By: Michael D. McClellan | Ben Johnson won’t say it but I will: It’s time to get off the man’s back. He’s paid for his sins in triplicate while other cheaters have skated, some of them holding onto vast fortunes, hallowed records and adoring fans that number in the millions. Pete Rose sits on baseball’s periphery, hawking his name for profit, and perhaps he is a bigger pariah than Johnson, the one-time world record holder in the 100 meters and brief possessor of sport’s most coveted title: World’s Fastest Man. But for every Johnson and Rose there are scores of others who have fallen from grace only to be given grace, and with it a healthy dose of redemption. Think about it: Nobody cares what happened between Kobe Bryant and a mentally unstable woman in that Edwards, Colorado, hotel room all those years ago. He’s Kobe, as gifted an athlete and as ruthless a competitor as we’ve seen in a generation, and one of the most celebrated sports icons on the planet. Nobody cares that Michael Phelps smokes pot and racks up DUIs at nearly the same clip that he breaks world records. At the end of the day he’s still Michael Phelps, handsome, charming and loaded – with money, with gold medals, and with a Kevlar cachet of Madison Avenue street cred. And nobody really cares that the Major League home run record now belongs to someone whose forehead seemingly grew in lockstep with his Bunyonesque baseball accomplishments; just slap an asterisk on Barry Bonds’ homer total and move on, an HGH-weary public seems to say, even though Bonds’ former trainer, Gary Anderson, served prison time on contempt charges for refusing to testify against his childhood friend and longtime BALCO client.
Michael Vick. Tiger Woods. A-Rod. In each case we’ve forgiven and forgotten, and yet we continue to punish Ben Johnson for something that happened in 1988. 1988! Without question we’ve treated him far too harshly for far too long. We buried him without ever seriously considering his side of the story, an alternate ending to one of the most salacious scandals in Olympic history. Worse, we’ve judged him to have no redeeming human value, based largely on a series of high-profile (and equally suspicious) events that ended with a lifetime ban from international competition. Did we ever get to know Ben Johnson, movie buff and lover of all things Motown? Did we ever stop to consider that Johnson wasn’t a lone wolf? Or that keeping up with the Jonses merely leveled the playing field, and that remaining clean meant no real chance of competing against track’s elite?
Ben Johnson simply had the misfortune of being first – first across the finish line in Seoul during the finals of the men’s 100 meters, and in a world record time of 9.79 seconds no less; the first celebrity athlete busted for doping on a world stage (make no mistake, Johnson was a track and field megastar in 1988, his bitter feud with Carl Lewis on par with Ali-Frasier, Magic-Bird, and Borg-McEnroe at the apex of their respective rivalries); and first to be vilified globally for the use of performance enhancing drugs. Throw in Johnson’s enigmatic personality, this in stark contrast to that of the charismatic Lewis, and the backlash that followed was so epic, the fall from grace so complete, that none of us could fully process what had transpired in South Korea – least of all Johnson, disgraced a mere seventy-two hours after stunning both Lewis and the world in a race for ages. The image of the sinewy Canadian crossing the finish line, arm raised triumphantly, is as indelible as that of the 1980 US hockey team celebrating its historic win over the Soviets. The aftermath? In the pre-Internet, pre-TMZ world that was the late eighties, Johnson’s steroid misstep was everywhere, the closest thing to viral journalism as a story back then could be, ubiquitous in every sense of the word.
Few athletes have ever flown so high or fallen so fast as the Jamaican-born, Toronto-bred sprinter who, at the height of his celebrity, raked in nearly $500,000 a month and chilled with the likes of Prince Albert of Monaco. This is a man whose blazing speed and heated rivalry with Lewis captivated even those with only a passing interest in track and field, and who, along with Lewis, transformed a single race into a pop culture phenomenon. So big was that ’88 Olympic final that 100,000 people packed the stands and the whole world stopped when Johnson, Lewis and the rest of a star-studded field stepped into their lanes and crouched, ready to chase history.
“The pressure leading up to that race was on Carl Lewis. He had beaten me just before the ’88 Olympic Games. I was loose and relaxed. Extremely focused. The pressure was really on him to come back and beat me again in Seoul.” – Ben Johnson
“Everyone knew that I was coming into Seoul after an injury – I had pulled a muscle leading up to the Olympic Games. There were a lot of questions about my health. People wondered whether I could return to top form in only eight weeks, but I wasn’t worried about my hamstring. What people didn’t know is that both of my Achilles tendons were also bothering me, so I trained only one day that week, on Monday, and I didn’t run again until the first round on Friday. I put together a strong run. I think I could have ran a 9.69, but I slowed down fifteen meters out and put my hand up in the air.
“I felt great for the final. I knew I was ready. There was no way in hell that Carl Lewis was ever going to beat me in Seoul. I was mentally prepared. I knew I had put in the work. I knew that twelve years of training had prepared me for that day. I didn’t have a lot of great runs in 1988, but I was stronger and faster, and I was peaking at the right time. I said to myself, ‘This is your time. This is the chance to make your dream come true. This is your chance to make history.’”
