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Ben Johnson: The story that shook the world

Nick Atkin
September 26, 2013
Ben Johnson won the 100m at Seoul before testing positive and being stripped of gold three days later © AP
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When Ben Johnson was found guilty of doping on September 27, 1988 and sensationally stripped of his 100m gold at the Seoul Olympics, there was understandable outrage at the Jamaican-born Canadian's actions. Not least among his adopted country's citizens who had screamed with joy seeing Johnson, one of them, stick it to America by battering the reigning champion Carl Lewis in a world-record time of 9.79 seconds. However, it wasn't just supporters nursing a feeling of betrayal who had the hump.

"I was woken up at 4am by John Goodbody of the Times," recalls Colin Hart, in Seoul working for the Sun. "John said words to the effect, 'Get your arse out of bed, there's a massive story breaking - Ben Johnson's just been found positive'. I wasn't best pleased with Mr Johnson."

Goodbody was tipped off by AFP who had in turn been told by an IOC source Johnson had tested positive. "I was half asleep," continues Hart. "What really woke me up was my editor, the dreaded Kelvin MacKenzie, saying 'I want 1000 words on drugs in sport in 20 minutes', and he meant it. We were coming up to first edition time in London. God knows what it looked like but I ad-libbed it all, standing up in my shorts in the middle of the night. As soon as I'd had a shower, I got down to the village and the shit had hit the fan. They rushed Johnson onto a plane back to Canada. Nobody talked about anything else for the rest of the bloody Games."

This week marks 25 years since Johnson's fall from grace, from signing autographs as "the fastest man in the world" to the ignominy of handing back his gold medal in front of his sobbing mother just three days later. "It sounds a bit corny now, but I wrote that Johnson took us to the stars and then pitched us into the dirt; the man who for 48 hours was on top of the world," says James Lawton, whose piece on Johnson for the Daily Express won an SJA award. "Most of my colleagues were already asleep when I got back to my room. You could see all the phones and lights start going on around the quadrangle of the Olympic village until it eventually reached me. AFP was already flashing Johnson's positive test, we just had to heave-to. I had an hour to write to deadline but it was just one of those pieces that comes to you. It almost wrote itself."

Alan Hubbard, working then for London agency United Newspapers, was another woken by Goodbody. "Word quickly got round," he recalls. "Everyone hot-footed it to the press centre. It was alive with speculation and expectation." Indeed, news of Johnson's positive test wasn't completely out of the blue. "It was a shock but not a surprise," says Goodbody. "When Johnson won, I ran up the stairs in the stadium after the final to say to my colleague Simon Barnes, 'I don't know about anabolic steroids but it looked to me as if he was on rocket fuel'."

Ben Johnson returned to the Seoul Olympic Stadium 25 years on to unfurl a giant anti-doping petition on Tuesday © AP
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"The race was stupendous, arguably the most riveting thing I've seen," adds Lawton. "You wanted to believe it was true. But the pictures indicated the look of shock on Lewis' face when he looked up at the board and saw Johnson's time. That suggested something slightly unreal had happened."

"A few days before we'd attended Johnson's press conference, and noted how red his eyes were," says Hubbard. "We thought, 'Has he been drinking? Or has he got some infection?' It turned out to be steroid rage."

Johnson was one of many doping but is remembered as the biggest cheat in Olympics history. To mark the silver jubilee of his 'gold', Johnson returned to the scene of the crime on Tuesday, unfurling a giant anti-doping petition along the 100 metres he motored over in lane six at the Seoul Olympic Stadium in those 9.79 seconds. Johnson said: "I was nailed on a cross, and 25 years later I'm still being punished. Rapists and murderers get sent to prison, but even they get out eventually. I know what I did was wrong. Rules are rules. But the rules should be the same for all."

"It was a huge story because Johnson was the first high-profile athlete to test positive," explains Goodbody. "It really blew apart the whole sport. On Saturday when he won everybody wanted to embrace Johnson - by Tuesday they were running in a different direction. He was a little boy lost in this great whirlwind of athletics. Johnson and Lewis' rivalry brought sprinting into the forefront of people's consciousness, where it's remained ever since as a result of that positive test."

Johnson has claimed doping is much worse today than in his era. Tyson Gay and five Jamaican sprinters including Asafa Powell all recently tested positive, along with five Spaniards and seven from the World Championships. There were also worrying revelations the Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission only carried out one out-of-competition test in the five months before London 2012.

There's as much chance as winning the war against doping as stamping out prostitution
Former athletics correspondent Colin Hart

"The baddies are winning," says Hubbard. "The chemists are always one step ahead, working on measures to mask tests. It was interesting the IOC awarded the 2020 Olympics to Tokyo. Spain and Turkey have been quite well-known for having drugged athletes. Japan are not just a safe pair of hands but a clean pair of hands."

If David Walsh can get away with a reference to The Wire in Seven Deadly Sins, his excellent expose of Lance Armstrong, then hopefully it's not out of place to throw one in here. "We're fighting the war on drugs, one case at a time," says detective Kima Greggs in the show's first episode. "You can't call this shit a war," retorts her colleague, Ellis Carver. "Wars end." Track and field's war on drugs may be slightly different to that facing the Baltimore Police Department in the hit US TV show, but it's also interminable.

"I don't think it's a fight they'll ever win, it's a war of attrition," says Lawton. "It'll always be there. Johnson was a quarter of a century ago. Doping must have become a lot more sophisticated. The devil has all the best tunes, as they always say. There will never be any certainty about who's clean."

"It's impossible, there's as much chance as stamping out prostitution," quips Hart. "But unlike other sports, they don't mind if they catch the big names, like Gay and Powell. You might say they willingly ruined their own World Championships. But that's the only positive thing."

It's perhaps because of Johnson that six-time Olympic champion and world record holder Usain Bolt is still questioned. "Given all that's gone on, how could you not have a degree of scepticism?" asks Lawton. "It was kind of uncanny in Beijing when Bolt did his remarkable run [in a then-world record 9.69s], all the faces in the stadium flashed to the scoreboard. How many were thinking, 'Is it true?' It was an uncanny recall of Seoul, the impact of the run and then the inevitable question. Bolt has survived, but please God he's done it for reasons other than masking agents."

"If somebody phoned me up in the middle of the night and said Bolt has been found positive, I wouldn't be shocked," says Hart. "I might say 'blimey, it took long enough'. But it would be a terrible shame."

It's an unwanted legacy Johnson leaves behind, but a legacy all the same.

Ben Johnson believes he was "nailed on a cross" after testing positive at Seoul and is "still being punished" © AP
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Nick Atkin is an assistant editor at ESPN and tweets at @natkinESPN

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