Think back to 1988.
Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan faced off in the main event at Wrestlemania IV at Trump Plaza. Beetlejuice, Die Hard, and A Fish Called Wanda were playing in your local movie theatre and the mid-dynasty Edmonton Oilers were about to begin another Stanley Cup-winning season.
It was a time when we still said dickweed, Degrassi was a new thing on TV, and humans were not yet streaming endless information directly to devices that we carried next to our crotches and asses all day.
It was also a time when all of Canada was enthralled with a rivalry between two dudes who just ran fast.
Yes, in 1988 Jamaican-born Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was a big deal. As a second grader, I even remember singing songs about him in school ("Big Ben Johnson is the fastest, fastest man alive!") and his rivalry with American sprinter Carl Lewis through the late 1980s captured the attention of not only Canadians and Americans, but the entire world as they battled for dominance in men's track and field through a series of global meets. This rivalry, of course, culminated in the infamous 100-metre final at the Seoul Olympics that had Canadians glued to their TV sets. I was one of them, having been allowed to stay up late with my parents that night, watching in our cigarette-smoke-filled, wood-paneled living room.
That race would see Johnson shatter his own previous world record by .04 seconds to run the 100-metre in 9.79 seconds in what was, at the time, the fastest 100m run ever.
I didn't know at the time, watching Johnson and my dad simultaneously thrust their fists in the air as the finish line neared—one of them about to briefly grasp Olympic gold and the other grasping a non-filtered Camel—that the ten seconds I had just watched would impact me for the next three decades.
Because my name, you see, is also Ben Johnson. And as you know, three days after that race was run, it was announced that the other Ben Johnson tested positive for stanozolol, a banned steroid, and was stripped of his medal and world record. And I haven't heard the end of it since.
In the days that immediately followed, Canada's reaction to the sprinter's misdeed was swift and merciless. Then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called it "a moment of great sorrow for all Canadians" and the Ottawa Citizen opted to forgo nuance in favour of a column by Earl McRae that opened with, "Thanks Ben, you bastard. Thanks for the humiliation, the embarrassment, the international disgrace."
The kids at Mountsfield Public School in London, Ontario, were perhaps not quite so eloquent in their criticisms of this Ben Johnson, but I assure you they were equally as harsh. It is a weird and unique experience, at age seven, to suddenly become both defensive and intimately aware of the issues related to doping in sports. The teasing was such that my parents even asked me, a couple weeks after the Olympics, if I wanted to change my name. Hell no, grade two me thought. He was the one who fucked up. Why should I change MY name? So the name stayed, and much to my chagrin, so did the jokes.
Yes, since that September day in 1988 when Johnson was stripped of his medal, essentially every time I have been introduced to someone since, I've had the misfortune of experiencing a pregnant pause where I await the inevitable. Usually, the response is something benign like, "You mean like the runner?" but often it's an attempt at humour. I can assure you, it's never, ever funny and so, given that we are now 30 years removed from that race, I'd like to propose something: Enough is fucking enough, already!
Please, try to understand where I'm coming from.
Virtually every dickhead teacher or professor taking my attendance for the first time since 1988 has seen fit to point out the fact that I have the same name as a disgraced sprinter (Notable exception: my Renaissance Lit prof who opted to ask me about Ben Jonson, playwright of The Alchemist fame). Every time I've started a new job, the office comedian has seized the opportunity to tell me I looked much different on TV. When I fail to leg-out a single in softball, my beer swilling teammates and friends can't resist the low-hanging fruit of a joke about my speed. "Ben Johnson?" the hotel clerks quip when I check in for a business trip, as my fingernails dig into the front desk of another Marriott. "Have you done any steroids lately?"
Frankly, it’s just lame. And, OK, for the record, technically yes, I once had to be on a steroid puffer briefly, but other than that, I have never done any god-damned steroids so can you all just fucking stop, please?
And it's not just me, of course, Ben Johnsons across Canada and the US are tired of your shitty jokes. So, at the very least, I can take solace in the fact that I'm not alone.
Ben Johnson is an actuary in Massachusetts. He was just 4 years old when the race happened, and while he says it's pretty rare that he gets any jokes or comments these days, he had the misfortune of running high school track and cross country from 2000-2002. "Mostly I heard from a couple coaches and parents," Johnson says. "Stuff like, 'Don’t turn into him,' and 'What’s your training like?' or 'Anything good in your backpack?' It was supposed to be in good fun; however, it did get annoying to continually hear it."
Ben Johnson, a data scientist who lives in the Greater Toronto Area, was a 2-year-old when the race occurred and, surprisingly, he says he doesn't really mind. "It has never bothered me that much to share the name," he says. "It can actually act as an ice breaker or conversation starter. Though, admittedly, it never starts a conversation that doesn't end forty seconds later with a half-forced laugh."
Ben Johnson, a filmmaker in Vancouver, was just 1 when the race happened but has, like me, felt the brunt all the infuriating times the other Ben has been foisted back on the public consciousness (See the "Cheetah all the time" energy drink fiasco). Thanks to the race and the trickle of public appearances since, filmmaker Ben says he still hears the jokes about once a month. "Back in my teens it was at least once a week, especially as I played on several sports teams it was a hot topic," he says. "In high school my older brother's friend would always crack a joke about my ability to take on a horse in a sprint," he says, in reference to the time Johnson took on a thoroughbred racehorse, a harness racing horse, and a stock car in a race on Prince Edward Island.
"I would love to have a beer with the guy," says the filmmaker. "I have been fortunate to work with Charmaine Crooks (Olympic Silver Medalist in the 1984 LA games 4X400m relay) a few times. She knew him well and speaks so many good things about him."
While other Ben Johnsons may differ slightly on how they feel about the jokes, and whether or not they want to hang out with the once fastest man alive, we can at the very least agree that it is exhausting and unoriginal. "I am most surprised by how consistent it has remained throughout the years," Ben Johnson, the data scientist, says. "Thirty years later and I probably hear it more often than I used to," he says. "But hey, if it makes the conversation less awkward as I wait in line, I'm all for it."
Personally, I am not all for it. In fact, for me, the need to respond to the lame jokes has become increasingly tiresome and, accordingly, my responses increasingly aggressive. I used to basically laugh it off. Then for years I half-heartedly pretended I had never heard the joke before, to make people feel stupid for thinking they were first. These days, I'm much more likely to just laugh like it's the funniest thing in the world and to sustain that laughter so long that it becomes awful and painful.
You want to make that terrible joke? Then I'm going to make things awkward for everyone in this room.
I don’t really expect anything to come from this article. Sure, I'd love an apology from that other Ben Johnson, but to this day he's never really even taken responsibility for doping. In fact, earlier this month, Johnson doubled down on his assertion that he was set up, telling a reporter, "I think it is destiny and my name will be cleared." He added, "There is politics in every sport. It's dirty, it's not good and I don't like it... I have no regrets." So it seems unlikely he and I will grab a beer and he'll say sorry. And, sure, I don't think it's unreasonable that I should receive a gold medal myself for never throat-punching anyone for cracking a dumb joke. Realistically, though, all I hope is that, the next time you meet a Ben Johnson—or hell, even a Lance Armstrong or a Marion Jones—and you think you've got something funny to say about their namesake, keep your fucking mouth shut.
We've all heard it before.