History was made indeed, a jaw-dropping 9.79 seconds after the start, and then remade three days later, on September 27, when it was revealed that Johnson’s blood and urine samples contained stanozolol, a drug most often prescribed by veterinarians to improve muscle growth and red blood cell production in weakened animals. Horses mostly. Ask anyone who was alive when President Kennedy was shot, or when the first human walked on the moon, or when the Berlin Wall crumbled, and they’ll recall in vivid detail where they were and what they were doing at the time. The news of Ben Johnson’s DQ was like that. It shocked the world. It devastated a country. And just like that, nothing would ever be the same again.
~ ~ ~
Let’s pump the brakes on the whole ‘Ben Johnson as a Pariah’ narrative and go at this from a fresh perspective. Yes, the man cheated. Yes, a nation turned its back on him. Yes, a zillion stories have been written about how dirty the dude was, and how his legacy will forever be associated with doping’s rotten underbelly. I get all of that. But seriously, why in the hell have we been so hard on Ben Johnson, and for so long? Is it because he’s black? Shy? Enigmatic? Because he was the silent rival to the loquacious Lewis, who fancied himself equal parts Michael Jackson and Muhammad Ali? All Johnson ever wanted to do was race. The media seized on the Ben Johnson/Carl Lewis storyline and then amplified it, selling the rivalry to the masses, and then cashing in when the scandal exploded three days after the men’s 100 meter final – journalism on steroids, if you will.
“The media tried to paint me as a monster. They attacked me. I understand why, because what I did was wrong, but they painted me as the only athlete using performance enhancing drugs. They attacked my character, they tried to change who I was as a person. They attacked my personality and wrote things that weren’t true. It hurt. But they couldn’t change who I am, because I’m in control of that.” – Ben Johnson
Johnson pauses to collect his thoughts, reflecting on the disdain the world felt for him at the time. This isn’t to make excuses for Ben Johnson. He was twenty-five when he ran that dirty race in Seoul, so he was old enough to know that he was cheating, and smart enough to know that he was profiting handsomely from it – and that he stood a reasonably good chance of getting caught. But a stain so deep that it has remained with him a lifetime, a scarlet letter from which there is no escape?
“My mother was a born again Christian,” Johnson says quickly, “and she supported me through the difficult times. When I needed energy and when I needed someone to talk to, I relied on my mother. When Seoul happened she hugged me and said, ‘Don’t worry, God is good. You’re doing the right thing, even if it costs you your record. Just admit what you did, because it’s not the end of the world. Life still goes on.’ She explained that it was going to be a tough struggle, because people were going to see me in a different way for the rest of my life. She said that God would be with me at all times.
“There were many dark days. The whole world painted me as a loser, and a cheater, but I wasn’t alone when it came to the cheating. There were others. Everybody was doing it. People know this now, but back then the media made it look like I was the only one. It was hard. It tested me, but God gave me strength.
“I use this gift the best way that I can. God knows my troubles – he knew what was going to happen to me, even before I was born. I’ve been through the fire over the years, and even today I’m still going through hard times. But I like my life now, more than I liked my life when I was competing at the World Championships and running in the Olympic Games. Track and field was my life then. I have a new life now. I’m doing the right things. I’m taking care of myself, visiting my friends, meeting people, helping others. I’m a nice and kind person, and a child of Christ, and that’s more important than any of the money and fame that came with my success on the track.”
If only Lance Armstrong had been so contrite. And yet Armstrong still has legions of adoring fans, many of whom don’t care that the cancer survivor doped his way to seven Tour de France yellow jerseys, or that Armstrong was proven to be a vicious liar who would stop at nothing – including perjuring himself under oath – to protect his image and his multimillion dollar fortune. Just ask Greg LeMond or any number of the friends, teammates and associates that Armstrong threatened or attempted to destroy, all in the name of Lance Almighty.
And yet we still love Lance.
And we still refuse Ben Johnson grace.
~ ~ ~
There was a time when the media would camp out on Ben Johnson’s doorstep, and for good reason; the shame in Seoul blazed white hot in the days following the news of his failed drug test and subsequent stripping of his Olympic gold medal, and a ravenous public couldn’t get enough of the story. We became the mob, vile and unforgiving, hating on the shy sprinter who, it turned out, was keeping us at arm’s length for a reason.
Lewis, on the other hand, suddenly represented all that was good and honorable in our Olympic heroes. He did things the right way. He was Luke Skywalker to Ben Johnson’s Darth Vader. We may have had trouble warming to Lewis’ brash attitude and calculating persona, but at least he projected a wholesome exuberance, a joie de vivre that we could connect with on some level.
Okay, maybe not. In reality Lewis was too vain, too shallow and too self-absorbed for our palettes. Hubris run amok.
But at least Carl Lewis was clean.
At least that’s what the Lewis camp wanted us to believe.
“I was the only sprinter to get caught in the Olympic Games, and I paid a heavy price for it,” Johnson says. “I admitted that I was using a banned substance, but over the years it has been proven that a lot of people were doing the same thing. I wasn’t alone.
“My question to you is: ‘If I were on drugs when I was beating Carl Lewis, what was he on when he was beating me?’ This is the question that I raise all of the time. To this day he preaches to the whole world that he ran clean, but I know that he wasn’t clean.” – Ben Johnson
Strong words indeed. Is there a smoking gun?
