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Historicist: Ben Johnson, Fastest Man Alive*

We look back at the greatest sports scandal in Canadian history.

At the sound of the pistol, eyes glowing with intensity, Ben Johnson exploded out of the starting blocks in a frenetic blur of massive arms and powerful legs. By 50 metres, his lead was insurmountable. “I have never seen anyone run the way Ben Johnson ran that day,” sportswriter Charles P. Pierce recalled in Esquire (February 1999). “He was molten. He covered the distance in 9.79 seconds, and he had time at the end to look back at [his rival Carl] Lewis, whom he had beaten.” Although he obliterated his own world record time, Johnson later claimed that, had he not raised his arm in victory in the last few strides of the 100 metre sprint, he could’ve finished in 9.72 seconds.

The 100-metre sprint was the dramatic climax of the 1988 Summer Olympics. It was seen live, on the bright afternoon of September 24, by 100,000 at the stadium in Seoul, South Korea. Millions more watched on television around the world—including five million in Canada, though it aired at 11:30 at night Eastern Time—as Johnson jogged around the stadium waving the maple leaf.

With the gold medal fresh around his neck, Johnson proclaimed to gathered journalists that his world record would “last 50 years, maybe 100.” There was only one thing more important than the record, he said: “A gold medal—that’s something no one can take away from you.”

With four of the eight finalists breaking the 10-second mark—including Lewis, Linford Christie, and Calvin Smith—journalists dubbed the event “The Race of the Century.” But, as Johnson tested positive for anabolic steroids in the hours to come, it devolved into what another journalist called “the greatest scandal in the history of the Games” and, perhaps, the most tainted race in history. Six finalists, it would later emerge, tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs over the course of their track careers, calling into question their lifetime achievements. But in late September 1988, it was Johnson who was found out, stripped of his medal in disgrace, and permanently seared into the Canadian consciousness.

Front page of the Toronto Star (September 24, 1988).

In the early 1980s, Johnson seemed to epitomize the ideal of an individual rising above a modest, immigrant background on the strength of talent and hard work—the poster boy of equal opportunity in the age of multiculturalism. Johnson was born in Falmouth, Jamaica, in 1961. He and his five siblings enjoyed a simple but comfortable life by the standards of Falmouth, a once-thriving port suffering 50 per cent unemployment by the 1970s. Believing that Canada promised her children better education and broader opportunities, Johnson’s mother, Gloria, immigrated to Toronto in the mid-1970s while his father, Ben Sr., loathe to abandon a good job with the telephone company, remained behind in Jamaica.

Once his mother was settled, Ben Johnson arrived in Canada in 1976. Living with his family in a Keele Street apartment, he endured a difficult adjustment at Pierre LaPorte Middle School and then Yorkdale Secondary School. His shyness, speech impediment, and thick Jamaican accent made Johnson the target of bullies. “I just liked to be by myself all the time,” he explained to his biographer, James Christie. “I keep everything inside, then wait for the right time to prove myself.”

As a child, Johnson had been an avid runner, winning five- and 10-cent bets in the streets of Falmouth, and now Toronto provided opportunities for more formal competition. After winning some ribbons at school during a field day in 1977, Johnson joined his older brother Edward (who’d been a local running champion in Jamaica) at an Optimists Track Club practice. Initially Charlie Francis, a former Canadian 100-metre champion who’d quit his insurance industry job to coach track, was unimpressed. The scrawny newcomer couldn’t keep pace with the other runners doing laps at Lawrence Park Collegiate. Johnson was ready to quit, but Francis saw enough innate ability in Johnson and encouraged him to keep practicing.

Concentrating on the 100-metre dash, Johnson lowered his time from 11 seconds in 1978 to 10.62 seconds by 1980, and 10.02 seconds when he won a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in 1982. He won bronze at the 1984 Olympics with a time of 10.22. In almost every case, Johnson played second fiddle to Carl Lewis—until the 1986 Goodwill Games when Johnson beat the boastful American for the first time. He repeated the feat at every race for the next year and a half, forging a deep and bitter rivalry with Lewis.

