• Rewind to 1988

From hero to zero

ESPN staff
March 1, 2012
The steely determination in Ben Johnson's eyes masked something sinister © PA Photos

When the 2012 Olympic Games come to London in the summer, a sprinting sensation will be aiming to follow up his wins of four years ago. Back in 1988, a Canadian brought shame on the sport...

From hero to zero. Ben Johnson remains the classic personification of this phrase. We marvelled at his acceleration and breathtaking sprinting in Seoul and then wondered how we hadn't noticed the signs of his drug taking. Were the yellow eyes, sharply in focus prior to the starter's gun going off, a tell-tale sign? What about his muscles, as he was described as having a body that looked like it was about to explode?

Perhaps the visual evidence was obvious. But there was a feeling of betrayal - particularly in his native Canada. How quickly awe and respect turned to anger and recrimination.

By registering a world-record time of 9.79 seconds for the 100 metres, the sprinter looked to have created history. Instead, he became infamous after his urine tested positive for anabolic steroids later on September 24.

Reading some of his home country's press in the short space of time between crossing the finishing line and the dramatic results of his sample being revealed is utterly depressing. The euphoria and pride was obvious. One newspaper led with the headline: 'Johnson is the greatest ever; no dispute, no argument'. "There really are no words for that run," enthused The Herald's correspondent B.Wilson. "You can only try and fall short. It was the greatest thing I have ever seen on an athletic track and I am not sure that it was not the greatest thing I have ever seen in sport."

Coach Charlie Francis said it was a run "out of the next century". The Globe and Mail's Murray Campbell said: "Johnson had electrified the world," filing for his copy deadline as 'Big Ben' returned from taking his fateful test.

As for the race itself and, after taking a risk in qualifying in third place in his heat, Johnson was determined to make his mark in the final.

Writer James Christie said: "When Johnson beat Carl Lewis out of the starting blocks he was, quite literally, flying. Still photographs of the start show that a split-second after the gun, he was diving over the line, both hands up and both feet off the ground. His push had put him half a body length in front of the field before his first stride."

Johnson extended that lead to a couple of metres by the halfway stage and continued to pull away from Lewis in the closing stages, even finding time to look across at his rival. "I eased off in the last three or four metres," he admitted.

Ben Johnson was yards clear at the line, but his world caved in a couple of days later © PA Photos

Lewis was left in second place with Linford Christie the bronze-medal winner. "I felt I ran a pretty good race," said the American before being elevated to first place. When the news was confirmed, it backed up his allegations towards his rival in the year leading up to the big race.

"I wasn't angry at him for the drugs, please," said Lewis. "I wasn't angry that I lost. I was disappointed that I didn't win. They called me a tell-tale but, two years later, I was a prophet."

The speculation had been swirling around ever since a race in Rome in 1987 when the Canadian lowered the world record.

"There are a lot of rumours circulating around the sport," said Lewis' manager Joe Douglas. "I don't think anybody is surprised."

Christie reacted by admitting: "I'm shocked. It is a very sad day for athletics as a whole. Anyone who gets caught is at the end of the road."

It was effectively the end of the road for Johnson. His homeland recoiled in disgust, perhaps feeling a little shame in the way the victory over America had been gloriously trumpeted.

A writer for Maclean's in 1988 said Canadians "doubled over in sickened disbelief, taking Johnson's humiliation as their own."

The Boston Globe summed it up thus: "For three days, Ben Johnson was champion. He was a marvel. Now he has returned the medal, leaving the city on the first available plane at Kimpo Airport. The same people who praised him three days ago are ripping him into little pieces. His country - which had exulted in his success - is traumatised by his shame."

Everybody felt a little of that shame when the test results were announced. The fastest man on earth was a fraud and the greatest race in sport would forever be tarnished.

What happened next?
'Big Ben' was suspended for two years and banned for life in 1993 after failing another dope test. One of his defences was that he had to take steroids because everybody else was doing it and other conspiracy theories were offered, including that a drink had been spiked.

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