“Carl Lewis used banned substances over a long period of time,” Johnson replies without hesitation. “He tested positive at the 1988 US Olympic Trials. Three times. But he was protected. He was supposed to get tested in many of his races in Europe, but Joe [Douglas, Lewis’ coach] would show up and say, ‘If my guy is coming to this race, he’s not going to be tested. If he’s going to be tested, then he’s not going to show up.’ So Carl Lewis would get his appearance fees and then he would run his race and leave. While everyone else waited for hours to take the doping tests, Carl Lewis simply ran and disappeared. Gone.”
Clean or not, it seemed the harder Lewis worked to gain our love, the greater the gulf between us. The pre-Seoul Ben Johnson, by contrast, had a certain magnetism that drew us in. He had legions of fans, even though he rarely sought the camera and hardly spoke a word.
“People didn’t like me because I was the fastest man in the world,” he says. “The truth is that Ben Johnson is Ben Johnson. Even today, I will talk to anybody. I love everybody, and I try to help everybody. That’s the type of person that I am. There’s a warmness about me that people like. I’m very easy to approach. I’m that type of guy. I just happened to run a certain distance at a certain time, and I made a name for myself because of it.
“I don’t like to showboat. I’m not into that type of excitement. I didn’t win the gold medal and then jump up and down and make a production of myself. That’s not me. I indulged privately, in my heart, while in my mind I tried to grasp what I had just accomplished. I didn’t show my emotions, but I was very proud of what I’d just accomplished.
“Carl Lewis was different. If you tried to talk with him or take a picture with him, he wouldn’t do it unless there was something in it for him. He’d refuse, or he simply wouldn’t acknowledge you. He’d say, ‘No, no, get out of my face. Turn the camera off.’ I wasn’t that kind of guy then, and I’m not that kind of guy today. The same can’t be said for Carl Lewis. Carl Lewis should be happy that someone wants to talk to him or take a picture with him. We have very different personalities, and very different approaches with the public. That’s why, to this day, I’m easy to approach, I’m easy to talk to, and I think people like that.” – Ben Johnson
Johnson’s reclusive persona only served to fuel our mistrust in the weeks and months following the Olympics. Denials and allegations flew in all directions. Johnson was portrayed as a doping monster, with his coach, Charlie Francis, playing the role of Victor Frankenstein. Canadian authorities impaneled the Dubin Inquiry to investigate the scandal, and Francis was the first witness called, testifying for eight days. He acknowledged responsibility for introducing Johnson to performance-enhancing drugs, but it was Johnson who carried the cross and bore the brunt of the vitriol. Hailed as a national hero after setting the world record at the 1987 World Championships, Johnson suddenly found himself ostracized by the very people who’d showered him with praise. Ben bashing, unimaginable following that 9.83 world record in Rome, was suddenly all the rage. Just how bad was it? Try this one on for size: Award-winning Canadian journalist Earl McRae closed a searing column for the Ottawa Citizen with: “Thanks Ben, you bastard.”
“I moved from Jamaica to Canada in 1976, and I started running track and field in 1977,” Johnson says. “I remember saying to my coach, Charlie, ‘I want to be the fastest man to ever run in the Olympic Games, and I want to be remembered for that.’ In 1988 the time had come for me to show the world that I was the best sprinter ever, but it all fell apart three days after I won the gold medal. Suddenly the world hated Ben Johnson. I didn’t get a chance to tell my side. I knew that I had been sabotaged at the 1988 Olympic Games, because I won the gold medal for myself and for Canada. The American sprinters were protected by the IOC. It was all about the money – and money and corruption go hand in hand.
“Canada didn’t protect me. They didn’t say, ‘Let’s do an investigation into this to see what happened.’ Yes, we had the Dubin Inquiry here, but they said, ‘No, there was no mystery man in the room with Ben Johnson, he knew exactly what he was doing, and we know that he’s been taking steroids for a long period of time.’ They didn’t want to hear my side of the story. They bowed to international pressure. It was better for Canada to go with the flow. They wanted me to admit that I was taking drugs, so that they could put this black eye behind them and move on. They let the IOC dismiss my world record and take my gold medal, because it was better for Canada.
“As I said, money and corruption go hand in hand. In 1984, I won the bronze medal in the Olympic Games. The United States was looking for a clean sweep in the 100 meters, and I denied them this. From that moment on, they started keeping a close eye on me. They knew that this kid was a serious threat. They knew that he wasn’t going away, that he was very good, that he was very fast. They knew he was determined and that he would be a threat in Seoul. So, they watched me for a long period of time. I knew that. I was afraid – not because I was taking performance enhancing drugs, but because I thought someone might try to do something to me. I was afraid I might be poisoned. That was my greatest fear.”
You might argue that Johnson’s positive test backed the Canadian government into a corner, and you would be correct. It had to respond to the scandal. Francis told the inquiry that Johnson had been using steroids since 1981, and Johnson admitted his guilt. The media amped up the pariah rhetoric. Never mind that Johnson was filled with remorse following the revelation, despite what his legal team was advising him to say at the time. Forget for a moment the suffocating guilt and dark depression that enveloped him after an unforgiving world turned its back. Ignore, if you will, the pain that he inflicted on a proud and unsuspecting mother who never would have approved of his cheating, if she’d only known. Dubbed “Bentastic” for his extraordinary feats, and easily more popular than the Prime Minister of Canada heading into the ’88 Olympics, the Ben Johnson trajectory exploded in midair over Seoul, and all we cared about was spewing hate on the carnage left behind.
