a highly-treasured accolade (other members include Stephen Lewis, Gordon Lightfoot, David Suzuki, Margaret Atwood and Maurice "Rocket" Richard).

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 

When a momentous historical event occurs, people often discuss where they were when they heard about it. Maybe it would be overstating the impact of Johnson's victory and subsequent fall from grace to say that it was on a par with the moon landing in 1969 or the breakup of the Beatles, but in the True North strong and free, it was certainly about as close as you can get. There is no statistical data to back up this claim, but it's a safe bet the Johnson debacle was the topic of conversation at every single office water cooler in the country the following Monday.

The disgraced sprinter was named Newsmaker of the Year for 1988 by the Canadian Press. One can'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. There's a chance he would have, but unless they somehow discover a way to make the technology from Quantum Leap a reality, 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 freak-show status, reduced to participating in a novelty race against a horse and a stock car (he finished third, for those interested).

In 2006, Johnson took part in a little self-parody when he appeared in a well-known commercial for a Canadian energy drink called "Cheetah". The premise had Johnson appearing on a no-holds barred talk show where was expected to be candid about his past.

Sample dialogue:

Talk show host: Ben, when you run, do you cheat?

Johnson: Absolutely.

Assorted gasps from the studio audience. Johnson holds up a can of "Cheetah".

Johnson: I cheetah all the time.

The audience cheers wildly.

Maybe time heals all wounds. But upon viewing this commercial, one really doesn't know whether to laugh or cry for the former Olympic champ.

The Lasting Impact

Ben 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 lives within 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.

When Barry Bonds was approaching baseball's all-time home run record, was he being cheered anywhere except for AT&T Park in San Francisco? No – he was aggressively booed and heckled while signs in the crowd read, "Ruth did it on hot dogs & beer, Aaron did it with class. How did YOU do it?*" A lot of baseball fans will tell you they don't think his record holds up as the true standard. Mark McGwire had 70 home runs in 1998, Bonds had 73 in 2001. Since then, nobody has had more than 58. As of this writing, the MLB leader this season has 47 home runs with about 20 games to go.

(* The asterisk is not mine - it was actually included on the sign, as in "His home run record should have an asterisk beside it in the record book because it's not legitimate")

When Floyd Landis won the Tour de France in 2006, what was the reaction? A whole lot of eyebrow raising and people saying, "I'll wait for the urine test" (which he failed, resulting in him being stripped of the victory and fired from his cycling team).

To be clear, of course it's not Ben Johnson's direct fault that people don't think Bonds broke baseball's home run record in a legitimate fashion, and it's not his fault people don't believe Landis won the Tour de France cleanly. But it's fair to say that the general cynicism that exists today is a by-product of his cheating scandal, among other incidents.

Fans are 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.

History will always have cheaters, be it Enron, Rosie Ruiz, Milli Vanilli or this guy. Unfortunately for Johnson, his name will always be synonymous with cheating. It's certainly still one of the most memorable and shocking events in the 25-year-history of TSN.

In your mind, what was the lasting impact of the Ben Johnson steroid scandal on track and field? On sport as a whole? Was Johnson one of many runners that day who were taking performance-enhancing drugs, but the only one to be caught and made out to be a scapegoat? Was there a cover-up to protect Carl Lewis? Is Johnson's legacy that he cheated or is it that he was the one who was caught cheating? Share your own personal memories, thoughts and opinions in our "Your! Call" Feature below.

Ben Johnson (Photo: TonyDuffy/Allsport )

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(Photo: TonyDuffy/Allsport )
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