Ever since the federally appointed inquiry into the use of drugs in sports began hearings in January, Dr. George Mario (Jamie) Astaphan had been one of the most eagerly awaited witnesses. As sprinter Ben Johnson’s personal physician since 1983, Astaphan was expected to know exactly why the runner—who has yet to testify—tested positive for anabolic steroids at last summer’s Olympic Games in Seoul, and was stripped of his gold medal. When Astaphan appeared before the inquiry last week, he fulfilled many expectations. He played a tape recording of a conversation that he said had taken place between him and Johnson in January, 1988. On the tape, a man whom Astaphan identified as Johnson admitted that he used steroids. Astaphan declared that he taped his conversations with athletes “to make sure they understood they were taking anabolic steroids, so that my tail would be covered too.”
In his dramatic testimony, Astaphan acknowledged that he had prescribed drugs for 14 Canadian athletes, including Johnson, and
sometimes personally administered the drugs to some of the athletes. That contradicted the doctor’s earlier denials that he had supplied Johnson with steroids. At the same time, in his testimony before the inquiry under Mr. Justice Charles Dubin of the Ontario Supreme Court, the 43-year-old Astaphan appeared to take the position that he was doing his duty as a physician by helping athletes who were already using banned drugs to improve their athletic performance. Said Astaphan: “The axiom among track and field and other athletes was, ‘If you don’t take it, you won’t make it.’ So if I didn’t monitor them and if I didn’t give it to them, they were going to get it elsewhere, and most of them had got it elsewhere.”
Astaphan’s testimony also dealt a further blow to Johnson’s own claim, made shortly after his disgrace in Seoul, that he never “knowingly” used illegal drugs. Earlier witnesses, including several of Johnson’s track and field teammates and his coach, Charlie Francis, testified that Astaphan provided Johnson and others with banned drugs, including anabolic steroids—synthetic versions of the male hormone testosterone that improve muscle development and performance.
Astaphan, who practised in Warkworth, Ont., and Toronto before moving back to his native St. Kitts—a Caribbean island—in 1986, told the inquiry that he began recording some of his conversations with athletes after Johnson and several other people indicated that he might be forced to take the blame if a scandal erupted over steroid use. In a conversation that
he said he taped on Jan. 27, 1988, Astaphan asked Johnson, “You haven’t used any of the white stuff—the steroid—since December?” The voice that the doctor said was Johnson’s replied, “Part of it, yeah.”
Later, Astaphan asked,
“Charlie [Francis] hasn’t given you any steroid shots or anything by mistake?” Replied the voice: “No.”
Astaphan rejected suggestions that Johnson may not have fully understood that the drugs he was using were banned by Canadian and international track and field authorities. Astaphan also said that he injected drugs—including vitamin mixtures, growth hormones and anabolic steroids—into the athlete up to 60 times between 1984 and 1988. When commission counsel Robert Armstrong asked Astaphan whether they discussed the drugs, he replied, “All the time, he was very inquisitive.” When pressed further about whether Johnson understood that he was using illegal substances, Astaphan replied, “Absolutely.”
On the witness stand, Astaphan, who is under investigation by the Ontario College of
Physicians and Surgeons, blinked frequently and sometimes appeared not to understand questions. Despite that, he testified in a relaxed tone of voice and made sardonic jokes. At one point Dubin asked Astaphan to explain how he knew what was in 48 vials containing a milky-white liquid that he received in a trade with an East German athlete in 1985. Astaphan responded that the unidentified athlete told him the vials contained Miotolin—the trade name for the anabolic steroid generically known as furazabol. “I didn’t have it analysed. I couldn’t take it to the IOC, could I?” said Astaphan, in a reference to the International Olympic Committee, which oversees the games. Astaphan also maintained that he was following the College’s own 1983 guidelines on the use of steroids. He said that the College did not issue a strong antisteroid directive until November, 1988—two “ months after the Seoul Olympics.
Astaphan claimed that steroids are not harmful if taken in recommended doses. Although some doctors say they cause side effects ranging from acne to elevated blood pressure and liver damage, Astaphan said that
there had been only one documented case of an athlete dying from steroid-induced liver damage. He said that the athlete had been on a massive steroid program for four years. Said Astaphan: “The side effects have been tremendously exaggerated and the athletes all know that.”
Astaphan also said that the steroids he supplied did not cause Johnson to fail his drug test in Seoul, because he knew how to “quite easily” beat any drug detection test by using prescribed drugs and chemicals. The doctor repeatedly insisted that Johnson had not, since 1985, taken the steroid Winstrol—a brand name for the stanozolol detected in his urine sample in Seoul last fall. Since 1985, he said, Johnson and other Canadians on a steroid program used a supply of the steroid furazabol, provided by the unidentified East German athlete.
The doctor said that after the steroid stanozolol was found in Johnson’s blood in Seoul, the sprinter indicated that he had only used the furazabol prescribed by Astaphan. Added the physician: “I came to the conclusion he had done something he didn’t want us to find out. He had a sheepish look as though he had done something, and now he was sorry.” The final mystery of how Johnson came to spoil the biggest race of his life in Seoul will likely not be answered until the runner himself takes the witness stand—probably later this month.
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