“The important thing is that Christ knows my heart,” Johnson replies. “I’m not the type of person who will help somebody and then go on national TV and say, ‘Look at me. I helped this person, and I helped that person.’ I don’t do that. As long as Christ knows that I’m doing the right thing, and I’m helping people in the right way, in the right manner, that’s what is important to me.”
For the record, Johnson owned up to his transgressions. He lost a fortune – millions of dollars in appearance fees and endorsement contracts, surely. But where was the second chance? That never came, not really. And I’m not talking about a second chance on the track; Johnson was briefly allowed to race again, although no one will ever know for certain who ruined that – Johnson himself, or, as he claims, the Canadian Federation’s mishandling of his specimen. I’m talking about a second chance at repairing his reputation, a second chance at regaining our trust, a second chance at living in the mainstream with the rest of us.
~ ~ ~
Funny thing about the Dirtiest Race in History: Six of the eight competitors were eventually linked to banned substances, including a certain prima donna who thought he could manipulate his way into the hearts of Americans everywhere. In 2003, it was revealed that Carl Lewis had failed a drug test at the ’88 US Olympic Trials, his urine sample containing banned stimulants. Although the volume of substances found in Lewis’ urine would not bring a ban today, at the time he should have been kicked off of the Olympic team.
Instead, Lewis skated.
The whole issue was handled on the down low, including the appeal, and Lewis was allowed to participate in Seoul with the rest of the US Olympic Team. Star treatment? A super power’s influence? Conspiracy theories abound but the revelation, predictably, did not sit well with Johnson – and who can blame him?
“The United States wanted to win the most gold medals in 1988,” Johnson says, “and it had the most power and the most money, which created a breeding ground for corruption. After I won the gold medal and tested positive, it was easy to for the IOC to report the test because I was Canadian. The United States paid a lot of money to the IOC to protect their athletes, so there’s no way that the top American athletes were going to test positive for steroids in 1988. No way, no how. No way, shape or form. I know how this sounds – that Ben Johnson is disgraced, and that Ben Johnson is trying to lay the blame somewhere else – but the same thing happened in 1984. American athletes tested positive, but the results couldn’t be found. The results ended up getting shredded, or lost, or destroyed, or whatever. Look it up. They couldn’t find the test results. Some of those people won gold medals in the Olympic Games in 1984. So, it’s a dirty game, a dirty sport, and the people who run the sport, they can say what they want, but they know that Ben Johnson wasn’t the only athlete using steroids. On that day, Ben Johnson proved he was the best sprinter ever in the 100 meter dash.”
For his part, Carl Lewis sounds a familiar refrain whenever the subject of steroids is broached, claiming he’s never used performance enhancing drugs and dismissing his crestfallen nemesis as an average runner when clean.
“He just wasn’t that good” Lewis was quoted in the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary 9.79. “I’m not trying to be mean, but the reality of it is that Ben Johnson wasn’t one of the guys we’d worry about, because he just didn’t have the core talent.”
Ragging on Ben Johnson.
A classic Carl Lewis pivot move.
“Even though Carl Lewis won four gold medals in the 1984 Olympic Games, that doesn’t make him one of the greatest Olympic athletes ever. I had more talent than Carl Lewis. The biggest difference between us was our start, he couldn’t match it. My splits were also faster when I was beating him, but it was the start that made the difference. I got out of the blocks faster than any sprinter including Carl Lewis, and he couldn’t catch me.” – Ben Johnson
Recently, Lewis even took a jab at the current world record holder Usain Bolt, telling Sports Illustrated that he has concerns about how Bolt has managed to drop his 100 meter time so dramatically.
Lewis: “I’m still working with the fact that [Bolt] dropped from 10-flat to 9.6 in one year [personal best of 10.03 in the 100m in 2007 to a world record 9.69 in 2008]. I think there are some issues. I’m proud of America right now because we have the best random and most comprehensive drug testing program. Countries like Jamaica do not have a random program, so they can go months without being tested. I’m not saying anyone is on anything, but everyone needs to be on a level playing field.”
Perhaps Lewis should dial down the diva and simply let his achievements do the talking. A star at the University of Houston and with the Santa Monica Track Club, he was a virtuoso talent who seemingly could do it all. One hundred meters. Two hundred meters. The long jump. Lewis was his generation’s Jesse Owens. Johnson, by contrast, struggled to find his way. Born in Jamaica, he relocated with his mother to Toronto at age 14, a black kid in a white kid’s world. He was shy. He stuttered. He took a lot of shit in school until he challenged the school bully to a foot race, mopping up the floor with him in the 100 meters. Just like that, running became Ben Johnson’s identity.
“We had a good life in Jamaica,” Johnson says, reflecting on the path that led him to the track. “We didn’t have to come to Canada to have a better life. My family didn’t have any difficulties in making ends meet. My father was a Jamaican. He was a farmer and a politician. He brought home the money and provided for us financially. My mother never worked. She cared for all the kids at home, made sure the food was cooked properly and provided for us in those types of ways.”
