Ben Johnson: Olympic glory and drug disgrace
Our third entry into the world of fallen sports stars, Ben Johnson is probably the name most synonymous with drug use in sport. Well, pre-Lance Armstrong anyway.
By Declan Whooley
Jamaican-born Ben Johnson moved to Ontario, Canada when he was 15 years old and showed early promise after joining the local athletics club.
He represented Canada at the Commonwealth Games in Australia in 1982 and two years later he finished third in the 100 metres final behind Carl Lewis and Sam Graddy. He also won bronze in the 4x100 metre relay team and was established as Canada’s top sprinter.
The following year he beat Carl Lewis at the ninth attempt and beat Linford Christie to gold in the 100 metres final in the 1986 Commonwealth games. The following year he broke the world record by a full-tenth of a second. Johnson was the household name in his sport.
There was a keen rivalry building up to the 1988 Olympic final in Seoul between Lewis and Johnson, but on that now infamous day in September, the Canadian sprinter took gold and also set a new world record time of 9.79 seconds. Johnson in fact commented that he would have been even faster had he not put his hand up crossing the line. It's not like Usain Bolt ever slows up now is it?
Just three days later, however, Johnson was disqualified when his urine samples were found to contain the banned substance stanozolol. He later admitted to using steroids when he broke the world record the year before, so both records were taken away and the gold medal was stripped.
Johnson and his coach Charlie Francis argued that he took drugs to remain on an even playing field with the others. Five of the 100 metre finalists that year either tested positive for drugs or were implicated in a drug scandal at some point in their careers. Francis later told an enquiry that the sprinter had been using steroids since 1981.
After his suspension ended in 1991, Johnson made a comeback to the track for the Hamilton Indoor Games. A crowd of 17,000, a record indoor crowd, saw him finish second in the 50 metres race.
Johnson qualified for the 1992 Olympics, but finished last in his 100 metre semi-final after stumbling out of the blocks. The following year he was just 0.04 shy of a 50 metre world record in the 50 metres, but again failed a drug test. This time he was found to have had excessive levels of testosterone in his system and the IAAF slapped a lifetime ban on him. Pierre Cadieux, the Canadian amateur sports minister, called Johnson a ‘national disgrace’.
In a bizarre turn of events, it was found that Johnson had grounds for appeal on this decision and was allowed compete in Canada, but no one would race against him for fear that it would damage their careers. In 1999 he returned to compete on his own and set a time of 11 seconds in his first race for six years, but failed a drug test for the third time. Some guys just never learn, do they?
After his running career came to an end, Johnson briefly coached Diego Maradona, who was well known to dabble in narcotics himself, in 1997, while he was hired by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to coach his footballing son Al-Saadi. Gaddafi joined Perugia in 2003 but was sacked after just one game. Unbelievably, the attacker failed a drugs test.
A rather dapper Al-Saadi Gaddafi
Johnson attempted to launch a clothing range in 2005 but it never took off. Ironically, he was involved a year later in promoting an energy drink, ‘Cheetah Power Surge’. In one mock ad interview, Johnson is asked: “Ben, when you run, do you Cheetah?”. "Absolutely," says Johnson. “I Cheetah all the time.”
You really couldn't make this stuff up. And just in case you don't believe me...
His autobiography Seoul to Soul paints the sprinter as a lonely man, though not exactly contrite about his past. “I tested positive for Stanozolol but I was using other steroids," he says rather matter-of-factly before suggesting nearly half of the world's athletes today are on some form on performance enhancing drug.
Where once he was running away from opponents, these days Ben Johnson is running away from accountability.