Sunday, 22 September 2013

Ben Johnson: 100-metre humiliation

In the span of a few days Canada went from ecstasy to agony, from a dizzying high to a crushing low, from pride to humiliation. Just over 25 years ago, we rode the Ben Johnson roller coaster for a week in September in Seoul, South Korea.

On the verge of greatness
Canadian 100-metre sprinter Ben Johnson had been on the world stage for more than five years when the 1988 Summer Olympics approached. I had first seen him in a group of Canadian sprinters at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia, that also included Desai Williams and Tony Sharpe. Two years later, Johnson would take bronze in the 100 metres at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, behind Americans Carl Lewis and Sam Graddy, in a time of 10.22. Johnson also teamed with Williams, Sharpe, and Sterling Hinds to win bronze in the 4x100-metre relay.

He continued to improve, taking gold at the 1986 Goodwill Games in Moscow, with a time of 9.95, just off Calvin Smith's world record of 9.93.

That was just a prelude for the World Track and Field Championships in 1987 in Rome. I recall sitting in the living room on the farm awaiting that final. The late Geoff Gowan and Don Wittman were calling the race for the CBC. They announced the runners. They took their marks, got set – and the picture went dark. I could hear the sound, and Wittman calling the race. Johnson had won – at least that’s what I thought I heard. The picture came back and I could see the race in slow motion replay. Ben Johnson, had blown away Carl Lewis, running a time of 9.83 seconds, shattering Smith's world record by a full tenth of a second. He was the new 100-metre men’s world champion.

Bring on the Olympics and the defending champion, the ultimate arrogant American – Carl Lewis.

The joy of victory
To say Carl Lewis was a sore loser was a gross understatement. Johnson first beat him in 1985, then reeled off a series of victories including the Good
will Games and World Championships. From the outset, Lewis could not accept defeat, and began to accuse his competitors of cheating. At the time, I thought it was the height of arrogance. Graddy, Smith, and none of the other Americans acted the way Lewis did. Johnson, who was always humble, never said much beyond defending himself from those accusations. Canadians, and probably most of the world, wanted to see Johnson put Lewis in his place on the world's biggest stage.

The 1988 Summer Olympics were in the fall, which was the summer season in South Korea. I was in my second year of university, and a floor coordinator in Kelsey Hall on the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton. The job had pretty much consumed me, but I still kept an eye on the Olympics and the 100-metre final.

The third weekend of every September, our student leadership group went on a retreat to the Pocahontas Cabins near Jasper, west of Edmonton. Before we boarded the bus on Friday, Sept. 24, 1988, I bought a copy of the Edmonton Sun. The front page had a big picture of Johnson with the headline: "Go Ben!"

One of the traditions of Retreat back then was a video. I was sitting at the back of the bus. When the camera reached me, I could not match the mugging in front of the camera of many of my colleagues. All I could manage, and I was about five beers into the trip, was me holding up that issue of the Edmonton Sun, saying “Go Ben” over and over.

Normally, we would have pushed on to Pocahontas. This time, everyone wanted to see the 100-metre final, so we stopped at a bar in Hinton to watch the race. We primed some more, until it was finally time.

You could hear a pin drop in that bar as race time approached. They started announcing the racers, and I could hear the muttering of people wanting Johnson to kick Lewis' ass after they were both announced. Incidentally, there was a huge cheer when Johnson was introduced.

They called the racers to the line. The volume was cranked on the bar TV. "On your mark, get set, go!"

Johnson was off like a shot and surged to the lead. It was incredible. He left Lewis in the dust. Then, as if to finally put the arrogant American in his place, he raised his arm in victory as he crossed the finish line. Everyone in the bar was on their feet from the sound of the gun. When Johnson won, the place erupted. We were hugging each other, yelling, and high fiving strangers. Johnson had broken his own world record with a time of 9.79 seconds. Canada had its first Olympic 100-metre champion since Percy Williams in 1928.

And he shut Carl Lewis' mouth for him. It was strangely exhilarating to see Lewis lunging to the finish line, hopelessly and pathetically trying to catch Johnson. That was just a fringe benefit. The next day I bought the Edmonton Sun again, this time with Ben Johnson's victory covering the front page. We were all so happy.

The humiliation of disqualification
It was Monday afternoon, so what was that, Sept. 27, and I was sitting in English class. We had been broken into groups, and I happened to be in one with my best friend Chris Vining who had arrived to class late.

He joined our group and broke the news: Ben Johnson had tested positive for steroid use, was disqualified, and stripped of his gold medal.

Seriously, I did not believe him. I really didn't. Then I got home, and the full weight of what happened hit me, and the entire country. What hurt just as much was that arrogant Carl Lewis chirping on about how he knew Johnson cheated because that’s the only way Johnson could beat Lewis. Because he finished second, he had been awarded the gold medal.

My first thoughts, as an emotional 18 year old, remain the same today. Maybe someone had framed Ben? Or, he was just not as good at cheating as the other sprinters. To this day, I am convinced Carl Lewis cheated too.

Dave Steen restored Canada's honour
at the 1988 Summer Olympics by coming
from behind to win a bronze in
the last event of the decathlon.
The Dave Steen story

What I will remember, as much as the disappointment I felt, was another Canadian athlete who rose to the occasion and did our country proud.

Dave Steen was a decathlete who was a fringe medal contender. Then something incredible happened. Decathlon is a two-day marathon. After the first day, he was in 11th place and a medal seemed out of reach. After the first four events on day two, he had crawled to eighth place with just the 1,500-metre race remaining. He trailed in that race too, but dug down and earned enough points to move up to third place overall. Through it all, he insisted on being tested for steroids.

Just when Canada's Olympic team needed it most, Dave Steen came through. He won Canada's first ever medal in decathlon.

Parting thoughts
In typical Canadian fashion, the country launched a massive investigation, the Dubin Inquiry which was televised live and lasted 91 days, examining every aspect of the situation. Meanwhile, other countries kept on cheating. History has shown that virtually all the finalists in the 1988 Olympic 100 metres were implicated in steroid use. And Johnson had been given a drink by someone who was not authorized to be in the testing area, an associate of Carl Lewis.

Canada adopted one of the strictest testing regimes in the world. It made it all the sweeter when Donovan Bailey restored Canada's honour in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Not only did he win gold in the American heartland, establish a world record (the same 9.83 seconds Johnson ran at the 1986 Goodwill Games), but he was one of the most tested athletes in history.

Canadians learn from our mistakes – in a big way.

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