The Ben Johnson bomb was dropped on me when I went into the Village dining room for breakfast early in the morning on the day after my semifinal. I forget which Canadian athlete or coach gave me the news, but nobody was talking about anything else.
* Disclaimer: The following article is not meant to be a factual account of Ben Johnson’s drug use and his positive drug test in Seoul. Please note that when I mention “sprinters” and “distance runners” I’m generalizing without speaking about any person or persons in particular. I’m giving my personal interpretation of these events in Seoul, written largely from a 24-year-old memory.
**Updated September 24, 2013: Here is a link to a new 12-minute CBC video about Ben Johnson’s latest tour to encourage drug-free sport and more rigorous testing. Well done. http://ca.sports.yahoo.com/video/ben-johnsons-cautionary-tale-not-023100564.html?vp=1
The effect on the Canadian team
Overnight, the buoyant, united, and proud Canadian track and field team turned into a different team altogether. Now, by tacit understanding, we were split into two camps, comprised mainly of the sprinters (who had been “in the know”), and the distance runners, who were outraged and horrified. We understood that there was some validity to the argument that “everyone was doing it”—we knew there was drug use in athletics, especially in the sprints and throwing events, but up until that day, many of us had had only a vague idea of what was going on. Now Ben, and by extension the entire Canadian team, had been found guilty. Whether we believed this to be scapegoating or not, we were forced to examine the issue and our own moral stance on it.
I think most of the middle- and long-distance runners on the team were shocked and revolted that Ben had been caught cheating. The temptation to cheat was there for distance runners too, either by using steroids as Ben had or by blood doping to boost oxygen levels in the blood. Suspicious records had been on the books in women’s middle-distance events for years; steroid use was highly suspected, but unproven. Canadian team members like Debbie Bowker and Lynn Williams had run consistently well at the world level for years, but were usually just out of the medals. I have little doubt that most of the women who beat them were on drugs, while they were clean. Hence the division within our team between the sprinters who sympathized with Ben (some having taken the drugs themselves, as the Dubin Inquiry later revealed), and the distance runners who had, perhaps, sacrificed medals and financial gain in order to play by the rules.
Probably the one question held in common by all team members was: How had Ben (and those responsible for his drug program) been stupid enough to get caught at the Olympic Games?
Ironically, the Ben Johnson scandal brought all team athletes, coaches, and admistrators together in one way: we all wanted to talk about it, and we all felt like a team (and a nation) disgraced in the eyes of the world.
Of course, Ben’s meteoric rise and fall led to countless articles and discussions on the street, in the media, and behind closed doors of powerful sports organizations. In 1989, the Canadian government commissioned the Dubin Inquiry to investigate the use of drugs in sports.
The documentary movie 9.79 has just been shown at the Toronto International Film Festival. I watched this movie via a Facebook link that I can no longer find. It’s a compelling film that captures the incredible excitement of the most famous 100m race in history. The movie was made by the UK filmmaker Daniel Gordon and reviewed by Canadian Running magazine’s Mihira Lakshman. Click here to see the review and a movie trailer.
The effect on me as an individual
The shocking news about Ben, and its effect on our team morale, did not have a detrimental effect on my own race. Athletes have an amazing (and necessary) ability to preserve a very narrow focus on themselves and their performance.
The entry from my personal diary, copied below, expresses what was going through my mind on the day I found out about Ben’s positive test. My opinions about cheating with drugs in athletics have not changed in the intervening years.
September 27, 1988
Today is an absolutely gorgeous crisp fall day in Seoul. The brilliant sun makes me feel so happy just to be alive. I savour every movement of my body; it feels so strong with just a little lingering stiffness to remind me of my race yesterday…
Then I hear that Ben Johnson has just tested positive for drugs—after being the team’s pride and joy, the hero of Canada, gold-medal winner and world-record setter. He will be disgraced, our country and team will be disgraced. This will be a scandal such as the track and field world has never seen. I’m shocked…yet curiously untouched. This cannot taint my happiness. I know that I’m clean…as are many great runners on our team and from other countries…I know that I love my sport for the joy I feel in my body, the health, the sense of accomplishment, the euphoria after a hard workout…This will not destroy running for me. Winning is not important enough to me that I would cheat, endanger my health, and change my personality to do it.
Yet this revelation may wound track and field in a way that can never be repaired. What do medals and records mean when there is so much cheating? How is it fair when only a tiny proportion of the cheaters can ever be caught? Even though I’m Canadian, I say that Ben Johnson, his coach and his doctor deserved to be caught. The sad part is that hundreds of other athletes equally deserve to be caught—and won’t be.