Olympics: Johnson returns to scene of the crime

By Oliver Brown

Ben Johnson leads the field in the final of the 100m sprint at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where he was stripped of his medal after a positive drugs test. Photo / AP
Ben Johnson leads the field in the final of the 100m sprint at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where he was stripped of his medal after a positive drugs test. Photo / AP

Tomorrow, inside the cavernous void of Seoul's Jamsil Stadium, Ben Johnson will complete a strange and painful pilgrimage.

For it is here that sport's most notorious drugs cheat intends to unfurl a vast screed of anti-doping signatures along Lane Six, where 25 years ago he made his stanozolol-fuelled burst into infamy.

Perverse? Perhaps. Yet a quarter of a century on, Johnson, reduced after the Seoul Olympics from the 100-metres champion to a pariah watching Road Runner cartoons in his mother's basement, continues to protest that he is more sinned against than sinner.

"I didn't even have a second opinion about whether I should do this or not," he says. "I thought it over and I chose to say, 'Yes, I want to try performance-enhancing drugs.' At the time, I thought this was the way to go, that other athletes were all doing the same and so it was a level playing field.

Win the Olympic Games, be the best in the world, or so I reckoned. I got jealous. But I am just the product."

At 51, Johnson claims to be embarking upon his "second life", emphasising to younger athletes the perils of emulating his steroid-assisted path. It is the first suggestion that he just might be turning his defining moment to positive use.

There is a recognition that even in 2013, the events of September 24, 1988, remain - to invoke Des Lynam when he first collected the newsflash on The Olympics Day at Television Centre - "the most dramatic story out of these Olympics, or indeed any others".

Given that only two of the eight sprinters who lined up for that 100m final have never been linked to drugs, it serves still as a form of elegy for a warped era, not to mention a touchstone for the entire crusade against drugs in sport.

Andy Parkinson, chief executive of UK Anti-Doping, describes it as the "JFK moment" for athletics, in terms of how it shifted attention from institutionalised eastern European methods of cheating to the skulduggery of individual athletes.

It was, however, the most brutal awakening.

Fifty-five hours was all it took between NBC commentator Charlie Jones hoarsely screaming "Nine point seven nine!" as Johnson crossed the line to the International Olympic Committee stripping him of his gold medal, journalists pursuing him through the departures hall at Seoul airport with the plaintive question: "Ben, Canada just wants to know why?"

Johnson did not stay long enough to explain why. His only concern, he stressed, was to ensure that his mother Gloria escaped South Korea unscathed from the gathering swarm of photographers.

Even now he has not lost his conviction that he was the fall-guy in a plot of far wider malevolence.

"You can see the politics at play, and it's not fair for the athletes, because we're the ones who make the sports," he argues.

"We are the ones who train, who spill our guts out and sweat blood for so many years. When something happens and somebody tests positive, then the heat is on me and I take the blame for everybody else."

Twenty-five years later, Johnson is especially resentful about taking the heat for Carl Lewis, whom he loathes with uncommon intensity.

The Californian, elevated to gold in the wake of the Seoul inquest, has traded to an often sanctimonious degree on his status as the clean antidote to his tarnished adversary, even though he tested positive three times at the 1988 Olympic trials before being cleared by the US Olympic Committee.

"He just got protected," Johnson shrugs. "The Americans thought that if they did not have Lewis at the Games, then they would have no chance of beating me."

Despite Lewis's dubious exoneration, the logic was correct. By the autumn of 1988 the battle for the Olympic title had been distilled to a straight duel between Lewis, the sleek aesthete whose running style was the definition of grace, and Johnson, the Jamaican-born bundle of coiled explosiveness.

The momentum of the confrontation was constantly shifting; first, Johnson asserted his supremacy with an astounding world record of 9.83 at the 1987 World Championships in Rome, then his rival avenged the loss in Zurich the following spring.

The first sign, possibly, that Johnson was mobilising for the Olympic showdown in a less-than-transparent fashion was that he chose to spend the final weeks of preparations not in an intensive training block but on an extended Caribbean holiday in St Kitts. "Who on earth does that?" Lewis later asked. Apparently Johnson already trusted that the drugs, supplied with the full connivance of his coach Charlie Francis, would work.

When the final came the anticipation, even in such virgin territory for international athletics as Korea, was palpable. Right up to the starting pistol the needling between the two leading men grew more pointed. It had begun in the warm-up area, Lewis flaunting his natural flamboyance to a curled lip of distaste from his surly nemesis, and it persisted on the track as Johnson made his statement by settling last in the blocks, spreading his hands to the extremities of the lane as if to remind the rest of his presence.

If they failed to notice, they would be reminded soon enough.

Johnson made arguably the most astonishing start in 100m history, springing into his action with the propulsive power of a cat with the other runners still halfway through their drive phase.

Dennis Mitchell, on the outside in lane eight, remembers: "I never experienced anything like it before in my life. I saw an entire body fly in front of me. I thought it was a false start."

But it was, to borrow the horribly misplaced description of Jones in the NBC studio, a "clean start". By 10 metres, Johnson was sixth-hundredths of a second up on Lewis and by 60, the world record-holder was clear by yards.

The impotent look on Lewis' face as he saw this human bullet in the all-red strip - part agony at losing the most significant race of his career, part incredulity at the sheer margin of defeat - spoke for all present. Johnson claims that had he not raised his arm in triumph over the final strides, he would have lowered his asterisked time to 9.73.

As Johnson luxuriated in the fruits of victory, taking a call from Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney while wrapping himself in the Maple Leaf, Lewis maintained that he knew something was awry. "He didn't even smile up there on the medal rostrum," he observed. "Not once."

In the mayhem that ensued, one of the first to hear of Johnson's positive test for stanozolol was IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who labelled it as "worse than somebody dying". Dick Pound, the vice-president and by coincidence also the only Canadian lawyer in Seoul at the time, sought to mount a last-ditch defence of Johnson but by 2am on September 27 it was all too late and the news release was issued, detonating a thermonuclear reaction worldwide.

On the 25th anniversary, this is still a dark tale of few redeeming elements.

The one hope is that Johnson, who has staged a three-week global tour of anti-drugs campaigning ahead of tomorrow's evocative return to the scene of the crime, is sincere in his insistence that he is reformed. "I'm trying to change things, to ensure that this doesn't happen to any other athletes," he says.

"I want the future generation to go down the decent route."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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