Sportsnet looks back on the 25th anniversary of Ben Johnson’s rise and fall from glory at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, with in-depth features on Connected all week and a special 30-minute Sportsnet presentation on Friday, September 27 that will showcase Stephen Brunt’s one-on-one interview with the former sprinter.
In a Sportsnet exclusive 30-minute special, Stephen Brunt sits down with Ben Johnson to discuss the 25th anniversary of the race that lifted and shocked Canadians.
Stephen Brunt sits down with Ben Johnson to reminisce about winning the Olympic Gold Medal in World Record time, and all the sadness and emotion of it all being taken away.
By Jeff Simmons
The 1988 100-metre final at Seoul 1988 remains one of the most controversial Olympic events of our time.
The race will always be remembered for Ben Johnson, the Canadian world champion who set a world-record time of 9.79 seconds, only to be stripped of his gold medal three days later after failing a doping test.
But six of the eight finalists either tested positive or had strong links to performance-enhancing drugs at some point throughout their careers, including American Carl Lewis and eventual silver medallist Linford Christie.
Here, we take a look at the eight individuals from the infamous 1988 final and summarize how their careers played out, before and after that fateful night in Seoul.
Lane 1: Robson da Silva
Where he finished: 6th
Notable achievement(s): Da Silva was one of the most prominent Brazilian sprinters and set various South American records; participated in four straight Olympic Games, winning bronze medals at 1988 Seoul (200m) and 1996 Atlanta (4x100m).
Did he or didn’t he? Da Silva has no history of performance-enhancing drugs and has not been tainted by any allegations. “I decided not to do drugs and lose. But I sleep well at night.”
Lane 2: Ray Stewart
Where he finished: 8th
Notable achievement(s): Competed at four Olympic Games and six World Championships in 20-year career; won a silver medal (4x100m) at Los Angeles 1984.
Did he or didn’t he? Implicated for his role in a drug scandal in 2008 and received a life-time ban from USADA in 2010 for allegedly trafficking and providing athletes with human growth hormones.
Lane 3: Carl Lewis
Country: United States
Where he finished: 2nd (was awarded gold after Johnson disqualification
Notable achievement(s): Lewis is one of the United States’ most decorated Olympians, winning 10 Olympic medals (nine of them gold) over his career. Lewis was declared the winner of the 100m in Seoul after Johnson was disqualified. The sprinter and long jumper was named Olympian of the Century by Sports Illustrated. Lewis was selected in the 10th round of the 1984 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls, even though he never played high school or college basketball. He was Johnson’s biggest rival during the late 1980s.
Lewis appeared on several movies and television shows and offered one of the most infamous renditions of the U.S. national anthems:
Did he or didn’t he? Lewis reportedly failed three drug tests during 1988 Olympic Trials for minimum amounts of pseudoephedrine, ephedrine and phenylpropanolamine — banned stimulants and bronchodilators also found in cold medication but was cleared by the U.S. Olympic Committee. He has always maintained his innocence and claimed that he accidentally consumed the banned substance through an over-the-counter remedy.
Lane 4: Linford Christie
Country: Great Britain
Where he finished: 3rd (was awarded silver after Johnson disqualification)
Notable achievement(s): Christie is one of the most prominent British sprinters of his time. He won gold medals at Barcelona 1992 (100m), the 1993 World Championships (100m), three different European Championships and three European Indoor Championships. He was the first European to break the 10-second barrier (1988) in the 100m race and still holds the British record in the event.
Did he or didn’t he? Christie reportedly tested positive for pseudoephedrine in Seoul but escaped sanction after the International Olympic Committee voted 11-to-10 in his favour. He claimed that the substance had been unwittingly swallowed when he was drinking ginseng tea. In 1999, he failed a drug test in Germany for the steroid nandrolone and received a two-year ban by the IAAF. He has always denied any wrongdoing.
Lane 5: Calvin Smith
Country: United States
Where he finished: 4th (was awarded bronze after Johnson disqualification)
Notable achievement(s): The two-time World Champion in the 200m was one of the top sprinters in the 1980s. He earned a bronze medal at Seoul 1998 after Johnson was disqualified and won a gold medal at Los Angeles 1984 (4x100m).
Did he or didn’t he? Smith has never been implicated for any drug use and considers himself the true winner of the 1988 race.
Lane 6: Ben Johnson
Where he finished: 1st (disqualified for doping)
Notable achievement(s): Won two Olympic bronze medals at Los Angeles 1984 (100m and 4x100m relay) before the controversial race in Seoul. Johnson was the reigning World Champion before setting a new world record with a 9.79 time in 1988 before he was disqualified for doping. Johnson’s other medals and Olympic records were later rescinded. Johnson competed for Canada at Barcelona 1992 but failed to make the final of the 100m race after finishing last in his semi-final heat.
