Consider the events of the past week and a bit:
Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, fresh off a six-month suspension for steroid use — he says it was the result of eating tainted meat in Mexico — wins a thrilling, razor-thin victory over Gennady Golovkin in what many consider the fight of the year. They’ll fight a third time next spring, and earn many millions of dollars in process.
Thomas Pannone, a young Toronto Blue Jays pitcher, completes the latest in a series of encouraging starts after he was forced to sit out 80 games at the beginning of the season for violating Major League Baseball’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
Jon Jones, arguably the greatest fighter in mixed martial arts history, is cleared to return to the octagon after his second PED-related suspension is reduced to 15 months, in part because he provided “substantial assistance” to the investigators.
The World Anti-Doping Administration welcomes Russia back into the global sports fold — conditionally, following something more than a wrist slap, but also after the country had carried out the most extensive, state-sponsored doping program since the demise of the former East Germany.
And in Canada, as happens every time a milestone is reached, the country paused to consider one of the most ecstatic and traumatic moments of its modern history, when Ben Johnson crossed the line first in Seoul, and then was caught cheating.
Is it any wonder that the latter resonates a bit differently now? Is it any wonder that those too young to have directly experienced what happened 30 years ago must wonder what all the fuss was about?
Drugs? Sport? Doping works. The rewards are tangible. The risks are manageable. Human nature is what it is. Lance Armstrong can still go out in public, and look at how long he carried on that charade. Why was one runner in one country treated so differently back then?
Well… it’s complicated.
Johnson dropped by Sportsnet this week, happy and healthy and apparently at peace. He is still more than willing to spin conspiracy theories about what happened in the testing room at the 1988 Summer Olympics, but that’s really beside the point. He has long admitted that he was doping leading up to those Games, and as we now know, so was everyone else in the 100-metre final. Only Johnson hit the finish line in 9.79. Only Johnson got caught.
“The only person that they crucified is Ben Johnson,” he says. “I’m not Christ, but this is what happened.”
His theory would be that Canada was a small fish, that money and influence were involved, that he was expendable, and so something crooked must have taken place, considering how often he had tested clean in big meets before. All of which may well be true.
But 30 years on, that’s not the most interesting part of the story.
If you were alive and Canadian then, you remember that moment of exultation when he crossed the line ahead of the hated American, Carl Lewis, when that number flashed on the screen, when one of ours stood alone in the planet’s universal sporting event. Yes, ’72 was amazing, Joe Carter’s home run was fun, Salt Lake City was thrilling, Sid’s golden goal and the ecstasy of Vancouver-Whistler 2010 felt culture shifting. But Johnson’s triumph was something else entirely, the instant when a new Canada, a diverse Canada, a not-just-hockey Canada, had for the first time come to the fore.
It you didn’t jump in the air and pump your fist and hug the person next to you, you weren’t breathing.
And so, the crash that followed was understandably devastating.
It has been said that we immediately turned on Johnson, that the Canadian hero was instantly transformed into the Disgraced Jamaican Sprinter – even Johnson said that during this most recent interview. But just try and find the evidence other than a few cynical asides. Most people actually stood by him. They didn’t want it to be true. It was only when Johnson appeared before the Dubin Inquiry and fessed up that the full reality sunk in.
Even then the reaction was less angry than heartbroken, and like good Canadians we turned to a governmental commission to help us atone for our sins and assuage our guilt.
If you go back and read the report that resulted from all of those hours of testimony, it seems impossibly Pollyanna-ish.
To understand what was coming, we should have instead been focused on the World Series that same fall — not on the eventual winners, the Los Angeles Dodgers, but on the American League champion Oakland Athletics, with their twin “Bash Brothers,” Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. We should have been looking at the supermen of the National Football League, impossibly big and strong and fast. Heck, we should have been looking at the greatest star of professional wrestling in that era, Hulk Hogan. Eat your vegetables, say your prayers, take your vitamins, lift a whole bunch of weights, and look what you too could become….
We especially should have listened to Johnson’s coach, the late Charlie Francis, who during Dubin laid out a whole bunch of uncomfortable truths that almost no one was willing to hear. He knew both what was already happening and what was coming. He understood that framing the debate as right versus wrong was a zero-sum game. He explained that the line between acceptable sports science and doping — you can pitch with a cadaver ligament in your elbow and it’s a medical miracle, but don’t get caught using the wrong stimulant or diuretic – is in many ways arbitrary.
Charlie was right. Nothing that’s happened since would have surprised him. Here we are in 2018 debating “good” supplements versus “bad” supplements 30 years after it all seemed so black and white.
Along the way, we’ve all been forced to become more realistic, or more cynical, and you can argue whether that’s a good thing or not.
But even for those who were moral absolutists back in 1988, surely time and circumstance and all of that water under the bridge has cast Ben Johnson in a different light.