Thirty years ago today, Ben Johnson crouched on his starting blocks before the 100m Olympic final in Seoul, waiting. A gun went off. And he went supernova. Even now there is a visceral thrill watching him burn off his rivals from between 30 to 70 metres – those tiny legs whirring at an almost impossible velocity, as if the race replay is being played at double speed, while they strain in vain to catch him – as he lifts one finger in the air in triumph.
After his lap of honour, Johnson was asked which he treasured more: his gold medal or a world record of 9.79 seconds. “The gold medal,” he replied. “Because they can’t take that away from you.”
We know what happened next. A day later, traces of the anabolic steroid stanozolol were found in his body. Johnson was stripped of his glory and dignity; the rest of us our naivety. The dirtiest race in history, they call it now. Given six of the eight finalists have failed drug tests, perhaps that is right – but, given the ongoing ineffectiveness of the anti-doping system, would you bet on it?
Johnson certainly had his suspicions about whether things were much better in the modern era when I spoke to him in 2013. “Victor Conte made this drug called the Clear that could go through your system in 10-15 minutes,” he pointed out. “And if you look at some athletes in the last two or three Olympics, they’re hyper. You can look in their eyes. This is not normal. It’s crazy.”
With hindsight, the signs that Johnson was juicing were obvious. His shoulders and back were armour‑plated with thick muscle. He could squat three times his bodyweight. And his eyes had a lemony tint – a tell-time sign of performance-enhance drugs. As one US coach who saw Johnson a few days before the 100m final told Sports Illustrated: “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” – a reference to rumours from the 1987 Rome world championships that the IAAF, the athletics governing body, was covering up positive tests.
At the time the IAAF denied it. But history has subsequently shown it has form in this regard. It was only two years ago, after all, that four senior figures were banned for causing “unprecedented damage to the sport” by extorting €450,000 from the Russian marathon runner Liliya Shobukhova in exchange for hiding her doping violations.
Russia was in the news again last week, with the World Anti-Doping Agency’s decision to welcome it back from the cold met with almost universal anger. Certainly Wada should be performing better. It is supposed to be the world’s policeman, but doesn’t catch enough villains. Many believe it is also too close to the International Olympic Committee, which has been accused of favouring geopolitics above clean sport in the case of Russia. Insightful minds – such as Renee-Anne Shirley, the former head of Jamaican Anti-Doping – also want far more external scrutiny from independent experts, too.
But at least we can say this for Wada. It has ensured there is a harmonized structure of rules across sports and countries – which was not the case until 1999.
Remember that at the 1988 US trials, Carl Lewis failed three tests for a stimulant which should have led to him missing the Olympics – only to get off because the US Olympic Committee decided his use was “inadvertent”. Lewis, who won the 100m gold in Seoul after Johnson’s disqualification, later admitted he was not the only one – in fact “there were hundreds of people getting off”. See, it’s not just the Russians who have bent or broken the rules.
Closer to home, most people also forget that when Linford Christie tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid nandrolone in 1999 he was initially cleared by UK Athletics. Only later was he suspended for two years after the IAAF overturned the decision. At least such naked conflicts of interests are less likely now.
But the system remains far from ideal. Shirley, who bravely blew the whistle on the fact only one out-of-competition test was done in Jamaica before London 2012, also fears many countries only pay “lip service to clean sport” – “because they’re all about placing high on medal tables at major Games”.
As she also points out, testing is ineffective – with only around 1% yielding a positive result – and skewed towards inadvertent doping rather than catching serious sophisticated doping at the elite level.
Meanwhile, as we look back to that momentous day in Seoul, spare a thought for Calvin Smith, who was upgraded to Olympic bronze, but never got the credit or sponsorship his career deserved. “I was the best in the race, no matter what it says on paper,” says Smith, who never failed a drugs test and is widely considered to have raced clean in his career. “I did it in a way that was right, drug free, and many others cannot say that.”
Incidentally, not long after Johnson was busted Sir Arthur Gold, then president of the European Athletics Council, said: “The only people who will be caught for drugs are the careless or the ill-advised.” The tragedy is that, 30 years from Seoul, those words still ring true.