It wasn’t long before Johnson crossed paths with Francis, a former Canadian sprinter who had turned to training sprinters after retirement. Francis and Johnson clicked immediately, with Francis becoming the father figure that the young Johnson sorely lacked.
“Charlie and I were very close,” Johnson says of his late trainer, who passed away in 2010, after a five-year battle with Mantle Cell Lymphoma. “He was like a father figure to me in many ways. We trained together, we traveled together, I stayed at his house many times. We talked about everything. We would chit-chat about training, sports, politics, whatever. We were together for many years, so we were very, very close. I loved Charlie, and even to this day I still love Charlie.”
Johnson began training with Francis in 1977. Flash forward to September, 1981. Francis has an idea. It’s not exactly an epiphany, but rather something straight from that Leonardo DiCaprio flick, Inception: If the athletes in his stable were to succeed on the world stage, he reasoned, then they would have to do what everyone else was doing. He’d seen it up close while competing in the 1972 Olympics. The East Germans were winning medals by the bushel, especially the women, and they were doing it with the help of steroids, giving them the boost needed when tenths of seconds meant the difference between Olympic gold and last place.
So Francis approached Johnson and planted his idea. He was convinced that his protégé had the talent to succeed on the world stage, and that steroids would be the difference maker.
Ben Johnson: “I don’t blame Charlie Francis for what he did in his career, and for what he did to get me involved in drugs. And I don’t blame him for what happened to me. I said ‘yes’ to what he asked me to do. It was my decision and I had to own up to it. Charlie knew the game. He knew what was going on. He knew it wasn’t real, that most of the records being set were with the help of performance enhancing drugs. He had shared this information with various international federations, telling them that these athletes were on drugs, and he asked them what they were going to do about it. He said it wasn’t right – that we were running clean and these other people were running dirty. It fell on deaf ears. So, at the end of the day, Charlie felt like he didn’t have a choice. He asked me about it, and I thought about it for a while. I ended up saying yes.
“The world can blame Charlie Francis. It can blame Ben Johnson. That is fine, but there is plenty of blame to spread around, including with the IOC and the IAAF. The Olympic Games is a lot of things – it’s about nations competing against nations, athletes from all over the world coming together to compete – but it’s a money game more than anything else. And as long as there’s money there’s going to be corruption. There are the people who will sell their souls to the devil at any price, because the Olympics is intertwined with politics, power and greed on an international scale.” – Ben Johnson
For his part, Francis saw steroids as a necessary evil, a way to level the playing field. Everybody was doing it. Why not his most promising sprinter? Fair is fair. Johnson wrestled with this ethical dilemma for the better part of three weeks, and then agreed to Francis’ plan. He didn’t tell his mother. He simply made his deal with the devil and went about his business of becoming bigger, stronger and faster, until the early morning hours of September 27, 1988, when the devil came calling to collect.
~ ~ ~
Ben Johnson won a silver medal in the 100 meters at the 1982 Commonwealth Games, and then followed that up with a bronze at the 1984 LA Olympics. Lewis, adored first and foremost by Carl Lewis, won gold in all four events in which he competed that summer – the 100 meters, 200 meters, 4×100 meter relay, and the long jump. He was clearly a special athlete at the height of his powers, and he was beating all comers with alarming consistency, including his Canadian rival. By 1985, Lewis and Johnson had raced 8 times. Lewis had won each. And then, in the ’85 Zurich Weltklasse, Johnson finally broke through. From that moment, through the world record performance in Rome, and on into Seoul, Johnson was the dominant force in the men’s 100 meters, often at Lewis’ expense.
“When I started beating Carl Lewis in 1985 and 1986,” Johnson says, “I was more excited than ever about my track and field career. I said to myself, ‘There’s a new kid on the block.’ Carl Lewis couldn’t match my start. That was my key, and that was my mentality: ‘If you’re going to beat me, then you’re going to have to come and catch me.’ He couldn’t do that. And I heard that he had started lifting weights, that he had started to change his program, that he was doing all of these new things to try and beat me…and he still couldn’t do it. The times speak for themselves.”
Much has been made of Johnson’s ability to detonate from the blocks. Just how good was he?
“My start is still the best in the history of track and field. That’s what made the difference in my races, and that was the difference in my winning the gold medal when I ran against Carl Lewis. My start in that race was superb.” – Ben Johnson
Did the steroids give him an advantage?
“My start didn’t come from the steroids. You have to be born with that gift. Steroids don’t make you a better sprinter, or a better basketball player, or whatever. They help you to recover more quickly. I trained very hard – harder than any runner that I raced against – both on the track and in the weight room. The steroids helped me to recover from extremely difficult workouts. Nothing has changed; a lot of these runners today, you’ve never heard of these people, and in one or two years they’re running 9.6s and 9.7s, They’re using newer forms of the same drugs that we used back then, and these newer versions are much harder to detect. Some of them can clear the system in twenty-four hours. Some in as little as twenty minutes.”
Fueled by that explosive start, it was clear that Ben Johnson’s winning streak was having an effect on Carl Lewis’ fragile psyche.