As far as the public was aware, Francis was a genius coach whose unorthodox methods—utilizing sports psychologists, video analysis, biomechanics, and tips from the East Germans—resulted in his athletes setting 32 world records during the early 1980s.

Johnson’s status as the preeminent 100-metre sprinter was secured when, on August 30, 1987, he broke the world record by a full tenth of a second, with a time of 9.83. Immediately afterward Lewis directed veiled accusations of doping at his rival. The aspersions outraged Johnson, who pointed defiantly to his spotless drug test record. In the 17 months prior to the Olympics, Johnson would be tested eight times and pass every time.

Toronto Star (September 21, 1987).

Now a world-wide star, Johnson partied with European royalty and movie stars. “We used to follow Ben into bars just to meet the girls he cast off,” one Canadian teammate recalled. Welcomed home from Rome with a celebratory parade in Toronto, Johnson won numerous Canadian awards that year in addition to being installed in the Order of Canada.

By one estimate, Johnson was earning half a million dollars per month in late 1987 and early 1988 through endorsement deals with Purolator, Toshiba, Loblaws, and companies in Finland and Japan. The crowning achievement was a $2.5 million contract with Italian footwear and sportswear giant Diadora, which introduced track shoes based on moulds of Johnson’s feet. For Johnson though, the greatest reward—aside from his prized black Ferrari Testarossa—was what he could now bestow upon his mother, including a 7,300 square-foot house he was having built in Unionville for the two of them to share.

Johnson’s meteoric rise was not without its difficulties. His shyness could be interpreted as standoffishness, creating a rocky relationship with journalists at the best of times. Furthermore, some observers hypothesized that Canadians were slow to adopt Johnson—a community college drop-out with a heavy accent—as their own. “[M]any Canadians, although few would dare admit it, likely have felt a bit strange with the idea of Ben Johnson as national hero,” Meredith Levine recalled of Johnson’s early successes in the Globe and Mail (October 13, 1988). “There is little in Ben Johnson with which most Canadians can identify.” At the time, Johnson downplayed controversy and accepted the fact that he was more famous abroad than at home. He told his biographer: “I wasn’t breaking world records in Canada, but I was breaking indoor records in Japan.”

Nevertheless, Johnson was indeed accepted as a mainstream national hero in the lead-up to the 1988 Games. And, perhaps to a degree, he helped broaden the definition of who could be a Canadian hero. At an indoor track meet at Maple Leaf Gardens, sports psychologist Dr. Sue Wilson noted the crowd’s reaction to Johnson. “I’m so proud to be a Canadian,” one nearby teenager exclaimed. “She was black, but she didn’t say ‘I’m proud to be black,’ but ‘I’m proud to be a Canadian,’” Wilson observed with surprise at the form her identification with Johnson took.

Despite a hamstring injury in early 1988, Johnson set demanding expectations for his Olympics performance in Seoul. “I think I can run faster than 9.8,” he told Kellie Hudson of the Toronto Star (July 19, 1988), with matter-of-fact confidence. “My leg is 100 per cent. I think, in my own mind, I can run a 9.76 by the Olympics.”

Johnson’s 9.79 second dash touched off exuberant celebration in Canada and Jamaica. Immediately after the race, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney telephoned with congratulations: “You were just marvelous. We’re all very proud of you.” In Toronto, Metro Chairman Dennis Flynn mused about hosting another huge parade; and kids across the city sprinted through playgrounds, imitating their role model’s racing style.

(Left: Toronto Star (July 19, 1988).)

But in the middle of the night after Johnson’s historic run, Canadian Olympic officials learned that Johnson had tested positive for stanozolol, a banned steroid. The officials’ appeal, which focused on flaws in the testing procedures (including unauthorized individuals milling around the secure area where medalists provided their urine samples), was rejected. The International Olympic Committee’s review of Johnson’s endocrine profile—a test no other athlete was subjected to at Seoul—showed that natural testosterone levels were 15 times lower than normal. It was evidence of long-term steroid use.

