WAS HE DRUGGED? AFTER THE GAMES, BEN JOHNSON’S FIGHT TO PROVE HE WAS ‘CLEAN’
THE STEROID SCANDAL
WAS HE DRUGGED? AFTER THE GAMES, BEN JOHNSON’S FIGHT TO PROVE HE WAS ‘CLEAN’
In the darkest hour of his life, Ben Johnson lay motionless on his hotel bed, clad in a white Tshirt and covered only by a sheet. He listened in stunned silence as Carol Anne Letheren, chef de mission of Canada’s delegation to the Seoul Summer Games, repeated what he already knew: that a second test had confirmed the presence in his urine of traces of stanozolol, a banned anabolic steroid. It was 3:30 a. m., Sept. 27, and in the chill Asian dawn, Letheren had come to take back the Olympic gold medal that Johnson had captured just 62 hours earlier and that now lay on his bedside table, still attached to its red, white and blue ribbon. “Ben, ” she said, “we love you, but you’re guilty.”
He was a rocket, a role model, a national hero. He was the world’s fastest human and, to Canadians, he was never Johnson, just Ben. In the glare of the Olympic spotlight, he had vanquished his American archrival Carl Lewis in a 100-m explosion of nearly superhuman speed, smashing his own world record in the process. But when the steroid scandal burst upon the world last week, Canadians, who had risen as one to applaud Johnson’s triumph, doubled over in sickened
disbelief, taking Johnson’s humiliation as their own. Children wept openly. Many people clutched at faint hopes of some innocent explanation. Others branded Ben as a betrayer, a cheat. But as the week wore on, and as increasing attention turned to the role of the runner’s entourage, more and more Canadians contended that Johnson was not a villain but a victim. “Part of the tragedy may be that Ben was not acting alone,” said Roger Jackson, president of the Canadian Olympic Association. “If he was not, it would be unfair if the people around him do not pay the price, too.”
Johnson’s dramatic downfall—after winning the glamor event of the glittering Games—set off the worst scandal in Olympic history. It captured headlines around the globe and cast the world’s eye into the shady corner of drugs in sport—and particularly on steroids, synthetic versions of the male hormone testosterone that are widely believed to boost strength and endurance. Nine other
Olympians from six other nations also tested positive for banned substances. Still others dropped out of the competition. Nearly lost in the clamor were fine performances last week among those who did compete in the xxiv Olympiad (page 57). Among the Canadians, synchronized swimmer Carolyn Waldo grabbed two gold medals—one in a solo performance and a second in a dual performance with Michelle Cameron—and decathlete Dave Steen surprisingly took a bronze; sailors Frank McLaughlin and John Millen also scored a bronze; and, on Sunday in Seoul, boxer Lennox Lewis won a gold medal.
But it was the story of the 26-year-old Johnson that continued to captivate the Canadian public—a story that was at once a mystery, a cautionary tale and, above all, a personal tragedy. The cast of characters includes Johnson’s personal doctor, Mario Astaphan; his Virginia-based manager, Larry
Heidebrecht; and his coach, Charlie Francis—an inner circle of handlers who came under widespread suspicion but vehemently proclaimed their innocence (page 54). “I can tell you unequivocally,” Astaphan told Maclean’s, “that the [steroid in Johnson’s system] didn’t come from me, from Charlie or any one of the entourage.” In fact, Heidebrecht alleged darkly that some outsider may have spiked Johnson’s water bottle. “This was something that happened in the warm-up area or in the testing area itself,” he insisted. Johnson himself, in a letter published at week’s end in the Toronto Sun, stated that “I have never knowingly taken illegal drugs nor have had illegal drugs administered to me.” Olympic laboratory officials, however, said that the steroid was plainly present and they dismissed claims of race-time sabotage. They maintained that the runner’s urine profile indicated long-term steroid usage and that he had apparently stopped taking the drug several days or weeks before the Games. Robert Dugal, a Montreal scientist and a member of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission, said that unless Johnson was tricked, he was “careless, ill-advised or someone miscalculated.”
The price of that error was punishingly clear. Not only did the 100-m gold go to American Carl Lewis, but the International Amateur Athletics Federation banned John-
son from its sanctioned competitions for two years. In Ottawa, Federal Sport Minister Jean Charest banned Johnson for life from Canada’s national team and from Sport Canada funding—about $650 a month. But two days later, under an avalanche of opposition criticism in the Commons that Johnson had not been given a fair hearing, Charest softened, announcing a government inquiry into the affair and expressing the wistful hope that the gold medal might one day be returned. Still, Johnson’s commercial contracts for everything from shoes to milk began to dry up, and the golden promise of millions more in endorsement dollars disappeared overnight—leaving the Jamaican immigrant with an uncertain future at best (page 53). Said his Canadian agent, Glen Calkins: “God is going to have to come out of the heavens to fix this one.”