“I was very happy for Carl Lewis when he won the four gold medals in the 1984 Olympic Games,” Johnson says. “I had no bad feelings about it. He deserved it. Good for him. It was easy for him to be happy with himself – he made a lot of money, and he got a lot of special treatment; he got to do what he wanted, when he wanted, and how he wanted. He was the talk of the town, and everything was fine as long as he was on top and the centerpiece of everything.
“Carl Lewis was jealous and resentful of me. That was my year, and my time to win the gold medal. Why would he want to take something away from me? He couldn’t accept the fact that his time had passed, that there was somebody new taking over. Why couldn’t he accept the fact that it’s my time? People act very differently. And when you have people like that, you learn quickly that they can’t be trusted. Carl Lewis couldn’t be trusted. He began to complain publicly.” – Ben Johnson
Silent about steroids until being beaten by Johnson on a regular basis, Lewis started chirping about dopers in his sport, often immediately following a loss, never calling out Johnson by name but clearly pointing a finger in his direction. What about Lewis’ own failed drug test at the ’88 Olympic Trials? He didn’t chirp about that. When you’re trying to protect a carefully crafted image at all costs, some things are better left unsaid.
~ ~ ~
Johnson’s entourage eventually grew to include Doctor “Jamie” Astaphan, who would treat his hamstring injury in the run-up to Seoul. It was Astaphan who was suspected of administering the stanozolol to Johnson, but this was never proven. The so-called ‘mystery man’ who allegedly spiked Johnson’s beer in the doping control room after the race? That would turn out to be André Jackson, a friend and former Santa Monica teammate of…wait for it…Carl Lewis.
It is Joe Douglas, the manager of the Santa Monica Track Club where Lewis blossomed, who freely admits to concocting the plan to get Jackson into that testing room. Douglas claims that Jackson’s sole mission was to observe Johnson, who would likely take a masking agent prior to the test, and to have Jackson take a picture of the act. Johnson counters that he knew when to stop taking drugs to avoid testing positive during the Olympic Games, and that he was clean on race day. He alleges that Jackson offered him a beer after slipping steroids into it, and, during a 2004 visit between the two men, states that Jackson admitted to the deed. In the documentary 9.79*, there is a photo of Johnson and Jackson in the doping control room together immediately after the race, a can of beer clearly visible. Jackson refused comment on camera but offered this shocking response:
“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. What was carried out in 1988 cannot and will not be invalidated.”
Okay, let’s rewind. Joe Douglas illegally obtains a special permit in order to get André Jackson into that restricted testing area. He instructs Jackson to snap a photo of Ben Johnson taking a masking agent, which will conclusively prove that Johnson is a doper. That’s the plan? He expects us to believe that?
Exactly how is something like that supposed to go down? Jackson: “Uh, Ben, what are you doing with that pill?” Johnson: “It’s a masking agent, it conceals the steroids in my system.” Jackson (whipping out the camera): “Really? You mind if I take a picture of you taking that? You know, to commemorate you cheating in the greatest race in history?’ Johnson: “That’s a great idea. And while I’m at it, I think I’ll hold a press conference and spill my guts.”
Sounds like Joe Douglas is the one who needs the testing. Why didn’t he put a wire on Jackson? If you’re going to the trouble of smuggling Jackson into that testing room, why wouldn’t you want to take the next step and record their private conversation? A photo by itself proves nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
If you’re a conspiracy theorist, here’s a more plausibly succinct scenario: André Jackson is recruited to serve as Carl Lewis’ contingency plan. If Lewis wins that 100 meter race in Seoul, Jackson doesn’t follow Johnson into the restricted testing area. There’s no need to. If Johnson wins, then Jackson sidles up beside Johnson in the moments immediately following the race, celebratory beer in hand. Either way, Lewis wins. It’s the perfect setup. Johnson tests positive, everyone in the Johnson camp turns on each other – Johnson on Francis, Astaphan on Johnson – and just like that the house of cards collapses, burying Ben Johnson in a mega scandal of his own doing.
“André Jackson told me he spiked my beer. When he told me, I could only think of one thing: Why would somebody do something like that? Who, in their right mind, or their right senses, would do that to another human being?” – Ben Johnson
“I’m a Christian. I believe in God. And the only way they can be forgiven in this world, in this lifetime, or in the afterlife, is to tell the world exactly what they did. And only then can they be forgiven. If they have a heart, and they believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior, then they should come and say to the world, on national TV, that this is what happened to Ben Johnson. It would come with a heavy price, but there will be a price to pay eventually. If not in this lifetime, then in the afterlife. And by then it will be too late.”
~ ~ ~
The years following Seoul have been messy for Ben Johnson, a series of fits and starts. Banned immediately following the Olympics, Johnson was allowed to resume his track career in 1991. He packed the house at his first meet, the Hamilton Indoor Games, but later that year failed to qualify for the World Championships in Toronto. He made the ’92 Canadian Olympic team, but finished last in his 100 meter semifinal heat after stumbling out of the blocks, the result of a highly unconventional and disruptive drug testing process that started in the early evening and lasted until 3:00AM, causing dehydration, sleep deprivation and hunger-induced weakness.
