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’30 for 30: 9.79*’ Clocks Ben Johnson’s Fall from Grace

New York – The Olympics are big business. The Games, as they are called, are the greatest spectacle on earth. The men’s 100 meters is the glamour event of the Games, and the world’s fastest man, the 100 meter gold medalist, assumes a kind of fame or notoriety, depending on what might occur after his conquest. He now thus becomes the world heavyweight champion of track and field. Think of the universal appeal of a Usain Bolt or the spectacle of a Mike Tyson. The adulation they experience is by no means an accident.

I believe that a greater impact or significance to the Games started in 1980 either because of the US political boycott of the Moscow Olympiad, or in spite of it. Following Moscow, the US hosted the Olympics in 1984, and the Russians duly obliged with their own boycott. The boycott was as heavily criticized as was the US boycott of the Russian Games. Stakeholders and sport enthusiasts postulated that politics had no place in sports and that the world’s best should not be held hostage to the whims of political adversaries.

That notwithstanding, the Games of 1984 brought with it a full slate of stars: some old, some new, while others blazed a different trail which followed them through their entire careers and beyond. Bear the following names in mind: Carl Lewis, Ben Johnson and the late Florence Griffith-Joyner.

According to the ESPN documentary, 30 for 30: 9.79*, produced by Daniel Gordon, the cold war in sports started at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. After the US boycotted in 1980, they needed to make a major statement in 1984, on their turf. A plethora of superstars emerged. Doctor Robert Voy, the United States Olympic Committee chief medical examiner in the 1980s, claimed in the documentary that he was told by the hierarchy of his administration that positive drug test results by American athletes should be effectively swept under the rug. As a result of that order, according to Voy, 50 positive tests were recorded during one testing period, but those results were overlooked and no official record remains of most of them. At that time Human Growth Hormone (HGH) became the drug of choice. Former Canadian sprint success, Angella Taylor-Issajenko admits, during the aforementioned broadcast that she, along with countryman Ben Johnson, was regularly injected with the stimulant.

A Need to Halt The Torontonian Express

According to the report after Johnson won the 100m title at the 1987 Worlds, panic set in and the world’s best sprint stars, led by a galaxy of American would-be greats, needed to halt the Torontonian Express, Johnson. Changes had to be made in the US sprint landscape. Although for his part Dr. Voy did not name any of the suspected drug cheats, there were several intimations but they are not the basis for this publication. What the ESPN publication did, if anything, is to cast aspersion on an entire population of athletes, some of whom may well have worked diligently and within the confines of fair competition. Nonetheless the die is cast.

That the US did so well in the sprints in 1984 came as no surprise to those in the know. And that Johnson kept growing from strength to strength led to wonderment and finger pointing. But Johnson got injured in the midst of a tour, and upon his return Carl Lewis beat him convincingly at an important European meet. What transpired after that defeat was one of the most impressive runs in the history of the 100m this side of Usain Bolt.

The world waited for the men’s 100m at the 1988 Seoul. The women’s 100/200m were tantalizing affairs with 32-yr-old Florence Griffith Joyner cruising to take the sprint-double. She clipped the 100m to an Olympic record time of 10.64secs and the longer race to 21.34secs, neither of which has been seriously threatened. There was always suspicion about the validity of Griffith Joyner’s heroics, but nothing concrete was ever proven. However, it was telling that her great competitor Evelyn Ashford, whom she deposed on her way to victory in the 100m, said after the race: “She is a phenomenon. Only a man can beat her.” That acknowledgment was never explained by Ashford although she remained a bitter rival of Griffith Joyner’s even at the end of their careers and the latter’s subsequent demise.

Still Lives in Infamy

But Ben Johnson effectively stole the spotlight in Seoul, if even for a day. He ran a no-holds-barred 100m race from gun to tape leaving all of the best sprinters struggling in his wake. Carl Lewis was a well-beaten second as Johnson won in 9.79secs, a time which, today, would still contend for a medal at any major championship. But soon after that win the Canadian sprint ace was stripped of his title because his test samples came back with traces of Stanozolol, a performance enhancing substance. He was labeled the disgrace of the Games and to this day his legend lives in infamy.

During the height of his career, the sprinter armed himself with a bevy of track and field heavyweights including Doctor Jamie Astaphan and Coach Charlie Francis, who were part of the supporting staff for Canadian track and field. Among those in the broadcast who offered testimony was Desai Williams, a teammate of Johnson’s and Issajenko and a protégé of Astaphan’s, who was also implicated in the report. Williams did not reach the level of success enjoyed by his Canadian friend and rival.

Among the line-up in the men’s sprint final in Seoul was Calvin Smith who believes that Lewis had taken performance enhancers. Lewis has vehemently denied the allegations, but he has acknowledged testing positive for a substance he said had no bearing on his performances. It is widely reported that he tested positive three times leading up to the 1988 Games. Other finalists like Dennis Mitchell tested positive later in his career and was banned as was Linford Christine, who succeeded as Olympic champion in 1992. Others ensnared include Desai Williams, Jamaican Ray Stewart, who recently got a lifetime ban, years after his retirement. It is alleged that he was involved in drug transshipments.

His Beers Spiked?

According to the documentary and by Johnson’s own admission, he had been taking steroid but had not done so at the time he was caught. The report claimed that his beers might have been laced by Andre Jackson, a friend of Lewis’s. Jackson has neither denied nor confirmed this publicly, but he remains an enigma, offering very little information on the subject. He has not, however, denied his friendship with Lewis or his presence in Johnson’s private quarters at the time of suspicion.

It is said that 80% of athletes take some form of performance enhancers but this has not been verified. There will always be naysayers, but I believe in the adage of innocent until proven guilty. And I believe that further probe is warranted because this story may determine how the sport continues to progressively move forward.

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