Ben Johnson’s road from glory to disgrace still fresh in Canadians’ minds

For many Canadians, the 1980s era of excess and seemingly superhuman athletic titans was all good — until Ben Johnson got caught.

Grasping why Johnson's disqualification for a positive drug test still strikes a nerve begins by understanding the age. In the near quarter century since Ben’s ban, the public has grown numb to finding out sports heroes were juicing. Rogers Clemens becomes a sympathetic, if pathetic figure after being needlessly prosecuted for perjury by the U.S. government. Barry Bonds' legal entanglements get buried in the headlines.

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In 1988, though, realism was in short supply. It was an era of Wall Street and Rocky Balboa running up the courthouse steps, when people still believed nothing was ever too much. Limits to wealth, health or human performance were all in someone's head. Sports media had not proliferated to the point where events were so overhyped that the payoff would inevitably reek of anticlimax. It was also an age of over-the-top superhero drama like the Rambo and Rocky franchises (portions of which were filmed in Canada). Baby boomers needed cinematic comfort food as they moved into middle age and began confronting their own mortality and their gen-X progeny was wide-eyed and hopeful.

Now take all of that and imagine an Olympic men's 100-metre field featuring two Usain Bolts. Have them be from neighbouring countries. Have one country feel like it was just as good as its loud, brash, boastful neighbour, but never got any credit.

Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis fit into all of that as neatly as their spikes fit into the starting blocks. A year out from the 1988 Seoul Olympics, CBC's Bob McKeown proclaimed Johnson the ultimate running machine. Johnson had just set the world indoor 60-metre record. The nation's chest puffed out; he was more machine than man, and we had moulded him. He could explode so well out of the starting blocks that sometimes he was charged with false starts for takeoffs that were in fact legal. Any takeoff that comes less than .120 seconds after the starting gun was considered illegal; Johnson leapt off the blocks in .127. It was natural selection nurtured by Canadian know-how and work ethic. He was part of the generation that had been inspired by the 1976 Montreal Olympics, which took place when he was an impressionable 15-year-old who had just moved to Scarborough, Ont., from Jamaica. He was going to validate the embarrassment of Canada being the only country to host the Games and fail to win a single gold medal. "Science may eventually improve on what nature provides," McKeown told a rapt nation."But sprinters are born."

[Slideshow: The rise and fall of Ben Johnson]

Canada needed Ben Johnson to win at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. It would take until 2010, a Canada-U.S. Olympic hockey game that ended a held breath after The "Iggy!" Heard Round The World, before our collective self-worth would again be staked on a single sports event. His result would determine how we felt about our entire performance, since medals were going to be few and far between in Seoul after Canadians gobbled them up like free Krusty Burgers at the Soviet bloc-boycotted Los Angeles Games four years earlier, winning 44. Win and we could all come out of our shell and spread our wings in a way only reserved for the end of a world war or a come-from-behind victory over the Soviet Union in hockey’s cold war.

This was something new to us. Canada had always been happy just to send young men and women off to wear the Maple Leaf and let the chips fall where they may as far as the Olympic medal table went. At least the way we funded amateur sport gave off that impression. It's post-hoc to look at it this way, but when the previous great Canadian sprinter Harry Jerome ran a hand-timed 9.90-second 100 in 1960, track officials recorded his time as 10.0 flat because they couldn't believe he'd run that fast. That was so us. Canada had not won an Olympic track and field medal since Duncan McNaughton in men's high jump in 1932. Greg Joy's silver in high jump at the Montreal Games had pretty much been as good as gold, especially since he edged out highly-touted American Dwight Stones in a rain-soaked duel at Olympic Stadium.

Lewis was the reigning Olympic 100 champion after winning four golds in 1984. Johnson was the reigning 100 record holder after clocking 9.83 seconds at the 1987 world championships in Rome, taking the record away from Calvin Smith, another American. But Johnson was the irresistible force; he had been eating Lewis's lunch regularly before the Games.

Please keep in mind that in the summer and fall of 1988, the Berlin Wall was still standing. The USSR still existed. Cold War tensions filtered down to the sports world. It ran East-West. In North America, it ran north-south even though the U.S. and Canada are political allies. Doping and masking agents were justified since it was believed the competition was doing so.

Canada's inferiority complex about all things American had already got a workout in 1988. In August, people wondered if Parliament could intervene to block Wayne Gretzky's trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. The main talking point in the federal election campaign between Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and federal Liberal leader John Turner was a free-trade agreement with the U.S.; there was paranoia that signing it would undermine Canada's sovereignty.

All of that was projected on to Johnson, a 26-year-old package of tightly coiled, steroid-built muscle. The only ding in Johnson's armor was that he had pulled his left hamstring in the spring. It was later reported that the steroids he took to speed his recovery after receiving them from his doctor, Jamie Astaphan, probably led to his positive test for stanozolol, a word that elementary school kids who never aced a spelling test would soon have memorized.