In 1993, Johnson was disqualified following a meet in Grenoble, France, this time for excess testosterone in his system, and he was subsequently banned for life by the IAAF. The common denominator? Johnson claims that he spent some pre-race hang time with André Jackson – the same André Jackson that had followed him into doping control in Seoul.
The rest of the ’90s was spent chasing money; in ’97 he worked as a trainer for Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona. A year later he raced against a horse. In ’99, Johnson made headlines again when it was revealed that he had been hired by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to act as a football coach for his son, Al-Saadi Gaddafi, who hoped to play for an Italian soccer team. He spent much of this time living downstairs in a house that he shared with his mother.
“I was one of the first kids at my age who knew exactly what he wanted to be,” Johnson says, reflecting on his life and the extraordinary events surrounding it. “I was only fourteen or fifteen at the time, and I knew I wanted to be an athlete – a track and field athlete. I loved sports. I loved to run, that was my passion, that was my gift, that was what I did best. I trained six days a week for twelve years. I even quit school to pursue track full time. It became a living, a way to feed my family, my sister and nephews.”
As the 2000s unfolded, Johnson tried his hand at everything from a line of clothing to pitching an energy drink dubbed “Cheetah Power Surge”. (One commercial actually went something like this: “Ben, when you run, do you Cheetah?” Johnson’s reply: “I Cheetah all the time”.)
Most consider Johnson’s choices pure desperation, a down-and-out athlete turned carnival act, much like the Rocky Balboa character in the movie Rocky II, but it’s easy for us to sit on the sidelines and judge him, to treat him like a punchline, because we haven’t walked in Ben Johnson’s shoes. It’s also easy to take the high road and declare that, unlike Johnson, we would never cheat, even if we knew everyone else was doing it, and even if it meant the difference between scraping by and earning millions of dollars. It always easy when you’re talking hypotheticals. And while most of us are convinced we would choose to do the right thing, most of us haven’t been blessed with Ben Johnson’s talent. We’ll never have to choose between racing clean or using anabolic steroids. We’ll never know for sure whether we would choose the right path, the honorable path, or if we’d have to live with the shame that comes with making the wrong decision, the kind where the entire world turns its back and walks away.
~ ~ ~
Dirty or not, the 100 meter final was a race for the ages. A world record set. Four runners finishing with sub-10 second times. Millions glued to the tube. Electricity in the stadium – before, during and after.
The athletes stretched and bounced in the moments before the gun sounded, all eight runners doing their best to ignore the others, as if a sideways glance would convey a weakness that could be then be exploited on the track. Mind games. It’s what sprinters do. Especially at a time like this, with a gold medal hanging in the balance.
The start? Epic. The gun fired and Johnson exploded from his spot in lane 6, his body a symphony of synapses, muscles and adrenaline. It was an OMG moment; a start so good that it left Carl Lewis and the rest of field in a state of disbelief, and hopelessly playing catch up.
“I never boasted or bragged,” Johnson says matter-of-factly. “My actions did my talking, and in that race I proved to the world that I was the best 100 meter runner on the planet. I still feel that way today. If you know the history of track and field, the technology has changed greatly over the last thirty-five years. Sprinters are running on better surfaces today – the tracks are much faster. The shoes are much better. And the promoters are doing anything they can to see fast times and new world records. Trust me when I make that statement. If you take a tennis ball and put it in Lane 5 five on some tracks, the ball will run down the track. In some cases, the 100 meters really isn’t 100 meters, but nobody notices the shorter distance. They do these things so that the sprinters can run faster and faster times.”
~ ~ ~
André Jackson went on to become a diamond magnate, the world’s first of African descent, and his name continues to surface when it comes to international politics. He served as a close advisor to late Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko, and in ’96 assisted Nelson Mandela in arranging the first face-to-face meeting between Seko and the man who overthrew him, Laurent-Désiré Kabil. There are whispers that he owns the world’s most expensive sports car, a one-of-a-kind 700 horsepower Maybach Exelero, purchased for $8 million, and that he sometimes he lets his friend Jay-Z drive it.
In his 1990 autobiography Inside Track, Lewis devotes two chapters to Johnson and Seoul, confirming that Jackson was in the doping control area after the race, even including a photo of Jackson and his nemesis grinning for the camera. Lewis remains vague about his exact relationship with Jackson, known fully as André Action Diakité Jackson, describing him in the book as a family friend. As for exactly how Jackson came to be in the room, Lewis writes he has no idea, going on to say: “I’m never surprised when André shows up, no matter where it is, floating around doing whatever he wants, being in places he doesn’t belong. Some people just have that knack.”
