From the Archives, 1988: Fastest man on earth a drug cheat

From the Archives, 1988: Fastest man on earth a drug cheat

Three days after he won the 100m final at the Seoul Olympics, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive to a banned performance enhancing drug and was sensationally stripped of his gold medal.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald on September 28, 1988

SEOUL: Thirteen thousand athletes and officials here are still in shock tonight after the disclosure that Canadian Ben Johnson - "the world's fastest man" - cheated by using a dangerous drug.

Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson (left) wins the 100m final at the Seoul Olympics on September 24, 1988. He was later disqualified.

Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson (left) wins the 100m final at the Seoul Olympics on September 24, 1988. He was later disqualified. Credit:Getty Images

There was speculation in the Olympic Village tonight that more athletes could be banned for using the same drug as Johnson - or decide to withdraw from competition rather than risk detection.

A disgraced Johnson was due to arrive with his mother and coach in New York last night, before flying on to Toronto.


He fled Seoul early today, after being stripped of the 100m sprint gold medal, won in world record time on Saturday, by the International Olympic Committee.

"He was shocked and not able to comprehend and totally unable to respond,"Carol-Anne Letheren, the Canadian chef-de-mission, said of Johnson's reaction to the findings.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on "Johnson's Olympic shame" on September 28, 1988.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on "Johnson's Olympic shame" on September 28, 1988.Credit:

An IOC official, Mr Michele Verdier, said: "He gave us his gold medal, but he didn't seem to understand all of the facts or the consequences."

First place in the men's 100m was awarded to Carl Lewis, who now has an opportunity to repeat his performance at Los Angeles in 1984 when he won four gold medals. He won the long jump yesterday, is in the 200m sprint tomorrow, and the 4x100m relay on Saturday.

The American learned of Johnson's disqualification for drug use in a telephone call from brother Cleve and Houston-based coach Tom Tellez at 3.30 am Seoul time.

"It confirms what we've been saying all along," he is reported to have replied.

Johnson's expulsion brought to seven the number of athletes so far banned at the 1988 Games for using drugs to enhance performance. They include two other gold-medal winners, both Bulgarian weightlifters, and the Australian pentathlete Alex Watson, who was expelled for using excess caffeine.

Prince Alexandre de Morode, the chairman of the IOC medical commission, said: "Our determination to clean up sport is unswerving. This is an example for others who are tempted. It is a lesson."

Several American track and field medalists welcomed Johnson's disqualification as a milestone in eliminating drug problems from track and field.

Among them was Edwin Moses, the 1988 bronze medallist and 1976 and 1984 gold medallist in the men's 400m hurdles, and Calvin Smith who became the bronze medallist in the men's 100m dash as a result of Johnson's disqualification.

Johnson's humiliation - he stands to lose annual earnings from race fees and product endorsements of more than $A1.5m - began shortly after he won what had been billed as "the Race of the Century" against Lewis.

The Sun-Herald reported on Ben Johnson's win on September 24, 1988, before his drug cheating was revealed.

The Sun-Herald reported on Ben Johnson's win on September 24, 1988, before his drug cheating was revealed.Credit:

It took Jamaican-born Johnson - who reportedly drank six bottles of beer after the race - more than two hours to provide a urine sample. When analysed it was found to contain traces of Stanozolol, an anabolic steroid used to increase body power and competitive aggression.

According to medical experts, the drug can be dangerous to athletes. Stanozolol can cause damage to the liver and may, in fact, cause liver cancer, according to an IOC medical commission member, Professor Robert Duvall.

He said that 15 cases of Stanozolol use had been detected in the past four years.

The athlete's agent, Larry Heidebrecht, and coach Charlie Francis still deny that Johnson cheated.

Francis has suggested that a herbal sarsaparilla drink taken by Johnson may have been spiked.

Heidebrecht said Johnson was the victim of "a very evil person" who had switched Johnson's drink bottles during a training session last week.

Heidebrecht alleged that the bottle had been laced with a "gooey yellow substance", some of which remained in the bottle when Johnson brought it back to his hotel that night.

Johnson's personal physician had seen the residue, washed the bottle out and thrown it away, Heidebrecht said.

Olympic and Canadian officials were not convinced.

The IOC considered a submission from the Canadian team that the substance could have been administered by a third party after the race, but rejected it as being inconsistent with the laboratory tests.

Dr Arne Ljundqvist, chairman of the IOC's medical commission, said the laboratory data indicated that the drug had been taken for a long period.

The IOC's director of sport, Mr Walther Troeger, said: "Ben Johnson is objectively guilty. It is regrettable for such a great sportsman to deceive the world with such a magnificent run."

Tonight the real mystery remains.

Why would one of the world's greatest-ever athletes gamble by taking a banned drug, apparently so close to a big race and when he knew he would automatically be drug tested?


One theory is that he simply thought he could escape detection. In which case, he underestimated the sophistication of the Olympic dope-testing controls.

Another theory is that Johnson had been using anabolic steroids up to a few months ago to build up his power. He had then stopped to allow traces to clear his body. But, the theory runs, under enormous psychological and commercial pressure to succeed, Johnson panicked and resumed taking Stanozolol recently to give him the aggressive, explosive start that has become his distinctive feature.

His most recent victory over Lewis confirmed him as a national hero in his adopted Canada and made him worth up to A$500,000 per appearance.

His suite of rooms - now empty - at the Seoul Hilton were full of flowers sent by well-wishers from around the world.

Now, he is, arguably, the most infamous competitor in the history of the Olympics.

One team mate, John Ossowski, said today: "It's a disgrace. He's an idiot. I can't believe he did it."

The Canadian Track and Field Association said its records showed that Johnson had been tested eight times since February 1987, but not in the last seven months. All the tests had been negative.

The Canadian Sports Minister, Mr Ian Jean Charest, has already said that Johnson will be banned for life from the national team, and will receive no more Government funds.

Mr James Worrall, a Canadian member of the IOC, said: "The taking of drugs in sport has become endemic. It's not restricted to Canada, thank God. Other countries have the same problem."

* There was speculation here tonight that another gold-medal winner in the athletics had been tested positive for drugs. The IOC would not comment on the suggestion.

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