Did he or didn’t he? After winning the 1988 Olympic race, Johnson’s urine samples contained stanozolol and he was disqualified three days later. In the 1989 Dubin Inquiry, a Canadian government investigation into drug abuse, Johnson’s coach Charlie Francis admitted that the Canadian sprinter first took steroids in 1981. Johnson’s team always claimed he took steroids to remain on equal footing with his competition, where it was later found that six of the eight people in the 1988 100m final were linked to performance-enhancing drugs.
Lane 7: Desai Williams
Where he finished: 7th
Notable achievement(s): Won a bronze medal (4x100m) at Los Angeles 1984.
Did he or didn’t he? Williams was reportedly supplied with performance-enhancing drugs by Dr. Jamie Astaphan. He has developed into a prominent speed coach and trains athletes such as Tremaine Harris and Justyn Warner.
Lane 8: Dennis Mitchell
Country: United States
Where he finished: 5th
Notable achievement(s): Won three Olympic medals, including gold (4x100m) and bronze (100m) at Barcelona 1992, and silver (4x100m) at 1996 Atlanta.
Did he or didn’t he? Mitchell was banned by the IAAF after he tested positive for excessive testosterone in 1998. He later testified that he was injected with human-growth hormone at the trial for his former coach, Trevor Graham.
By Mike Cormack
In late September of 1988, Richard Moore (@richardmoore73) was a 15-year-old teenager on holiday in northern Scotland.
Like tens of millions of others around the world that month, the young Scot found himself captivated by the Seoul Summer Games, and in particular, by the men’s 100-metre final and its two main combatants, Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis.
In 2012, Moore — by now an accomplished sports journalist and cycling author — published his book, The Dirtiest Race in History, Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 Olympic 100m final.
Part biographical, part mystery, the book provides readers with a glimpse into the formative years of Johnson and Lewis and the coaches that played a large role in shaping their respective destinies.
The book also delves into the numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the race, including Johnson’s assertion that Lewis’ friend Andre Jackson spiked his beer in the Seoul doping centre following the race.
On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the race, Moore talked with sportsnet.ca.
SN: WHY WRITE THE BOOK AFTER ALL THESE YEARS?
Moore: I was 15 when the ’88 Olympics were on and it left a very deep impression on me. It was the first Games I really watched closely and it was all about the 100 metres. Track and Field was huge in the UK at the time with Sebastian Coe, Linford Christie… we had a lot of world class athletes. It was a massive sport in the UK. But on a human level, I remember feeling sorry for Johnson at the time, as I say in the book, as he was bundled out of the country as if he had committed the most heinous crime.
And I think also why I came back to the story so many years later was because of my interest in drugs in sport. Being a cycling journalist and following the sport for a while, since 1998 the drugs side of it has been huge and you learn a lot about it and cheating in all its forms. I confess to being interested in the subject and this is the biggest drugs in sport scandal of all-time really, or at least it was at the time.
I also felt like it hadn’t really fully been told. We had Lewis’s version, Charlie Francis’ version, but you hadn’t had the story told from multiple points of view.
SN: WHY DID YOU FEEL SORRY FOR JOHNSON?
Moore: I don’t know where that comes from. I think my sympathy was just, what must that be like — to go from this enormous height to this crushing low. It was his own doing, but at the time as a sports fan you were still hoping against hope that there was some explanation for it. It was the first major doping scandal so we were all a bit naïve to the reality of doping in sport. On some level I did feel then, and I still feel know, that he was taken advantage of.
I compare him in that TED talk to Lance Armstrong, but you can’t really compare the two. Armstrong was somebody very much in charge of his own destiny and his own decisions and Johnson was somebody who could be and was manipulated by people and some of those people had his best interests at heart, and maybe some of them didn’t.
Moore: Not having followed the media as closely at the time but having gone back and reading the contemporary reports, I was struck by the hostility towards Lewis (in the U.S. media).
I started off thinking that it was going to be, not about a good guy and a bad guy at all; knew it was going to be far more complex than that. I knew that Lewis had failed tests as well. But I ended up feeling quite sorry for Lewis as well. Maybe I’m just soft. When I spoke to journalists who covered it, it’s a very delicate area because I picked up a lot of homophobia towards him which definitely came out in the articles at that time in a way in which you wouldn’t be allowed to now. It’s quite subtle but it was definitely there, perhaps mixed in with a bit of racism.
Lewis wasn’t the conventional male athlete at all. The standards, the attitudes have changed now and I think there’d be far more acceptance for somebody like that. I think much of Lewis’ public persona could be explained by his knowledge of that attitude toward him. It made him probably quite guarded, quite prickly and I can completely understand where he’s coming from. It must have been very, very difficult for him because I think he was treated unfairly. So in the end I ended up feeling quite sympathetic to both of them, for different reasons.
