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From Seoul to New York With Ben Johnson

When the Canadian sprinter was stripped of his gold medal in 1988, photographer John Iacono hopped on his plane.

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John Iacono had been working 20-hour days and was tired. Finally, though, the photographer found himself with a day off while covering the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. He cracked open a beer.

Iacono and a few other photographers went to bed late, at about 3 a.m. Then, a couple of hours later, he heard a knock on his door. Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who had won the 100 meters by breaking his own world record with a time of 9.79 seconds, was stripped of his gold medal after a positive drug test for traces of an anabolic steroid.

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Iacono and other photographers and reporters working for Sports Illustrated were split up into pairs to try to find out what airline Johnson would be taking to leave Seoul that day.

“This is just what I needed,” Iacono says. “I had no sleep in days.”

Iacono went to what was then Kimpo Airport, where he was with reporter Shelley Smith.

“In the back of my mind I kept saying, ‘Please don’t let him come to us. I really don’t want to go any further with this,’ ” Iacono says.

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After they saw Johnson briefly before he was ushered through an alternative entrance, Smith came running back to where Iacono was standing. She had purchased two first-class tickets on Johnson’s flight to New York.

“I said, ‘Are you crazy? Are you serious?’ ” Iacono says. “Thank god I had a couple rolls of film, $20 in my pocket and my passport.”

Once they got on the plane, Iacono went up to Johnson and his family to introduce himself and ask whether he could take a picture. A member of Johnson's family told Iacono he could take a single image. That was it.

“If you tell a photographer he can only take one picture, he’s going to die,” Iacono says. (Iacono did get a few more shots of Johnson, he says, after the sprinter posed with the flight attendants later in the flight.)

When the plane landed in New York, Iacono says that police wouldn’t let him off. He saw a photographer friend of his outside the door and told him that Johnson was getting off the back of the plane.

“Sure enough, [my friend] probably wound up with the picture I was supposed to get but couldn’t,” Iacono says.

After the Johnson fiasco had seemingly ended, Iacono called his wife, who thought he was still in Seoul. She had dinner plans, and with the $20 he had in his pocket, Iacono hopped in a cab to surprise her.

But it was just a relatively quick layover. The next morning, Iacono was on a flight to Fairbanks, Alaska, and then back on to Seoul.

He had boxing to cover that night.

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Full Frame is Sports Illustrated’s exclusive newsletter for subscribers. Coming to your inbox weekly, it highlights the stories and personalities behind some of SI’s photography.

To get the best of SI in your inbox every weekday, sign up here. To see even more from SI’s photographers, follow @sifullframe on Instagram. If you missed last week’s edition on photographing Dennis Rodman and his blue macaw, you can read it here.

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