Johnson authored a Joe Namath moment before the games, uttering, "When the gun go off, the race be over," in Caribbean-accented English. The media attention for the 100 final on Sept. 24, 1988 was all on Johnson and Lewis, but that field was also stacked. Calvin Smith, the former record holder, was in it. So was future record holder Linford Christie.

Johnson turned the duel into eating his dust. It didn't actually go according to form. Lewis got out of the blocks only four-thousandths of a second lower than Johnson, but Big Ben beat him in every interval until the 80-metre mark, when it was all over but for the cheering and Canadians shouting, "Look at the look on Lewis's face!" He threw his hand up to taunt Lewis and still came in at 9.79. It was the first Olympic 100 in which four men came had a sub-10-second race and it was still a blowout. It was like what Gretzky had done to the NHL record book.

It was also, not that anyone knew it yet, the dirtiest race in sports history. The race took place on Saturday. The time difference meant most of Canada either stayed up late to watch Johnson win or woke up the next morning to learn the joyous news. With no home internet or 24-hour TV news coverage, news travelled slowly. Since sports people are gossips, word spread in Seoul that Johnson had tested positive.

On Monday, the hammer came down: no gold medal for Johnson and no world record, with Lewis receiving the gold. The nation's emotions turned on a dime. After the way Canadians had been conditioned to stake everything on a race that lasts shorter than a sneezing fit, how could it not?

The nationwide reaction skipped past denial to anger faster than, well, Johnson on steroids. It blew by bargaining and depression to acceptance. It was made out to be as black and white. Once the shouts of an American conspiracy died down, the self-flagellation came fast and furious. How did we get drawn into it? How did we pretend away that Johnson's eyes were a sickly yellow from being goosed up on steroids? Why didn't we press the issue when the IOC admitted unauthorized personnel were in the doping control area and try to win on a technicality?

Johnson has been stuck in a moment that he can't get out of ever since. His Olympic disgrace came right as the Games was in transition between two different concepts. In 1988 the final vestiges of the Avery Brundage concept of the Olympics as political ideology in track shorts was giving way to the Peter Ueberroth concept of world-class athletic competition as a mere vehicle for unabashed corporatism. It became an international incident rather than just a sports story.

Johnson, who was labelled as not being particularly bright, couldn't do anything to help himself. He's still convinced the Americans did him in.

"The Americans can't allow themselves to come second," he told the tabloid Daily Mail in 2008. "That's their mentality and I'd beaten Carl three times on the run-up to the Games. So they spiked my drink with enough stuff to kill a cow. Unlucky to test positive? I was lucky to get out of Seoul alive."

By and large, Canadians held out our collective wrist to be slapped. We had been caught. The ensuing Dubin Inquiry established that doping in the Canadian track and field apparatus went far beyond Johnson, his coach Charlie Francis and Dr. Astasphan.

It was the harbinger of every PED scandal to come: Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens.

Forgiveness has yet to come for Johnson. Will it ever? He exists frozen in time like the banned baseball icon Pete Rose, a living headline like Mike Tyson or Jose Canseco. Living in Canada but staying out of the media limelight has added to his exile. In 2008, the late columnist Earl McRae, whose searing "Ben Johnson, you bastard" column for the Ottawa Citizen is still well-remembered, wanted to get an exclusive interview with Johnson. McRae was told by an intermediary — the infamous commercial pitchman Frank D'Angelo, who not too long before had put Johnson in a series of low-production-value commercials for an energy drink — that Johnson would need $10,000 to do the interview.

Forgive Johnson trying to profit off his disgrace. He has paid enough already, becoming the scapegoat for a drug scandal that conveniently cropped up as the hand-wringing began over the high-living 1980s.

The fact six of the eight men in the final, including Lewis, were eventually linked to doping became footnotes. Ben alone wears the hair shirt. Canada could accept Bobby Clarke cracking Valery Kharlamov's ankle to help win a hockey series. Better Olympic results through chemistry? Moral compromises for a gold medal? That was going too far.

Really, the definitive word on the scandal fell to Johnson’s coach.

"The only way to attack the problem, if in fact you wanted to, was random testing," Francis told the Dubin Inquiry. "I could understand random testing if in fact it was truly honest and truly universal and if we could expect that all of the athletes of the world would universally disarm."

If in fact you wanted to ... that pretty much sums up the dilemma with doping. Cheating isn’t justifiable because others are doing it, but when there’s pressure to perform and the payoff is so tempting, people can be very pliable. In 1988, there was no stomach for that debate. There was still a demand that the Olympics be pure and simple. Ben Johnson took steroids, pure and simple.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.