Ben Johnson’s Record-breaking Downfall
In Sept. 24, 1988 at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Ben Johnson ran the race of his life. It was a race that shocked the world and permanently altered Johnson’s life. He ran the 100 meters sprint in record time, and in a few days, fell in disgrace in record time, too.
The Ben Johnson scandal may be the single, most explosive event that placed steroids in the consciousness of many people. Before Seoul, there are wide-spread reports of steroids use in the Olympics, particularly by athletes from the Soviet bloc. Yet most of these reports are conveniently set aside, the obscure offenders silently sent into oblivion. Not in the case of Big Ben.
He was vilified and seen as a disgrace, an outcast in the sporting world. His adopted country virtually disowned him, as Canada’s media and politician referred to him as ‘Jamaican-born’, rather than a citizen. After testing positive a second time in 1993, which cost him a lifetime ban from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), some people even asked him to leave Canada and return to his native country.
Before the ’88 Olympics
According to accounts of former coach Charlie Francis and Johnson himself, the athlete started taking steroids in 1981, when he was just 20 years old. His doctor since 1984, Dr. George (Jamie) Astaphan, prepared a drug program that enabled him to gain muscle (he was a skinny struggling sprinter when he first came under Francis), recover from injuries faster, and gain strength. The program involved taking steroids, such as furazabol (Miotolin) to bulk him up and increase his stamina, in a carefully controlled regimen that takes into account clearing the drug from the body in time for competitions. Specifically for the Olympics, Johnson’s last steroid cycle ended Sept. 2, three weeks and one day before the big race. Furazabol was favored by the team over other drugs (such as Winstrol-V or stanozolol), as it is completely out of the system in 21 days (compared to Winstrol’s 28 days).
It is to be noted that Johnson had been out-of-form in the in the run-up to the Olympics, losing to his arch-rival Carl Lewis in their Zurich meet in August 17. Early in the year, he suffered a pulled hamstring, an injury which was aggravated in May. It is therefore safe to surmise that in this period, Johnson, his coach and doctor worked overtime to get him in shape in time for the Olympics.
During and after the Olympics
Apparently, their machinations worked. Johnson beat Carl Lewis spectacularly in the 100 meters dash, setting a new world record (9.79 seconds) for the event. However, three days after the race, the tragedy for Johnson began when it was announced that traces of stanozolol was found in his urine sample. He was disqualified from the Games, his record nullified, and the gold medal awarded to Lewis. In the aftermath of the doping investigation by the IAAF, Johnson’s world records set the previous year were also nullified and he was suspended for two years.
Different reasons were advanced by Johnson’s team to dispel the doping charges: sabotage, conspiracy perpetrated by the US sports officials in collaboration with Lewis’ corporate sponsors, and the usual defense of mishandling of samples. Later on, Johnson admitted using steroids, but maintained that he only did so between competitions and that during games, he is totally clean. He served his two-year suspension and returned to athletics in 1991. However, he was again caught with excessive testosterone in his body during a meet in Montreal in 1993, for which the IAAF banned him for life, effectively ending his running career.
If anything, Johnson’s downfall resulted in bringing into public focus substance abuse in sports. It also resulted in the significant loss of interest in athletics for the general public, such that it is no longer closely followed similar to heavyweight boxing bouts, which was the case before the ’88 Olympics. Thus, the Grand Prix race in London this weekend is hardly noticed, despite the fact that the world’s current fastest sprinters - Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell and American Tyson Gay – run in an event which happens only weeks before the Beijing Olympics. It is quite unlike the Zurich meet between Lewis and Johnson.
Johnson now and then continues to rant against the ‘injustice’ that was committed on him. He currently heads a clothing company bearing his name and has announced that his autobiography will soon be released.