A day of reckoning

Ben Johnson admits that he took steroids

June 26 1989

A day of reckoning

Ben Johnson admits that he took steroids

June 26 1989

A day of reckoning


Ben Johnson admits that he took steroids

Did you state publicly to the Canadian people, Tm innocent and I never took any banned substances?’

Yes, sir.

Those statements were not true?

No, sir.

The world had waited almost nine months for Ben Johnson’s answers and, last week, he gave them under oath to a judge at a federal inquiry into drugs in sport. The sprinter’s account differed markedly from his initial declarations last fall that he had not used banned anabolic steroids in capturing an Olympic gold medal in the 100-m dash at the Seoul Summer Games. The man who raised his arm in victory on Sept. 24 over his U.S. rival Carl Lewis last week covered his eyes with his hand and admitted that he had cheated. Said Johnson in a halting voice, attempting to explain his deceit: “I lied, and I was ashamed for my family and friends and the kids who looked up to me and the Canadian athletes who want to be in my position.”

Johnson dispelled any lingering illusions about his past familiarity with steroids during six hours on the witness stand at the federal judicial inquiry before Mr. Justice Charles Dubin of the Ontario Supreme Court. Appearing in turn confident and confused, eager and hesitant, the compact 27-year-old runner testified that he had—with the help of others, including his physician Jamie Astaphan—swallowed or injected five performance-enhancing banned substances during a seven-year period leading up to Seoul.

But Johnson’s answers still did not fully explain why officials found traces of the steroid stanozolol in his urine after the Olympic race, which he ran in a world-record 9.79 seconds. Three days later—after he tested positive— International Olympic Committee officials stripped him of his crown and awarded the gold medal to second-place finisher Lewis of the United States, whose time was 9.92 seconds. Johnson told The Toronto Sun in a signed statement and interview last Sept. 30 that he had never “knowingly” taken banned substances. In addition, Johnson said that he would welcome a full investigation.

Johnson said that his use of steroids—synthetic forms of the male hormone testosterone that build muscle mass and allow athletes to train longer and harder—began in the fall of

1981. At the time, he testified, his coach, Charlie Francis, encouraged him to use the steroid tablets Dianabol. “He said the only way I was going to be better is to take drugs,” Johnson testified. Johnson added that no one ever told him about such potential side effects as liver damage. And he described his bitter-

ness after he was caught: “Jamie gave me a bottle, I’m not sure when, with a label in blue ink that says, ‘Do not take within 28 days of competition.’ ” Commission counsel Robert Armstrong asked, “What happened to it?” Replied Johnson: “When I got back from Seoul, I smashed it against the wall and threw it in the garbage.”

But Johnson boasted that he could still beat anyone in the world and told Dubin that he wants to compete again, drug-free, at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. “For which country?” asked Armstrong. “My own country—Canada,” Johnson replied.

Before his testimony ended last week, Johnson faced pointed observations from Dubin about his declarations to the Sun. “You know how important that was,” Dubin asked. Johnson: “I was wrong to say that, yes.” Added Dubin: “I think it’s fair to say most Canadians wanted to believe

that. You understand that—everybody felt fairly

kindly to you____What a disservice it was to sign a

statement like that and make the interview.” Johnson: “I did wrong. But, like I said, I was confused at the time.”

Currently, Johnson’s status as an athlete is in doubt. He continues to train regularly, without formal coaching, at Toronto’s York University. But both the London-based International Amateur Athletics Federation (IMF), the world governing body for track and field, and the Canadian Track and Field Association (CTFA) have suspended him from competition until September, 1990. Sport Canada, the federal agency that supports athletes, has cut off funding to Johnson for life. And he may lose his billing as “the world’s fastest man,” which he claimed in Rome in August, 1987: his time of 9.83 seconds for the 100 m still stands as the world record.

IAAF officials said that they plan to discuss rescinding that record at a meeting on Sept. 5 in Barcelona. The honor then would pass to Lewis, whose second-place time in Seoul is the third-fastest a man has been clocked covering 100 m. Lewis, who has denied ever taking banned substances himself, first hinted after the Rome race that Johnson was on drugs. But last week, Lewis praised Johnson for telling the truth at the inquiry and said that he hoped to race his rival again after the two-year suspension was up.

