On the anniversary of the now-infamous men’s 100 metre final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, TSN.ca Producer Shane McNeil looks at whether Ben Johnson’s legacy should be re-evaluated in light of track and field’s history of performance-enhancing substances.
Originally published on TSN.ca – September, 2012.
It was one of the greatest achievements in the history of Canadian sports.
On September 24, 1988, Ben Johnson thrilled the country by winning gold in the men’s 100 metre sprint at the Olympic Games in Seoul. Not only did he win the race but he shattered the world record, taking the gold in a jaw-dropping 9.79 seconds. He became just the second Canadian to win Olympic gold in the event, flying past arch-rival Carl Lewis right out of the blocks en route to the historic gold.
Of course – in the end – the moment proved too good to be true.
Three days later, Johnson tested positive for steroids – surrendering the gold to Lewis and forever erasing his name from the record books. Johnson initially pled his innocence, but later admitted to steroid use in 1989 as his coach Charlie Francis claimed that the sprinter was doping for years prior.
He entered the race in Seoul as the world record-holder with time of 9.83 at the 1987 World Championships in Rome. And the International Association of Athletics Federations wiped out that record as a result of Johnson’s admission that we was also doping at that meet.
The race in Seoul is seeing a renaissance of sorts thanks to 9.79*. The film takes a look at the Final 24 years later in the context of information released since that changes the narrative that was once perceived as a cheating Johnson blowing away a clean field.
Carl Lewis finished the race second with a time of 9.97, but was awarded gold after Johnson’s disqualification. However, a 2003 Sports Illustrated report revealed that Lewis had tested positive for banned substances in Olympic qualifying. He was excused on the basis of “inadvertent use” and allowed to compete in the Games. Lewis has since admitted to failing the tests, but in a 2003 Guardian interview quipped that everyone got the same treatment.
Linford Christie – who won silver in Seoul and later won gold at Barcelona in 1992 – also tested positive for banned stimulants after the 1988 final, but was let off the hook by the International Olympic Committee, according to a BBC report in 2009. He later received a two-year ban in 1999 for use of performance enhancing drugs.
Others were linked to doping in the months and years following the Seoul Olympics as well.
Eventual fourth-place finisher Dennis Mitchell got a two-year doping ban from the IAAF in 1998. Desai Williams – who was awarded sixth – was implicated, though never proven guilty of doping alongside fellow countryman Johnson in the famed Dubin Inquiry.
Of the top five finishers in the Seoul race, only one sprinter emerged with a clean record in the end: eventual bronze medalist Calvin Smith. And it was Smith’s record of 9.93 that Johnson had broken in Rome. Smith has since gone on record that he should have won the gold medal in light of information released in the following years.
In a 1996 interview with South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, Johnson shed light on what he perceived to be one of the dirtiest races in Olympic history. “Yes, I was taking steroids,” he said in the interview, “but so were others on the starting line that day.”
Twenty-four years after that infamous race, how does history – or, more importantly, Canada – see Ben Johnson?
Wiped out alongside the gold and world record in Seoul was the legacy of one of the most successful Canadian athletes of the 1980s.
And Johnson was not entirely stripped of an otherwise-impressive trophy case: The Lou Marsh Trophy and Lionel Conacher Award, Associated Press Athlete of the Year, the Order of Canada, bronze medals in the Olympic 100 metres and 4×100 relay at the 1984 Olympics, five Commonwealth Games medals from 1982 and 1986 (including two gold from the latter) and more.
In Seoul, Johnson shattered his previous record by four-tenths of a second and won the race by a staggering 0.18 seconds. To put that result into perspective, the 100m world record would not reach 9.79 until 1999 when American sprinter Maurice Greene broke Donovan Bailey’s Atlanta mark of 9.84.
Usain Bolt’s dominant Olympic performances in Beijing and London were by victory margins of 0.20 and 0.12 respectively.
In the end, Johnson – the fastest man in a field of mostly unclean sprinters – could simply have been made an example of for an unbelievable performance. History has proven that Johnson was not the only sprinter in that race getting an added boost but what that means to Johnson’s legacy and the perception of a dominant performer in a historically unclean era is a question that will always be tempered by the disappointment of Canadian fans at the time and the subsequent embarrassment caused by the scandal.
Johnson has been considered many things over the years: A hero, a cheat, a scapegoat, a product of his sport and more.
And all of those images will be stirred in 9.79* – for better or for worse.