Johnson is clearly someone who needs, I hesitate to call it a father figure, but he almost needs a mentor, even as a 50-year-old man. Charlie Francis was that guy and then over the years, other people have fulfilled that role and some of them have had his best interests at heart and others have taken advantage of him.
Johnson’s not stupid, but he’s not the most articulate of people. I don’t think that Johnson was fully in charge of his own destiny either. So to criticize Johnson and heap all the blame at his door kind of misses the point and that’s what happened to him in 1988.
I think the real story is that Johnson was manipulated and taken advantage of and perhaps still is to this day.
SN: IT WOULD BE EASY TO BELIEVE THAT THE TITLE, THE DIRTIEST RACE IN HISTORY, SIMPLY RELATES TO THE RACE ITSELF, BUT IT HAS AS MUCH TO DO WITH THE SPORT’S CULTURE AND ITS GOVERNING BODIES AS WELL. TRUE?
Moore: You’ve hit the nail right on the head. It’s much wider than Johnson and Lewis and whoever else is in the race. It’s much wider. That title is one that seems to have been adopted. I didn’t come up with it. It seems to have been adopted by various commentators about the race. There was a radio documentary in the UK called, The Dirtiest Race in History.
And it’s not necessarily truly justified anymore because there’s been a lot more, at least certainly some Tour de Frances. It’s an attention-grabbing title and that was the intention I suppose. But when you look back to the 1984 Games and the covered-up tests, the behaviour of (former International Association of Athletics Federations president) Primo Nebiolo, (former International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio) Samaranch.
In ’87, there was a story that (Johnson) was spirited away by Nebiolo that evening and (Johnson) went missing. Johnson said, “Yeah, yeah that’s true. Nebiolo took me away to the horse racing. I can’t remember if I was tested (after he won the world championship in Rome) but Nebiolo took me away to the horse racing.”
Moore: That’s a really good question. No. I don’t think it was a fair race. Johnson always said, “I was born to run,” but as we’ve seen with Lance Armstrong, different people respond to drugs in different ways and so this level playing field argument is a complete fallacy. You could see that Johnson made a dramatic improvement once he began using steroids, in ’82 really. His figure, his physique changed and he got a lot faster while Lewis, regardless of what he was doing, his progress was far more natural, if you will. I don’t know what Lewis was doing — he obviously failed a test for stimulants and that’s not the same as steroids clearly, but Lewis seems to have been a more natural sprinter.
Johnson’s growth was pretty dramatic because he was one of these athletes who gained a disproportionate benefit from the drugs. Drugs work differently for different people and I think he was somebody who gained a huge, huge advantage with drugs. In terms of his start, drugs didn’t make him start faster.
I don’t buy the level playing field argument at all. I just think that it’s impossible to know how these drugs affected different athletes, but I do have a sense that it affects different people different ways.
SN: WHAT’S YOUR SENSE FOR HOW JOHNSON IS PERCEIVED TODAY AROUND THE WORLD?
Moore: I went to this event a few weeks ago in London and it was interesting. It was in a theatre and it was attended by people from the athletics community, not so much journalists and when he appeared on stage people clapped and crowded around him at the end for autographs and photographs.
Certainly in that room there appeared to be a lot of sympathy. Of course people tend to gravitate to anyone who’s famous so perhaps we shouldn’t reach too much into that.
I think he still is officially the most disgraced drug cheat in history — certainly in newspapers he’s often called that. But if you speak to the man in the street, there’s a greater awareness of the fact that he wasn’t the only one (doping) and part of the majority, and not the minority.
Certainly those in sport and involved in sport probably have a more sympathetic view towards him now, but for Ben it’s going to be hard to re-invent himself in a really positive way I think, because that label has stuck to a large degree.
SN: HAS THE FINAL CHAPTER ON THE ’88 100M BEEN WRITTEN?
Moore: (laughs). It’s a good question. Meeting Johnson in London and speaking with a female companion of his, Johnson apparently still wants to tell the proper story, the actual story, whatever that may be. The problem with that is Johnson is a discredited witness, in a way.
If Andre Jackson really does hold the key, it would be for him to actually come forward and say it. Now my problem with Andre Jackson, was again, I realize with him he loves the notoriety of being the mystery man and so I’m not sure if he’s a reliable witness either because when I was speaking with him I could tell he was playing with me.
So you think, well, either you did spike Johnson’s drink or you just love the fact that you are the guy at the centre of the story and you want to preserve that as long as possible. So he too is an unreliable witness. There are all these unreliable witnesses involved in it, which makes figuring out the truth very, very difficult.
