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For a brief moment, Ben Johnson emerged from the 1988 Summer Olympics as Canada's national hero. No athlete in Canadian history underwent a more precipitous fall from grace after he tested positive for using steroids, disqualifying his gold-medal winning run of. 9.79 in the 100 metres, the marquee event of the Summer Olympics.
Below, we explain Ben Johnson's rise and fall stemming from his steroid-tainted run in Seoul, South Korea.
Johnson entered the 1988 Summer Olympics as Canada's premier athlete after a banner 1987 season which saw him upset Carl Lewis at the IAAF World Championships in Rome, where he posted a then-world record 9.83 run. Johnson, who had previously been named to the Order of Canada in April 1987 — the nation's most prestigious civilian honour — won the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada's best athlete, as well as the Associated Press Athlete of the Year. Johnson was rising to prominence as an international star, and the biggest threat to Lewis, who had become a transcendent star in his own right after a tour-de-force performance at the 1984 Olympics, where he won gold in the 100m. Lewis vowed after Rome that he'd never lose to Johnson again, and insinuated he was using steroids, without naming him directly.
"There are a lot of people coming out of nowhere. I don't think they are doing it without drugs," Lewis said bitterly following Johnson's 1987 victory.
Johnson's contemporaries in Canada raised concerns about rampant doping, particularly from Toronto-based athletes, but these complaints were largely dismissed leading up to the 1988 Summer Olympics. It's only in retrospect how readily apparent widespread doping was in the sprinting community at the time, although all the evidence one needed already was on record.
With the Lewis versus Johnson storyline reaching feverish levels of hype, the race, by itself, delivered. Johnson ran a world record 9.79, Lewis finished with a 9.92, while Linford Christie, the third distant power in sprinting during the late 1980s and early 1990s, finished third with a 9.97. Calvin Smith, a relay specialist, finished fourth with a 9.97, marking the first time someone ran a sub 10-second 100m and finished third (he was originally fourth, but corrected after Johnson's disqualification).
Johnson became a national hero in Canada, defeating track and field's biggest name on the global stage. Two days later, Johnson's urine sample tested positive for stanozolol, an anebolic steroid, and he was instantly disgraced, a rise and fall that may not have precedent through the history of the Olympics.
Lewis was subsequently awarded gold, Christie won silver, while Smith took bronze.
What was the reaction to the event at the time?
Johnson was initially lauded throughout Canada for defeating Lewis and putting the country on the map.
"It's a marvellous evening for Canada," Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said to Johnson shortly after the race wrapped up.
In his post-race press conference, Johnson couldn't help but boast about his accomplishment.
"I’d like to say my name is Benjamin Sinclair Johnson Jr., and this world record will last 50 years, maybe 100," he exclaimed.
"A gold medal – that’s something no one can take away from you."
Something was definitely amiss however, as Johnson took nearly an hour to deliver a urine sample while reportedly crushing 8-10 light beers in the interim.
The IOC's head of drug testing, Prince Alexander de Mérode, hand-delivered a note to Canada's chef de mission, Carol Anne Letheren, informing her of Johnson's positive samples. Dick Pound, the future head of the IOC, showed up as Johnson's de facto legal representation but couldn't overturn the result, forcing Johnson to hand over his gold medal to Letheren in disgrace. He was also later stripped of his gold medal from the 1987 worlds.
Johnson was mercilessly booed at the airport upon arriving in Toronto from Seoul and largely stayed away from the public spotlight. In response to Johnson's positive test, the Canadian government submitted an inquiry, known as The Dubin Inquiry, where Johnson admitted he had lied and had been using steroids as early as 1981. Through the 89-day inquiry, 122 witnesses were called upon.
What did it change for future Olympics?
Johnson's positive test marked the end of track and field's golden age, which was only reinvigorated eight years later when Canada's Donovan Bailey ran a clean, world-record 9.84 at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, spurring a rivalry with U.S. 200m specialist Michael Johnson.
It also marked the end of innocence when it came to track and field as a cloud of suspicion hung over every race. It was only after Usain Bolt emerged as track and field's greatest athlete ever that widespread suspicion began to cease.
Wade Exum, the U.S. Olympic Committee's director of drug control administration from 1991-2000, revealed that Lewis had tested positive for minimal amounts of three stimulants at the 1988 Olympic trials, arguing that he should've been rendered disqualified ahead of Seoul. An IAAF review proved that the USOC went through proper procedure regarding Lewis' samples, allowing him to keep his medals, albeit through a cloud of continued skepticism.
ESPN ran a thorough documentary titled "9.79*" in 2012 as part of its 30 for 30 series, documenting the entire race in full detail. It's certainly worth a watch. Only two of the eight competitors did not test positive for banned substances throughout their entire careers, and the race is widely known as "The Dirtiest Race in History," a fitting title for such an ugly yet pivotal event in the sport's history.
Where are they now?
Johnson entered the theatre of the bizarre following his comeback attempt in the early 1990s. He briefly trained the late Diego Maradona and admitted in 1999 that he had been hired by former Libyan Prime Minister Muammar Gaddafi to coach his son's soccer team.
In 2005, he launched the Ben Johnson Collection, a failed clothing and supplement line.
In March 2006, Johnson made a mockery of his participation of the scandal outright, endorsing an energy drink called "Cheetah Power Surge" an obvious play on the "cheater" label that was affixed to him. It was widely panned by viewers, although Johnson was a major part of a national ad campaign, and it only cast him in a more egregious light, while reminding younger sports fans of his disgraced career.
He once again leaned into his legacy in 2017 in an advertisement for Australian bookmaker Sportsbet's Android app — whose campaign tagline was "putting 'roid in Android" — saying it "tested positive for speed and power, again and again."
After Johnson filed a $37 million lawsuit against his former lawyer Ed Futerman, which was dismissed by the Ontario Superior Court in 2012, he has largely shied away from public life, spending time with his grandchildren in Toronto.
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