Less than 70 hours after being awarded the gold, Johnson handed the medal back. “I’m innocent and I welcome the opportunity of proving it,” an emotional Johnson said as he was hustled out of Seoul. “I’m proud to be a Canadian and I would never do anything to hurt the people who support me.”

It was unprecedented. This was no quick-to-be-forgotten case of a weightlifter ushered from the Games. Johnson was an international star, disqualified from track and field’s marquee event. The story raced around the globe at the speed of satellite communication. “The Fastest Junkie on Earth” and “Disgrace” were among the large-font headlines.

The three Toronto dailies each dedicated four to eight pages to exploring the disbelief, anger, and sympathy of Canadians in that first week. “Ben Johnson, how could you?” one Toronto radio host demanded to know, emphasizing the sense of personal betrayal many felt. The government subsidies the runner had received as an amateur athlete were frequently cited as justification for the public’s outrage.

John Robertson of the Toronto Star (October 1, 1988) opposed any portrayal of Johnson as an unknowing victim. “The Ben Johnson who arrived in Seoul was anything but the sweet, innocent kid he’s being depicted as now,” he argued. As Robertson saw it, the “one-man multinational corporation” was a ne’er-do-well who had gotten too big for his britches: “He shoved an airport employee, snarled obscenities at reporters, refused to carry the Canadian flag during the opening ceremonies or stay with the rest of the Canadian athletes.” Robertson concluded bitterly: “He’s just another cheater who got found out.”

Cartoon by Frank Edwards of the Kingston Whig-Standard reprinted in the Globe and Mail (October 13, 1988).

Hurdler Stephen Kerho explained the reaction among Canadian Olympians. “Morale has pretty well bottomed out,” he said. “I’m hurt and very much disappointed. I’m a proud Canadian, and this does nothing for Canada’s international image.” One of Johnson’s Optimists teammates, Angella Issajenko, related a harsher response heard among athletes in Seoul: “A white team member came up to where the Jamaicans were sitting and said, ‘You can have Ben back now. He’s not Canadian now.’”

Similar anecdotes and jokes were relayed by numerous journalists—almost never with source attribution—as having been heard circulating in Seoul. When interviewed by the Ottawa Citizen (September 27, 1988), Johnson’s sister Claire Rodney responded to the oft-repeated sentiment that the sprinter be disowned by Canada with a statement of unwavering family support. “If he wins, he’s ours and if he loses, he’s [still] ours,” she said.

For Johnson, there was no question that he saw himself as a Canadian foremost. “I came here as a kid. I went to school here,” the runner told Christie in the Globe and Mail (September 16, 1989). “I trained and competed here and I’ve represented this country. I want to run for Canada again.” Years later, Johnson reflected on his treatment by the press, and the emphasis on his Jamaican roots, upon his return from Seoul: “I think it was racist the way it was spoken back then. It kind of hurts a little bit.”

Some have tried to debunk any claims (contemporary or retrospective) that Johnson was the victim of racism. Certainly, there was a strong backlash by polite Canadians against overt racism in 1988, as Sandra Martin argued a decade later in the Globe and Mail (August 17, 1996). An angry rant against Johnson by an Ottawa Citizen sports columnist, for example, resulted in hundreds of complaints and over 60 people cancelling their subscriptions. There was, however, an undeniable undercurrent in many post-Olympics news stories, as Levine found in her October 1988 survey of coverage. References to Johnson as “Jamaican-born” and to Canada as his “adopted country,” she argued, were used to distance Canadians from the steroids scandal. Even in coverage sympathetic to Johnson, Levine found that the runner was often portrayed as a dim-witted immigrant, duped by his handlers.

