The Loser

In late May, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson traveled to the Caribbean island of St. Kitts to be treated by his doctor, Jamie Astaphan. Ten days before, he had aggravated a pulled left hamstring, an injury that could ruin his gold medal chances at the Seoul Olympics. Astaphan administered a variety of therapies during the next 10 days. On Tuesday two sources told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that Astaphan also injected Johnson with anabolic steroids.
October 02, 1988

SI's sources said that they were present during conversations in which both Johnson and Astaphan spoke of the different steroids Johnson was being given, and how Johnson could fool the doping tests in Seoul and at other meets that he might enter before the Olympics. "We can beat them," Astaphan said.

Astaphan, who lives in St. Kitts, has often been at odds with Johnson's longtime coach, Charlie Francis, over who should get credit for Johnson's accomplishments. One SI source said that while Astaphan was the one who administered the steroids in May, other members of Johnson's entourage knew about the use of the substances. "They actually bragged about it, how Ben was a skinny little kid before he got into steroids," the source said. He also said Astaphan told him that one of Johnson's corporate sponsors had promised a million dollars to anyone who could get Johnson over his injury and back on track for the gold in Seoul.

Both of SI's sources said Johnson knew that the injections he was receiving were steroids but that he spoke of his eagerness to get off the drugs after the Olympics. In the meantime, Astaphan had told them that the Americans and the Soviets did not know how to administer drugs to enhance the performance of their athletes without the drugs being detected, and that his "idols" in sports medicine were Bulgarian team doctors who were expert at this deception. Thus, whatever the Bulgarians did for their Olympians, Astaphan would do for his.

And what happened to the Bulgarians in Seoul also happened to Johnson. In the early days of the Games, two Bulgarian weightlifters. Mitko Grablev and Angel Guenchev, were disqualified by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) after they had won gold medals, and the entire Bulgarian weightlifting team went home (see SCORECARD). On Tuesday it was Johnson's turn to leave Seoul in disgrace.

He fled like a criminal, hiding his face behind a briefcase as an army of photographers and TV cameramen fought one another to take his picture. Scarcely 72 hours earlier Johnson had been the toast of the Games, a hero of truly Olympian proportions. His fall from gold and glory occurred with thundering finality.

On Saturday he had won a race for the ages before a crowd of 70,000 in Olympic Stadium and another two billion in the global TV audience. With an explosive, almost supernatural dash in the 100 meters, Johnson had broken his own year-old world record of 9.83 seconds with a time of 9.79 and had destroyed his rival, 1984 quadruple gold medalist Carl Lewis of the U.S., who finished second, .13 of a second behind. Immediately after this triumph, Johnson was routinely tested by the Olympic Doping Control laboratory in Seoul for banned substances. A day later, he was found to have traces of an anabolic steroid, stanozolol, in his system.

After a night of deliberation, the IOC executive board found Johnson guilty of violating its rules against using performance-enhancing drugs. The IOC declared Johnson's race null, stripped him of his gold medal and awarded it to Lewis. Johnson himself said nothing in public after the news broke, but Larry Heidebrecht, Johnson's manager, insisted that Johnson must have been a victim of foul play. Canadian Olympic officials and government spokesmen back in Ottawa seemed to accept the IOC's verdict. Indeed, sports minister Jean Charest announced Monday night that Johnson would be banned from Canada's national team for life.

Track insiders have long suspected Johnson of taking steroids to beef up his already beautifully muscled body. According to these suspicions, the drugs provided the peaks of power Johnson needed to fire himself down a 100-meter track at speeds no other human has achieved. But there was no proof; quite to the contrary, Johnson had passed numerous doping tests. One of SI's sources had a premonition that Johnson's luck was about to change when the source heard that Grablev, the Bulgarian lifter, had tested positive in Seoul. The source told SI that, under the Bulgarian-Astaphan regimen, Johnson was receiving "incredible quantities of this stuff." However, he said, Johnson's advisers did not even do blood profiles on Johnson to see if his liver and his kidneys were capable of handling the steroids. "It was like he was a racehorse. A commodity," said the source.