Far from divine intervention, Johnson seemed to be in the hands of a particularly cruel fate. Returning home through airports in New York City and Toronto, Johnson— silent, visibly exhausted and at times tearful—was hustled through a crush of unruly reporters and cameramen; such scenes provoked Canada’s Jackson to compare Johnson bitterly to “a wild, caged animal being carted around and poked by sticks.”
For the next several days, the runner remained in his modest brick house in suburban
Toronto, while groups of children outside chanted, “We love Ben,” and media hordes tried vainly for an interview. In fact, just minutes after Johnson returned his medal, Heidebrecht had begun negotiating the sale—for a reported $600,000—of an exclusive interview with the runner to Stern, a West German weekly newsmagazine. But there were reports of disagreements within the Johnson camp, and when Heidebrecht showed up at Johnson’s house last Thursday saying, “Ben, let me in,” he was denied entry. Later, with the Stern deal apparently off, Johnson and his advisers decided that he should speak first to Canadians through the letter and an interview with the Toronto Sun. Said Johnson: “I want my name to be cleared.”
For years, Johnson’s growing muscles and startling success had fuelled rumors of steroid use. “To many of us on the circuit,” said French sprinter Daniel Sangouma, “Ben’s name had long ago become ‘Benoid.’ ” In August, 1987, after Johnson outran Lewis in Rome—setting a new world record of 9.83 seconds—Lewis hinted that the Canadian was on drugs, although postrace tests proved negative. Last week, Gary Lubin, a coach at Toronto’s Mazda Optimist track club of which Johnson is a member, told the CBC’s The National of a disturbing conversation. He said that Astaphan, Johnson’s doctor, had
'GOD IS GOING TO HAVE TO COME OUT OF THE HEAVENS TO FIX THIS ONE’
informed him that he gave Johnson “a little something extra, both four days before the Rome race and four hours before, and, boy, did that ever help.” According to Lubin, when he asked if it was something illegal, Astaphan replied, “Well, we had to mask it.”
Astaphan adamantly denied the charge. “No such conversation took place,” he told Maclean’s. And the physician, 42, also denied the specifics of a cover story last week in the American weekly Sports Illustrated. Quoting two unnamed sources, the magazine charged that Astaphan injected the sprinter with anabolic steroids last May on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, where he practises. Johnson had travelled there to receive treatment for a pulled left hamstring. According to the article, Johnson and Astaphan discussed how Johnson could fool the doping tests in Seoul and other meets before the Games, although Johnson spoke of his eagerness to get off drugs once the Olympics were over. The article also implied that after two disturbing losses in Europe in August, Johnson again used steroids.
In the Maclean’s interview, Astaphan called Sports Illustrated’s accusations “total, unadulterated lies,” and threatened to sue “everybody” who repeated its charges. The treatment in St. Kitts, Astaphan said, had been primarily “sea-water therapy”— strengthening muscles by running while sub-
merged in the sea. He did give Johnson three injections of corticosteroids to combat inflammation, he added; these substances—not to be confused with anabolic steroids—reproduce properties of hormones normally produced by the adrenal cortex and are not banned when used to treat a specific injury. Astaphan contended that he did not know how stanozolol could have got into Johnson’s system.
“I don’t like to accuse anybody until we get the facts,” he said.
Johnson stated that Astaphan did give him injections—which the doctor said were cortisone shots—just days before the race. Astaphan also mixed a drink of sarsaparilla and ginseng that Johnson drank in pre-Olympics training and in Seoul, the runner said. He added that he does not suspect Astaphan of any wrongdoing.
“He is like a father to me,”
Johnson said. But at week’s end, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario—where Astaphan is also licensed—announced that it was launching an offi-
cial investigation into the doctor’s handling of Johnson. Astaphan had visited the college offices and denied any improper behavior.