Last week, the CTFA banned Canadian hurdler Julie Rocheleau, who placed sixth in the 100-m hurdles at the Seoul Summer Games, for two years because of steroid use. Rocheleau, who is married to a Swiss citizen, denied taking banned drugs and told a news conference in Bern, Switzerland, that there were irregularities in the handling of her doping test.

She is scheduled to testify at the Dubin inquiry later this month.

At the Dubin inquiry, the CTFA came under attack during eight days of often-shocking testimony last winter. Coach Francis charged that CTFA president Jean-Guy Ouellette, for one, agreed to give Francis advance warning about supposedly random testing at track meets.The drugs were so prevalent in international competition, Francis and other witnesses have said, that sprinters had no chance of winning without using them. Outside the hearings, Ouellette denied the allegations and said that he would give his side of the story when he testifies in August.

From its very beginning, the Dubin inquiry has been extensively covered by foreign news media organizations, stirring controversy among athletes and sports officials in the United States, West Germany, Australia and else-

where. As a result, the press and broadcast media of the world were waiting when Johnson emerged from his dark-grey Ford Aerostar van and walked into the hearing room. He was wearing a double-breasted charcoal suit and appeared relaxed—and less bulky compared with the vision that flashed down the track in a red singlet and shorts only nine months ago. About 240 accredited camera operators, reporters and broadcasters from at least 100 organizations, ranging from Swedish to Japanese, jostled for position on the sidewalk and on the roofs of illegally parked vans. Said Anthony Caghlan, a reporter for Sydney-based Network Ten television in Australia: “Seoul has never been explained, and like everyone else in the world, we want to know about it.”

The answer to the major question—whether Johnson had, indeed, knowingly taken steroids—came during the first 90 minutes on

June 12. Johnson gave his answers calmly. He said that in August, 1983, at the Pan American Games in Caracas, he realized that some of “the bigger guys—shot-putters, javelin throwers”—left Venezuela before competition began because they were afraid of drug testing. And in frequently confused and contradictory testimony, he admitted in a series of answers to Armstrong’s questions that he was aware then that some of the drugs he was taking were steroids—and that he would be disqualified if tests found them to be in his system.

Still, when Johnson answered questions from his own lawyer, Edward Futerman—an exercise that lasted less than five minutes—he said that he blamed no one but himself for his steroid use. Then he said that he had a message for young athletes: “Be honest. Don’t take drugs. It happened to me—I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to cheat.” But some questions remained unanswered—particularly, why Johnson tested positive for the first time in Seoul, although he also had been checked randomly throughout his career. But later, outside the hearing room, Armstrong said that all the relevant evidence was before the commission. Declared Armstrong: “I am satisfied that the full story will get out.”

After Johnson’s appearance, some of the sprinter’s friends and fans insisted that he deserved another chance to compete—and the government’s assistance to do so. Toronto nurse Patricia Eversley, who had attended the hearings both days, criticized Canadians for their lack of support for Johnson. Said « Eversley: “He was left like I a sinking ship. We have to " accept responsibility—we pushed him to excel, all for our own pleasure.” And Kemeel Azan, Johnson’s friend and financial adviser, said that he had no doubt that Johnson could win at the next Summer Games in Spain. Declared Azan: “I don’t think there’s another human being in the world who has the intensity of his skill.”

Still, the shy, skinny 13-year-old youngster who, with his mother, brother and four sisters, left Jamaica for a new life in Toronto in 1976, is now a man with an uncertain future. Last week, he fleetingly scanned the side of the room where his mother was sitting, erect and tearful, before he told Dubin: “I feel it’s a good idea to come clean, to tell the world we can compete clean. Hopefully, all the countries will come together and compete fairly.” But as Ben Johnson stepped back into his van after the proceedings, surrounded by cheering boys and girls, it was not clear whether he himself would be participating. □