It is a mystery story as well. It’s the intrigue that keeps you reading about it. How you tie up all those loose ends would probably be beyond anybody. There was definitely big business involved there as well, so who knows? I don’t know. It’s a murky, old tale and that’s what I wanted people to come away with.
But apart from the darkness, the murkiness, there’s also this incredible sporting rivalry, which had all the elements and I wanted that to come across in the book as well.
It was a moment that both elevated a country and then brought utter shame to it. 25 years after Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids at the Olympics, he will attempt to set the record straight.
Twenty-five years after Seoul, Ben Johnson should be remembered not for his PED ban, but for his greatness
By Stephen Brunt
It’s time to take that moment back, to reclaim the way it felt in those sweet, sweet seconds 25 years ago after Ben Johnson crossed the finish line in Seoul, arm extended, glancing back over his shoulder at Carl Lewis, his victory—our victory—easy and absolute and unequivocal, covering 100 metres on foot faster than any human being ever had.
If you weren’t alive then, sorry, can’t really help you understand—which of course is also the standard geezer line when referencing Paul Henderson’s holy goal of 1972.
But if you were alive for both, it’s no heresy to suggest that Ben was bigger, Ben was better, because this was the global stage, not our own little provincial game, this was the great universal in all of sport, this was an American we were beating, and for all of the Cold War rhetoric that surrounded the Summit Series, let’s get one thing straight—our real rivals have always been the folks to the south.
A national hero emerged not from some nostalgic notion of what was Canada, but from the place as it actually existed. He was an immigrant, an urbanite. Johnson was not a citizen of the mythic nation of shinny games on frozen sloughs, but of the place where most of us actually resided.
It was thrilling. It was joyous. It was perfect.
And so naturally his fall induced a heartbreak from which we never really recovered.
Johnson was erased from the record books, he was evicted from the Canadian sports pantheon, and by the time his comebacks were completed and he had been caught again, he was fully a pariah. So deep was the shadow cast that even those who came after him, like Donovan Bailey, couldn’t fully escape it.
Funny how context creeps in over a quarter century.
Right about the time that Canadians were seeking truth through the Dubin Inquiry—the only other country that went through a similar hara-kiri exercise over doping was one that no longer existed, the old East Germany—the Toronto Blue Jays were playing the Oakland Athletics in the 1989 American League playoffs.
Did you see that Canseco guy, and the kid Mark McGwire? Man, they’re ripped. Must have really dedicated themselves in the weight room.
Two and a half decades of miracle results, regular drug scandals, passing moral crises, but what didn’t happen during that time was another Ben Johnson. The use of PEDs certainly didn’t slow down even one little bit, but no other athlete of his magnitude, his star wattage, tested positive in the middle of an Olympic Games, despite the claims by Dick Pound and company that their net was near impregnable.
So how should we feel about Johnson now, knowing that six of eight in the field of the Seoul 100-metre final were implicated in drug use at some point during their careers, knowing that even if you don’t buy his conspiracy theories, it sure seems like he was a patsy, a sacrificial lamb, someone who died so the sins of a whole lot of others could be swept under the carpet?
9.79—that was real. It was one of the great athletic accomplishments in human history, and who knows how low he might have gone.
Our wholehearted embrace of Johnson as a new kind of Canadian sporting icon—that was real as well.
Our unwillingness, at first, to throw him under the bus—that’s the part of the story that tends to be forgotten. Johnson really wasn’t instantly transformed from Canadian hero to disgraced Jamaican sprinter. Even after he fessed up, erasing the last fantasies that it had all been a terrible mistake, remember the comeback race at a packed Copps Coliseum. We wanted to forgive him, we wanted him back, we wanted to feel that feeling again.
Maybe now is the time to get past the anger, past the disappointment and past the deep sadness of the intervening years, when Johnson, racing against a horse and making Cheetah Power Surge commercials with Frank D’Angelo, became an embarrassing object of pathos, and find a way to reconnect with 1988. He’s getting older and we’re getting older, and perhaps wiser goes along with that.
All of us have come to understand that athletes use every edge to get ahead, that the line dividing what is considered cheating and what is not is often arbitrary, and that we, members of the most doped-up society in history, are not exactly consistent in how we pass judgment. (For a start, consider the reaction to NFL drug suspensions versus MLB drug suspensions.)
Ben Johnson probably won’t get his medal back, the way Jim Thorpe’s heirs were finally able to reclaim his when the taint of professionalism didn’t seem quite so important anymore.
But he can at least be brought back in from the cold.
He is one of our greatest athletes. He provided one of our greatest moments.
And as time goes by, everything else means less and less.