Seeking to understand Canadian reactions as the scandal was unfolding, sociologists at U of T’s Scarborough Campus—Julian Tanner, Aysan Sev’er, and Sheldon Ungar—conducted a study with their students. On a questionnaire, students were asked to assess the likelihood of several explanations for Johnson’s positive test proffered in the media, and to assign culpability.

The researchers found that the majority of respondents strongly believed that Johnson had unknowingly used steroids. As such, the students placed the greatest blame on Johnson’s coach and team doctor. In fact, the Canadian Olympic Association, and even Canadian society as a whole, were assigned greater culpability for the scandal by respondents than Ben Johnson himself. In this, the researchers’ findings concurred with a contemporary Gallup Poll which found that only 27 per cent of Canadians thought Johnson had knowingly taken steroids. Canadians, it was evident, wanted to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt.

Huge crowds gathered at the modest Scarborough bungalow Johnson shared with his family to express their enduring support. Teenagers and children, mostly students on their way to and from neighbourhood schools, chanted “We love you, Ben,””Ben’s No. 1!,” and “Ben’s innocent!” They erupted with excitement when Johnson—staying inside to avoid the cameras also crowding his front lawn—waved to them from a curtained window. He didn’t even open the door when a group of students rang the bell to present him a bristol-board with 800 signatures from their school.

(Right: article from the Toronto Star, October 17, 1988.)

Walter Stefaniuk was one of a number of reporters pondering the deleterious effect the scandal was having on the city’s impressionable children. Filing a piece for the Toronto Star (October 17, 1988) from a Grade 4-5 classroom, Stefaniuk reported on the students’ pride at Johnson’s victory as well as their resilience to cope with the later revelations. “The 1988 Olympics inspired me,” one student told him. “Every time I watch the Olympics, I feel proud of my country. I’m very sad that Ben Johnson lost the gold. I’m almost sure that most Canadians are, too. But I’m not going to keep myself in the dark just because Canada lost a gold. I’m going to look at Canada’s other athletes and be proud of our athletes.”

A variety of conspiracy theories circulated in the press, including allegations that the positive test had resulted from a post-race water bottle spiked with steroids, a sarsaparilla drink that contained a naturally-occurring steroids variant, or the (allowable) injections of corticosteroids used to treat his pre-Olympics injury. Each theory exonerated Johnson of personal responsibility, which was essential for people who wanted to believe his tearful denials. “I have never—ever—knowingly taken illegal drugs,” he stated on one of the very few occasions he broke his media silence.

Toronto Star (June 13, 1989).

The federal government, as Canadian governments are wont to do, established a commission in October 1988 to investigate the prevalence of performance enhancing drugs in amateur sports. Beginning in January 1989, the Dubin Commission, headed by prominent Ontario Judge Charles Dubin, heard months of testimony under oath by a multitude of coaches, physicians, and athletes.

Johnson’s coach testified with remarkable frankness, explaining that he and Johnson had mutually agreed upon the usage of steroids in 1981. Arguing that the vast majority of top-tier track athletes were doping, Francis rationalized that his sprinters had to put themselves on an equal footing to remain competitive. “I believe Ben won that race on an even playing field,” he said. “Ben would have won by the same margin if all the athletes were drug-free.” Francis did, however, express dumbfounded surprise that his star sprinter had been caught in Seoul. Not only was the doping regimen carefully planned to avoid detection, according to Francis, but Johnson rarely used the particular steroid found in his sample.

Francis’s testimony, that Johnson knowingly took banned steroids and understood the risks, was supported by evidence from Optimist teammates—many of whom admitted to their own steroid use—as well as that from Dr. George “Jamie” Astaphan, who bragged that athletes from around the world flocked to his St. Kitts clinic seeking the performance enhancing edge he provided Johnson.

Faced with overwhelming evidence, Johnson had little choice but to come clean when he finally testified on June 12, 1989, before a packed room and a riveted audience watching live on television around the world. He admitted, under oath, to knowingly taking steroids. His lawyer, Ed Futerman, tried to paint his client as an all-too-trusting athlete, knowing nothing in life but how to run, who demurred to the pressure of his coach and physician. “I’m not the coach, I just take orders,” Johnson said.