~ ~ ~
Conspiracy theories aside, one thing is irrefutable: What happened in Seoul changed Ben Johnson’s life forever. The world may never know when it comes to what really triggered that positive test – too much time has passed, and all of the he-said, she-said mudslinging has done nothing to clear up the controversy – but we do know that Johnson’s life today is light years removed from the rock star existence he once lived. Fame has been replaced with infamy, vitriol with apathy, success with struggle. The money is long gone. Suspicion remains. All of this, and heartbreak; Johnson’s mother passed away from cancer in 2004, followed by Francis in 2010. These are the things that are far less murky when trying to unravel the mythology that sprung up around Ben Johnson faster than one of his explosive starts. The world has moved on, a reminder that nothing stays the same and that time waits for no one – not even the one-time World’s Fastest Man. This we also know for certain: Ben Johnson cheated, but he’s also been held to a far less forgiving standard than just about any athlete this side of O.J. Simpson. He remains on the fringes, held at arm’s length, while other high-profile missteps cause a brief stir before disappearing into the ether. Adrian Peterson and child abuse? Ryan Braun and steroids? The stains will always be there, but do we really care? We live in a different world now, more connected, more complicated and more apathetic than ever before. We’re outraged when TMZ releases a video that shows Ray Rice punching his fiancée in an elevator, and while it grabs our attention we’re almost immediately on to something else. That’s just how it works in the digital, cloud-driven world we live in today. But mention Ben Johnson’s name and we’re suddenly transported to the 80s, as if we’ve slipped into Marty McFly’s DeLorean and fired up the flux capacitor. Time slows down. We see Johnson as a pariah, someone to avoid at all costs. We don’t trust him.
Not Ben Johnson.
Not that dirty bastard.
~ ~ ~
Today, Ben Johnson is a changed man. The Falmouth, Jamaica native still lives in Canada and calls it home, proof that time can heal. He’s a father. A grandfather. He’s busy building his business line, 9.79, and has an exciting new product to talk about – AcquaPhi, a new water enhancing technology that helps increase oxygen in red blood cells, which can, in turn, provide health benefits for a variety of ailments, including diabetes. He has a website, ben979.com, that serves as a platform for a myriad of business ventures, AcquaPhi included. He has the dream of one day opening his own restaurant, publishing his autobiography and sharing his knowledge of health and wellness by writing a sports nutrition book, and creating a line of nutritional supplements along with other products. He takes his granddaughter for walks. He writes. He dabbles. He holds out hope that one day his gold medal will be returned to him, the same gold medal he had in his possession for all of twenty-four hours in 1988, but he’s content with his life if it never happens.
“As a child I was instilled with lots of values and old-fashioned ways. I was taught to respect people, to help people, and to go to church. I give God thanks and I give God all the glory, and I don’t ask for any more than that. Even today, decades later, I’ve never once asked God why this thing happened to me. He knows best and He knows me better than anyone. He helped make me a strong person. He made me like this and He carried me through the fire. I’m still doing very well in my life. I don’t have lots of money, but at least I can live my life and see what happens the next 5-10 years down the road, if I live that long. I don’t ask for much. All I ask for in this life was to be happy, be independent, live my life like everybody else and that’s it. I don’t ask for a lot.”
As Ben Johnson’s faith has sustained him through the years, it’s also clear that he doesn’t need our love or approval to sleep soundly at night. But does he have any regrets? If he had one piece of advice for Ben Johnson, circa 1988, what would it be?
“Oh boy,” he says, pausing to weigh the question. “My advice is that you have to trust people as a general rule, but you can’t trust everyone. Sometimes in life you learn that your enemy comes to you posing as a friend. As the adage goes, keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. There is a lot of truth in that. Despite everything that has happened to me, I still trust people. I still talk to people. But you have to be careful. I let my guard down for one moment, and I got nailed for it.”
And if he had one mulligan?
“I would give Ben Johnson tighter security. I would want people around me who would watch my back as much as possible. A security team who would keep me away from people who were coming to hurt me. My team back then didn’t have that. I was too easy to approach, and that was my downfall.” – Ben Johnson
Once one of the most famous athletes on the planet, Johnson is content flying below the radar and simply doing his thing. Ben Johnson, movie buff? Motown man? It might not be as sexy a title as Ben Johnson, World’s Fastest Man, but it suits him. Is he willing to divulge some of his favorites?
“Okay, let’s start with the actors,” he says, laughing. “One of my favorite actors of all time – well, I’m going to hop the fence and choose more than one – Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Robert DeNiro. As far as movies go…oh boy…I like The Ten Commandments. I like the movie David. And I like King of Kings. I have a very large movie collection. Even though I know what’s going to happen, I watch them over and over again, and I feel like I’m watching them for the first time. I never get bored, I don’t know why.
“I collect music, too. I like the old music – I like Motown. I’m a Motown guy. It relaxes me, it calms me down, puts me in a different mood – mentally and physically, emotionally. And Motown music has staying power. Everything said in those songs back then is still true today. Rap music, I don’t listen to that stuff. To me it’s not music. Most of it is degrading. When I listen to rap music I get a headache.”
These days, Johnson also spends his free time doting on his granddaughter.
“I never thought that I would have a granddaughter,” Johnson says proudly. “She is a blessing. I have been taking care of her since she was one. Now she’s nine years old and she tells me that I’m old and I can’t run fast anymore [laughs]. We get along very well. I pick her up for lunch and dinner and stuff like that. I love her very much.”
Ben Johnson pauses. The man who once defied time – who once made time stand still – has come to grips with the fact that time indeed marches on.
“My life has changed forever,” Johnson continues. “Track and field is gone. I have Christ in my life. I am far happier now than when I was running. I can do my thing, do it right, and live my life the way I want to live it, and that’s it. And that’s what is important.”
God has forgiven Ben Johnson.
Ben Johnson has forgiven Ben Johnson.
Our forgiveness is long overdue.