On Aug. 17, in a ballyhooed pre-Olympic meet in Zurich, Lewis beat Johnson in their first meeting since the World Championships. The Zurich race was neck and neck going into the last 10 meters when Johnson let down. Apparently all traces of the steroids he had taken in May had left his system, because according to the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), the world governing body of track and field, Johnson passed a drug test after the Zurich meet. Four days later he lost another race, in Cologne, without Lewis in the field, and Francis, his coach, took him home earlier than scheduled to train for Seoul.

One of SI's sources says, "All they had to do was get him to run 20 more meters, and training would do that. But I think when they saw he wasn't ready, they panicked. I fear for his liver now."

Once in Seoul, Johnson showed signs of renewed steroid use. On the practice track a few days before the track and field events began, an American trainer saw Johnson and was shocked. "His eyes were so yellow with his liver working overtime processing steroids that I said he's either crazy or he's protected with an insurance policy," the trainer said. In mentioning an insurance policy, the trainer was referring to rumors that surfaced after the Rome World Championships that positive tests had been covered up by the IAAF to insure that no superstars, of which Johnson is certainly one, would be disqualified. The IAAF denied the rumors.

In Seoul, however, the IOC was in charge of testing, and there was no deal to protect anyone. War had been declared on drugs by IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, and the get-tough policy found its mark in the 100 meters, one of the best races in track history.

In the blocks, Johnson stared down the track with a murderous expression. Lewis seemed relaxed. He had been distracted by Johnson's incredibly quick start in the latter's world-record performance in Rome, and he had drilled himself never to let that happen again. And he had a promise to keep.

Lewis's father, Bill, his first coach, died of cancer last year. At the funeral Carl unexpectedly drew his Olympic 100-meter gold medal from his pocket and placed it in his father's hand. "He had been so excited and proud of the L.A. 100 that that was the one thing I wanted to go with him, a piece of me I could leave him," says Carl. "As I let go, his hand almost seemed to grasp it."

Carl's mother, Evelyn, watched this happen. "Carl must have seen the look on my face," she said. "He told me, 'Don't worry, I'll get another one.' "

Yet no man had ever successfully defended an Olympic 100-meter title. "Carl had to go into new territory," said Francis after the race, in a remark that would soon be ironic. "Ben just had to return to where he'd been."

In Rome, Johnson had reacted to the gun in .129 of a second (sensors in the blocks tell us these things), while Lewis took .196. Because Johnson grabbed a yard in the first few steps, it didn't look fair. But in Seoul the field got off evenly. Johnson's reaction time was .132. Lewis's was .136. At 30 meters Johnson had, at most, a couple of feet on Lewis, for whom things looked good. He had stayed this close in Zurich and won. "Then," Johnson said of his race in Seoul, "I blew it out."

His face a mask of ferocity, Johnson leapt ahead. By 50 meters he had a meter lead. By 80, he had two. "I said to myself, 'He's coming,' " said Johnson, "and I did my best to hold form."

Lewis ran another distracted race. Three times he looked to the right, to Johnson. As he neared the finish line, he was already preparing to accept the shock. Two meters from the finish, Johnson knew that he had won. He eased, put his right arm up and looked triumphantly at Lewis.

Johnson's time was a world record by .04 of a second; he had torn a huge chunk off his old mark, which everyone had come to regard as a fixture for the ages. Lewis broke the American record with his 9.92. Great Britain's Linford Christie was third with a European record 9.97. Calvin Smith was fourth in 9.99. It was the first race ever in which four sprinters did better than 10.0.

Lewis went to Johnson at the edge of the track and shook his hand. Then, to a TV interviewer, he said, "He must have really caught a flyer la sensational start], just like in Rome." Later he denied making any such observation. "I didn't see him until the last 30 meters, so I can't say a thing about his start. He ran a great race, obviously.... The Olympics are about doing the best you can. I did the best I could."

Johnson, addressing the press later that afternoon, was elaborately proud. "I'd like to say my name is Benjamin Sinclair Johnson Jr., and this world record will last 50 years, maybe 100," he said. "More important than the world record was to beat Carl Lewis and win the gold."

