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PROTRACK » GENERAL » Twenty-five years on: Ben Johnson returns to scene of athletics' darkest day

Twenty-five years on: Ben Johnson returns to scene of athletics' darkest day

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Twenty-five years on: Ben Johnson returns to scene of athletics' darkest day

By Giles Hewitt
Sydney Morning Herald
September 24, 2013

Back at the scene: Ben Johnson returned to Seoul's Olympic Stadium, the scene of his 100m victory in 1988
to spread his anti-drugs message. Photo: Reuters

Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson returned Tuesday to Seoul's Olympic Stadium – 25 years to the day after the steroid-assisted 100m final victory that destroyed his career and reputation.

The runner revisited the site of his stunning triumph and downfall to bring an anti-doping message for a sport still struggling to rid itself of banned substance use.

"It feels good to be back," Johnson said as he stepped out onto the track where, at 1:30 pm on September 24, 1988, he lined up for a 100m final that would become known as the "dirtiest race in history".

"This is where history was made," Johnson said. "Some might call it bad history, but I don't see it that way," he added.

First out of the blocks in the final, Johnson destroyed a field that included his hated rival Carl Lewis and stormed to victory in a world record time of 9.79sec.

Three days later he was stripped of his medal, his time and ultimately his career after it was announced that he had tested positive for stanozolol, a banned anabolic steroid.

Six of the eight finalists would eventually be implicated in doping scandals, including Lewis, who it was later revealed had tested positive for stimulants at the US Olympic trials.

Johnson, 51, has admitted to years of steroid use, but still feels he was unfairly picked out for vilification at a time of widespread drug use in athletics.

"I was nailed on a cross, and 25 years later I'm still being punished," he said.

"Rapists and murderers get sent to prison, but even they get out eventually.

"I know what I did was wrong. Rules are rules. But the rules should be the same for all. But politics always plays in sports," he said.

Johnson's return to Seoul was the final leg of a global tour as standard bearer of the #ChooseTheRightTrack campaign, which calls for new strategies to combat continued drug use in athletics.

On Tuesday, at precisely 1:30 pm, Johnson stood at the starting point on Lane 6 – his lane in the final – and strolled down the track he burned up in 1988.

As he walked, two volunteers unrolled in his path a 100-meter long petition with 3,700 signatures the campaign has collected over the past month.

At the finish line, he recreated the famous finger-raised pose he struck at the moment of victory 25 years ago.

"Of course I feel remorse, regret, but it's not the biggest issue in my life anymore. I've accepted it and I've moved forward," he said.

The sport has recently been rocked by a string of doping cases, including high-profile athletes such as Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell and Veronica Campbell-Brown.

The sport's world governing body, the IAAF, announced last month that it would impose four-year bans for drug offenders from 2015.

Seven athletes, including one finalist, tested positive for doping at August's World Athletics Championships in Moscow.

"The testing procedures may have got better and more accurate, but the drugs are advancing as well," Johnson said.

The campaign is not limited to raising awareness of doping in athletics, but across the sporting spectrum.

Johnson voiced some sympathy for Lance Armstrong, saying the disgraced American cyclist was being singled out, much as he was, in a sport where doping is prevalent.

"I hope he can get through this," Johnson said. It's going to be tough and he has a long fight ahead of him."

Asked what he would change if he could go back 25 years, Johnson said there was no point trying to live in the past.

"But I still believe I could have won the Olympic Games without any drugs back then," he added.



Reporter recalls sleepless night of Johnson's disgrace

Mike Collett recalls covering the unfolding story of Ben Johnson's downfall at the Seoul Olympics.

via Reuters

Covering sport in 55 countries over the last 40 years I have seen the greats reach the stars and I have seen the stars fall from the heights. One moment stands out from the rest: watching Ben Johnson run in Seoul on September 24, 1988.

The most controlled explosion of disciplined sporting power I have ever witnessed at close quarters lasted all of 9.79 seconds over 100 metres in the men's Olympic final when Johnson destroyed the field - and most emphatically Carl Lewis - to win the Olympic gold medal.

My seat was close to the finish line and the sheer size of Johnson appeared to shut out almost everything else from view. The man was enormous. His muscles had muscles. It was as if a sleek mahogany wardrobe had streaked down the track to victory.

Three days after that sunny Saturday afternoon, what many already suspected came to light: Ben Johnson was a drugs cheat. His awesome performance in a world-record time on that track really did happen, but it was a fraud.

The biggest sports story of the 20th century came to light in the early hours of a South Korean Tuesday, September 27, 1988, when many of the reporters covering the athletics at the Olympics were either asleep or in the bars and clubs of Itaewon, Seoul's lively entertainment district.

After weeks of pre-Olympic preparation and non-stop work since the Games had begun more than a week earlier, the Tuesday was a rest day with no scheduled athletics so most of us were having a rare night off.

None of us imagined we would not see our beds again for the best part of 24 hours as September 27 turned into one of the most dramatic days in sport and one of the most infamous in the history of the Olympic Games.

A week earlier, a colleague and myself had discovered where Johnson was secretly putting the final touches to his training at an anonymous little track in the vast hinterland of Seoul.

We watched him work out, bare-chested and muscular, in the hot sunshine. We were both convinced nothing was going to stop him winning the gold in the final.

The race between Johnson and Lewis had been eagerly awaited for months. Johnson had beaten Lewis the previous year in a world-record time of 9.83 seconds in the world championship final in Rome. Lewis insinuated, without naming him, that Johnson was a drug cheat.

They did not race again until three weeks before the Olympics when Lewis beat Johnson in Zurich. The ultimate decider, in front of a global television audience, would come in Seoul.

Rumours began to circulate on the Monday evening that a Canadian had failed a drug test but back in 1988 there were always rumours circulating that athletes were failing tests and so it was dismissed fairly swiftly as just more of the usual gossip.

Except that it was not gossip. A Canadian had failed a drug test and that Canadian was Johnson. A Canadian journalist, close to Johnson, got wind of the story but could not substantiate the claim. Years later, he was still kicking himself for missing the scoop of his career.

The story leaked out from the Seoul laboratory where Johnson's sample tested positive. The authorities were desperate to keep the news secret until their daily briefing on the Tuesday morning, but they could not hold it back.

The first I was aware of it was at about three o'clock in the morning when I stumbled out of the taxi taking me back from Itaewon to the media village and bumped into an acquaintance of mine from British television news service ITN.

He hauled me out of the back seat of the taxi and jumped in himself.

"Where are you going, it's three o'clock in the morning?" I asked him.

With a mad urgency in his voice he uttered the words that sobered me up, in rather less than 9.79 seconds: "Haven't you heard? Johnson's been done."

As I walked back into the village, I heard telephones ringing and saw lights coming on but when I got back to my apartment my colleagues were still asleep.

Now completely back in the real world, I woke them with the news.

Within a couple of hours of leaving Itaewon, I was at Seoul's grandest hotel, The Shilla, with about a thousand other journalists looking for officials, looking for quotes, looking for Johnson.

The most bizarre sight of the morning was a bellboy walking through the throng of reporters holding a blackboard with Johnson's name on it and shouting: "Phone call for Mr Ben Johnson. Will Mr Johnson please go to reception. Phone call for Mr Johnson."

Mr Johnson had already gone, bundled out of Seoul, on to a plane and out of South Korea.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) eventually staged its news conference and announced that he had been stripped of his record, his Olympic title and medal after testing positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol.

The repercussions of what Johnson did still cast a long shadow. He changed sport, and particularly athletics, forever and the events of that sleepless night in Seoul still stand out clearly for those of us journalists who were there.

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