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Throwback Thursday: Ben Johnson at the Seoul Olympics, and the Doping Race That Never Ends

Ben Johnson's 100m dash victory and subsequent steroid bust at the 1988 Summer Games was a watershed moment for anti-doping activists, but to what end?
Presse Sports-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor's note: Each Thursday, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important moment from this week in sports history. We call it Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)

It was billed at the Greatest Race in History. It ended being the most controversial, and maybe most influential. Twenty-seven years ago today, the 100-meter dash at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul featured a reigning Olympic champion in American Carl Lewis; a rising rival in reigning world champion and new world record holder Ben Johnson, of Canada; the previous world record holder in Calvin Smith, another American; and the 1986 European champion in Britain's Linford Christie.


The racers didn't disappoint: all four finished with sub-10-second times, an unprecedented feat. Johnson blew past all of them, finishing with his hand raised in triumph and a new world record of 9.79 seconds.

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Johnson's victory was a milestone for Canada, a country typically left off the medal stand at the Summer Olympics. Fifty-five hours later, however, the triumph curdled: Johnson tested positive for the steroid Stanozolol and was stripped of his gold medal. Beyond shocking the sports world, the resulting scandal turbocharged the anti-doping movement that has since come to dominate international athletics. The race's immediate and long-term aftermath arguably has demonstrated the futility and hypocrisy of the same movement, at least as promoted by the International Olympic Committee.

Following his failed test, Johnson appealed the IOC's disciplinary action and launched a spirited defense with the help of Dick Pound, a Canadian official. Johnson argued to overturn the test on evidence that a member of his rival Lewis's entourage, Andre "Action" Jackson, was in the doping control room after the race and could have spiked the beer Johnson was drinking to hydrate for his urine test. Mark Lee, a Canadian sports journalist who covered the story as it happened, told the Canadian Broadcast Company in 2013 that "the Stanozolol shocked [Johnson's coach] Charlie Francis, because he didn't think Ben was on that. He thought he was on a drug called Estrogol or Furazabol, not Stanozolol."


After a 45-minute defense led by Pound—which included evidence that Stanozolol could metabolize within 45 minutes, long enough to appear in Johnson's sample had Jackson spiked his drink—Johnson's appeal was denied. Afterward, the IOC Medical Commission revealed an endocrine analysis of Johnson's sample that showed what Lee called "like a 15-to-1" testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio, well over the acceptable level of 4-to-1. "They said, there is medical evidence here that he has been using steroids and been using them for a long time" Less aid. "Your appeal is denied."

"Estrogol? Sure. Furazabol? Of course. But Stanozolol? Never!" Photo by Presse Sports-USA TODAY Sports

Lewis would admit in his 1990 autobiography Inside Track that Jackson was indeed in the room, and even included photos of Johnson and Jackson grinning for the camera together. Jackson, responding to an interview request from Canadian magazine Maclean's, said, "I've never felt compelled to ever defend myself regarding this issue. Apart from what really took place inside the drug testing room in Seoul, it doesn't really amend the string of events that took place following his positive drug test in 1988." That's the kind of cryptic non-denial one might expect from a diamond magnate who was an associate of Mobutu Sese Seko in the 1980s.

The issue isn't that Johnson wasn't doping at Seoul. He has admitted as much, and his further admission that he was doping at the 1987 World Championships resulted in his losing that gold medal and world record as well. No, the bigger issue for sports is that other elite athletes were doping, too. Some were busted. Many more were not. Some allegedly flunked tests, only to have the results covered up. Johnson long has maintained that he wasn't doing anything different from the majority of his competitors. The only difference, he argued, is that he was caught, and under suspicious circumstances to boot.


Indeed, the entire 1988 Olympic field would soon be called into question. That November, the New York Times reported, "At least half of the 9,000 athletes who competed at the Olympics in Seoul used performance-enhancing drugs in training, according to estimates by medical and legal experts as well as traffickers in these substances." Dr. Park Jong Sei of the Olympic testing lab in Seoul told the Times that as many as 20 other athletes tested positive and were not disqualified, including one American but "mostly Europeans." IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch defended his organization, saying, "They found more athletes, but the quantity used was not enough to suspend them. You cannot punish them."

Really, who among us hasn't tested positive for banned substances? --Photo by Presse Sports-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe not. Still, only two of the eight racers in that 1988 final would finish their careers without a drug scandal: bronze medalist Calvin Smith and fifth-place finisher Robson Da Silva. Smith stood out as skinny in a field of hulking sprinters—before one heat leading up to the final, a British commentator praised the "enormous shoulders on that man," referring to Johnson—and he still maintains that he deserves the gold medal as the top clean racer in the competition.

Christie, who took silver in 1988 and would go on to win the gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Games, tested positive for pseudoephedrine in 1988 and again for nandrolone in 1999, which resulted in a two-year ban and effectively ended his career. Dennis Mitchell, the fourth-place finisher, tested positive for testosterone in 1988, and the IAAF declined to accept his defense of "five bottles of beer and sex with his wife at least four times . . . it was her birthday, the lady deserved a treat." Sixth-place finisher Desai Williams, a Canadian teammate of Johnson's, admitted taking steroids during an investigation of Canadian athletics. Ray Stewart, the last-place finisher, was never tied to drugs as an athlete but he was banned from the sport for life in 2010 following charges by USADA that he was providing other athletes with steroids, which he claimed were for personal use.

As for Lewis, who took home the gold after Johnson's disqualification and was the loudest doping opponent of the group? In 2003, documents released by Wade Exum, former director of drug control for the U.S. Olympic Committee, revealed that Lewis had tested positive for the stimulants ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine at the 1988 Olympic trials. The drugs were present in low enough concentrations that only required "further investigation," according to IOC rules at the time. Lewis's explanation at the time was that he had taken a herbal supplement—"I took all kinds of different herbs," he told the Los Angeles Times—and that he didn't get a boost. After initially disqualifying Lewis from the Olympics, the USOC accepted his excuse on appeal and allowed him to compete.

The revelations scandalized the international sports world, and for many people—including Dick Pound, who was by then head of the World Anti-Doping Association—the documents confirmed suspicions that the USOC let athletes get away with cheating. Such a cover-up would hardly be unprecedented—not in light of the systematic East German doping program of the Cold War era, nor accusations by a German television documentary this past winter that "99 percent" of Russian athletes are doping. The IOC declined to revisit the issue, citing a three-year statute of limitations.

Though Johnson wasn't alone in doping at the 1988 Olympics, he bore the brunt of the consequences. Sponsors abandoned him. He was declared a national disgrace in Canada. He became the wrong kind of poster boy. "Every time there is a positive test in the world, doesn't matter where, they mention Ben Johnson's name," Johnson told MacLean's. "I gave them my heart and they took it out."

Anti-doping punishments are supposed to satisfy our sense of fairness and morality, and, by dissuading others from cheating, ensure that the best athlete wins. The Johnson case threw all of this into doubt: Where do we draw the lines? How do we catch offenders in a timely manner? How do we ensure the right people are punished, and that medals aren't simply handed from cheaters to other cheaters? For that matter, how do we prevent Olympic organizers from manipulating results and punishments for their own purposes? Who can we trust? These questions have dogged the anti-doping movement since its inception, and in the 27 years since The Greatest Race in History, it's hard to say we've gotten closer to any answers.