Roughly four hours after the 100 meters, the urine samples from the event—taken from the top four finishers in a room in the stadium—were delivered to the Olympic Doping Control Center less than half a mile away, across the Han River. Each sample was divided into two parts, labeled A and B. Sample A was tested first; B was put aside for a second test, to be done if the first came up positive.

By 6 a.m. Monday, Dr. Park Jong Sei, director of the testing center, learned that an A sample he was testing contained stanozolol, a dangerous anabolic steroid that can be taken in pill form, and is believed to cause cancer of the liver. Park told SI's Richard Demak that he tested the same sample once more, even though this was not required, and got the same result. Park then notified the IOC's Medical Commission. At this point, Park didn't know who the guilty Olympian was because the samples were identified only by number.

The number belonged to Johnson, and because the IOC mandates that an athlete must be notified when his A sample comes up positive, Carol Anne Letheren, chef de mission of the Canadian team, was given the disconcerting news. Park didn't learn the identity of the Olympian in question until early Monday afternoon when the Canadians showed up for the testing of the B sample. Now he was concerned that there be absolutely no hint of error in the tests. By 2 p.m. Park, in the presence of two Canadian officials, had found stanozolol in Johnson's B specimen, but he decided not to tell the IOC immediately.

"I had to be absolutely sure," Park said. He ran sample B twice more through the analysis, and it was not until 10 p.m. Monday that he finally notified the IOC that he was certain that Johnson had had an anabolic steroid in his system. Later, one of Park's IOC advisers, Manfred Donike, who runs a highly respected drug-testing laboratory in Cologne, explained that it was inconsequential if the test revealed a small, medium or large amount of steroids in the urine. "That doesn't matter, because there's no borderline case in steroids," he said. "Just like you can't be a little bit pregnant, either it's there or it isn't. I can tell you that in this case, it was not a small amount."

With the news of Johnson's positive drug test, alarms began ringing all around Seoul. Thanks to the great care Park had taken with the tests, no one questioned the veracity of his findings. Neither Johnson nor Francis appeared before the IOC Medical Commission. However, Heidebrecht claimed that after the race someone had intentionally given Johnson a liquid containing a banned substance.

Richard Pound, a Canadian lawyer who is a vice-president of the IOC, interviewed Johnson, as well as Canadian track and field officials, and told SI's Crosbie Cotton, "Ben says he hasn't taken anything. As far as I can tell, he has no knowledge of anything. His body may be guilty, but his mind is innocent. The team view is that Ben doesn't use any illegal substances. They say that someone had to give it to him after the race. However, the IOC Medical Commission said what was found in the tests definitely wasn't something that could have been slipped into a beer."

Once the wheels of sports justice got rolling, Johnson was not only stripped of his medal and his world record, but the IAAF also suspended him from all international meets for two full years. He stands to lose millions in appearance fees and endorsements he would have made as Olympic champion. Indeed, for all other competitors in track and field who have loaded up with steroids, the warning explicit in the tragic example of Johnson is unmistakable. The two-year suspension, in fact, may spell the end of this marvelous athlete's career. At 26, it's questionable whether he can return to such form—with or without steroids.

Of course, given Johnson's plight, the dark question loomed larger than ever over Seoul: How many other Olympians, gold medalists or not, have made it to these Games on a steady diet of drugs? It would be wrong, though, to brand all of the world's best athletes with the same ugly mark. Many, perhaps most, of the outstanding track and field competitors of the 1988 Olympics—Lewis, who on Monday successfully defended the Olympic long jump title he won in Los Angeles. 110-meter hurdler Roger Kingdom, 400-meter hurdler Edwin Moses, decathlete Daley Thompson, to name a few—are acknowledged to be winners without dope.

Indeed, it's possible—perhaps even likely—that the busting of Johnson will serve his sport far better than he himself has. As Mary Slaney said after she learned of the guilty verdict, "I think it's wonderful. Not because of Ben, but because I want a clean sport. The fact that a thing this big can't be swept under the rug is a sign of hope."

But not for Ben Johnson, who had been transformed from a man with one of the brightest, richest futures in all of sport to a man with nothing to look forward to but days of shame.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)