The bare facts of what happened in South Korea are clear enough. As the last notes of 0 Canada faded from Seoul’s Olympic Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Sept. 24, Johnson stepped down from the winner’s podium and walked through a tunnel to the doping control station, a supposedly secure area where athletes were expected to provide urine samples. In fact, witnesses told Canadian Olympic officials that dozens of unauthorized people wandered through the doping station during the nearly two hours that it took Johnson to produce a sample. Afterward, Johnson signed a formal statement saying that the specimen was his own and, that night, went dancing at a Seoul disco. The first intimations of trouble emerged on Sunday evening. At about 8 p.m., Canada’s Dugal was sitting at the Shilla Hotel in downtown Seoul, at a regular meeting of the IOC medical commission, when a courier handed him the results of Johnson’s first sample analysis. Dugal read the results and swore out loud. “My first reaction,” he recalled, “was that this was going to be a tragic episode.” On Monday, tests on the second sample also showed stanozolol. Dr. William Stanish, chief medical officer of the Canadian national team, said that he had been asking the Johnson camp for months to supply him with a routine accounting of the medications that the runner had been taking. But only on Monday afternoon did Johnson hand him seven or eight sample pills, and only that night, as the 23-member IOC commission met to decide on its action, did he receive a list of what the pills were. Even then, Stanish said, “a good number of the things were not identified.”
At about 2 a.m. Tuesday, more than three hours after the meeting had begun, the commission voted to strip Johnson of his medal. Reports of the scandal created a worldwide sensation. “Cheat!” screamed the headline in London’s Daily Mirror, while Abendzeitung of Munich dubbed Johnson “a doping sinner.” In Falmouth, Jamaica, the seaside village where Ben grew up, postvictory celebrations gave way to disbelief. “I suspect some foul play by Carl Lewis,” said fisherman Berris Smith. “Americans are poor losers—they didn’t even admit to losing the Vietnam War.” In Canada, 12-year-old Brian Macphee of Charlottetown moaned: “Ben let us down. He was our hero.” Others suspected a conspiracy. “I don’t think he did it,” insisted Jeff Derksen, 16, of Winnipeg. “I think it was placed in his water bottle.” Meanwhile, Johnson’s girlfriend, Angela Santos, insisted that
JOHNSON INSISTS THAT HE NEVER KNOWINGLY USED ANABOLIC STEROIDS
the health-conscious sprinter was “incapable of taking steroids”—while showing off her own bikini - clad physique in a Toronto newspaper.
Meanwhile, in Seoul, the Canadian trackand-field team, holding an emergency meeting, offered to undergo testing when they returned home in an effort to clear the air. Instead, the team only fell deeper into disarray. Mark McKoy, a 26-year-old Canadian who was scheduled to compete in the sprint relay, left right after the meeting and flew to Los Angeles, where he told reporters that he was too “depressed” to compete. Another sprinter, 29-year-old Desai Williams—a club mate of Johnson’s at Toronto’s Mazda Optimist track club—failed to show up for practice and was dropped from the relay team, although he was eventually reinstated.
As the situation grew more bizarre, sprinter Angella Issajenko, also a Mazda Optimist member, caused raised eyebrows by expressing fears that she would test positive for steroids. Speaking to reporters, Issajenko, 30, claimed that “someone very close to us”— she would not provide names—had been drugging them. “The second week here,” she explained, “I started getting very muscular.” Some Canadian runners called for an investigation into the Mazda club itself, while others just bemoaned what had become of their Olympic experience. “I’ve been walking around with my Canada jacket on and hearing a lot of giggles,” said Jamaican-born sprinter Carl Folkes. “I just have to turn my head.
I’m proud to be a Canadian.”
The Johnson debacle also made a mockery of Ottawa’s antidoping policies. Sport Minister Charest said that he had “heard rumors” before the Games that Johnson might be on steroids—leading to harsh criticism from the opposition. Said Liberal MP Warren Allmand: “The minister could have prevented this whole sad affair if he had taken the appropriate measures at that time.” Charest also said that his office was working to implement random drug testing without prior notice and to persuade other nations to adopt the same policy.
There were no real winners in the Johnson scandal. Lewis’s 100-m gold will be forever tainted. The Seoul organizers, who avoided the usual Olympic nightmares of boycott and terrorism, staged impressive Games that, unfortunately, will forever be remembered for their debasement by drugs. Canada, and especially its children, lost a real-life superhero and perhaps some innocence. But the biggest loser of all is plainly Johnson himself. Last week, professional football teams in the United States and Canada phoned his agent to inquire whether the world’s fastest man can also catch a football. But even if Johnson does find some other lucrative calling, his true dream of Olympic gold is apparently gone for good. He pursued it over three continents and a dozen years, only to watch it vanish— along with the life of ease and adulation that was its alluring promise—in less than the 9.79 seconds that it took to win.
BOB LEVIN with CHRIS WOOD and HAL QUINN in Seoul, JOHN BIERMAN, NORA UNDERWOOD and ANN FINLAYSON in Toronto, THERESA TEDESCO and MARC CLARK in Ottawa, MARTIN STUART-HUARLE in Falmouth, and correspondents’ reports
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