Toronto Star (June 13, 1989).

Futerman’s characterization was substantiated by Johnson’s behaviour since returning from Seoul. He’d had run-ins with reporters, fisticuffs outside nightclubs, and numerous encounters with the police. “The moment you leave him alone, he’s in trouble,” Futerman told the press. “He’s very naïve and gullible and vulnerable. And you’ve got to look after a kid like that.” But by then Canadians’ sympathy had been exhausted and, after his admissions under oath, his fans largely abandoned him.

Johnson attempted a comeback, competing at the Barcelona Olympics, before another positive test in 1993 resulted in a lifetime ban by the IAAF. But he never really went away, as much as Canadians might’ve hoped. Through the 1990s and 2000s he raced against horses for charity, acted as personal trainer for Muammar Gaddafi’s son, and appeared in depressing energy drink commercials.

In the years since Seoul, Johnson has grown less repentant. He is still certain that he’s the greatest sprinter of all time, claiming to have been unfairly scapegoated so athletic bodies could appear to be pro-active. In his self-published autobiography, Seoul to Soul (Ben Johnson Enterprises, 2010), he weaves a theory that implicates a close friend of Carl Lewis as the saboteur of the drug test in 1988. But ever since Johnson failed a second drug test in 1993, and another unofficial test in 1999, the Canadian public is no longer interested in implausible conspiracies.

I’m not a cheater,” Johnson has said, rationalizing that since almost everyone was doping, steroids gave him no advantage. That later evidence emerged of positive drug tests by his fellow finalists in Seoul—previously buried to avoid their disqualification at various points in their careers—vindicates Johnson on this particular point, at least. To his defenders the sprinter’s most unpardonable sin is that, in a tainted sport, he was the one who got caught. Johnson is perhaps a tragic figure, but he is far from an innocent victim.

“No one ever ran the 100-metre dash in 9.79 seconds like I did In Seoul,” he told Sylvain Blanchard of the Ottawa Citizen (August 1, 1996). “No one….I am the fastest man in history.” Had Johnson not tested positive in 1988, his world record would have remained untouched until 1999 when Maurice Greene tied it, and 2002 when Tim Montgomery—himself the subject of doping allegations—struck 9.78 seconds.

Other sources consulted: Ben Johnson: Lost Seoul (BBC Documentary); Charlie Francis and Jeff Coplon, Speed Trap (St. Martins Press, 1991); Jonathon Gatehouse in Maclean’s (November 1, 2010); Thomas M. Hunt, Drug Games: The International Olympic Committee and the Politics of Doping, 1960-2008 (University of Texas Press, 2011); Ben Johnson, Seoul to Soul (Ben Johnson Enterprises, 2010); Charles P. Pierce in Esquire (February 1999); Sheldon Ungar, Julian Tanner, and Aysan Sev’er in the International Journal of Sports Psychology 20 (1989) [PDF]; and Ungar and Sev’er in the Social Psychology Quarterly 52.3 (1989) [PDF]; as well as articles from the Edmonton Journal (September 24, 1988); Globe and Mail (September 19, 26, 27, 28 & 29, October 1, 3 & 13, December 1, 31, 1988; March 8, September 16, 1989; October 12, 1993; August 17, 1996; September 17, 2002); Kingston Whig-Standard (September 27, 1988); Ottawa Citizen (September 22, 27, 28 & 29, October 2, 1988; March 7, 25, September 18, 1989; August 1, 1996); Toronto Star (September 21, 1987; July 19, September 24, 27, 28, October 1, 9 & 17, November 27, 1988; March 3, May 26, 1989, June 13, September 7, 1989); Vancouver Sun (September 1, 1987; October 11, 1988; June 12, 1989; March 18, 2005); and Windsor Star (September 27, 1988).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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