Rush to judgment: new book revisits the case of disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson

It was arguably the greatest moment in Canadian sports history — for about 36 hours. On September 24, 1988, Ben Johnson ran the 100-meter final at the Seoul Olympics in a record-setting 9.79 seconds. The Jamaican-born sprinter was the first Canadian to win the event since Percy Williams did it in Amsterdam in 1928. However, Johnson would be forced to give back his gold medal after testing positive for stanozolol, an anabolic steroid. Now, the author of a new book is revisiting the Johnson saga, casting the events in a new light.

“It happened so fast, and it was so scandalous at the time that very few questions were asked,” said Mary Ormsby, author of World’s Fastest Man* – The Incredible Life of Ben Johnson.

The journalist, broadcaster, and former Toronto Star sports editor calls her book part biography, part cold case.

Ormsby says what seemed like an open-and-shut example of doping back in 1988 didn’t hold up to closer scrutiny when she started digging a little deeper decades later.

“Over time, I’d kept in touch with Ben and I asked him, around 2016, ‘Do you still have your drug test?’ [because] I’d never seen it,” she said.

“And that began a paper trail, because, no, he didn’t have it, so I had to go dig [for] it. So, the paper trail began around 2016.”

She argues Johnson may have been denied due process when he was disqualified.

“I began looking at things like his drug test, IOC notes from that time, [and] that’s when I thought, ‘You know what? There was something kind of funky going on in that hearing in Seoul.’ And Ben may have had a chance to have launched a better defence had he been better equipped,” she said.

“There was evidence that wasn’t looked at. The Canadian contingent defending him didn’t even look at his drug test. And there are many things he could have challenged. There was evidence used against him that came out of the blue. They had no disclosure, no chance.”

“As a Canadian, as an Olympian, Ben had a right to a fair and proper hearing. I think he might have actually kept his medal had they gone to the mat for him and threw all the artillery at that hearing the way, let’s say, the Americans would have done.”

Ormsby says Johnson was part of a culture of doping at the time and had been using steroids for years.

“Ben is not blameless in all this. He broke a rule. He knew he was breaking a rule,” she said. “But to him and his coach, Charlie Francis, they were just keeping up with the Joneses at the time. They figured everybody else who was any good was doing it, so we should do it as well.”

Johnson maintains he hadn’t used steroids while in Seoul, as he felt they wouldn’t enhance his speed.

Ormsby says he quickly became a lightning rod for cheating in athletics, but he was far from the only one doing it. His archrival, the American Carl Lewis, who placed second in that 100-meter race, had failed three doping tests the summer before the Seoul Olympics, a fact kept secret for over a decade.

“Carl Lewis was an enormous star,” she said. “He’d won four golds at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and he was able to wiggle out of his drug problems at the US Olympic trials because, first of all, the U.S. officials are very strong, and Lewis did not test positive for a steroid. He had stimulants in his urine, and you’re allowed to have a little bit, but not a lot. [So,] you can argue it a little bit.”

“But, at the time, he probably should have been suspended [for] at least three months, and he would have missed the Olympic Games. And that would have been an entirely different conversation, had that had happened, because then Carl Lewis would have been the first enormous star across the globe to fail a drug test, not Ben Johnson.”

Then there is the issue of the so-called “mystery man” seen in the high-security doping room at the time Johnson was submitting his urine test after the 100-meter final. Even now, Johnson is convinced this person either spiked his post-race beer or, at the very least, knows more than he is letting on. That mystery man has since been identified as Andre Jackson, a member of the Carl Lewis entourage. Decades later, Jackson remains coy about his role in the saga, as Ormsby lays out in the book.

She says drugs remain an issue in sports, even today.

“So, have we come any further? I think it’s probably harder to cheat these days,” she said. “But at the end of the day, athletes still feel they need that extra edge, and it’s not always as pure as we hope it would be.”

Ormsby says that’s why Johnson’s story still resonates.

“There are still so many questions going into the Paris Olympics about who’s cheating, who’s covering it up, and what about this anti-doping system we have now. Ben’s positive [test] did not end doping, as everyone thought it would in 1988.”

As for Johnson, he is still looking for redemption. He has resurfaced in the public eye several times over the years, whether as a personal trainer for Argentinian soccer legend Diego Maradona or Saad Gaddafi, son of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, or as a pitchman for the Cheetah Power Surge energy drink.

Ormsby hopes the reader is left with an impression of Johnson that goes beyond the headlines.

“I’m hoping that they understand that Ben was not a one-dimensional cartoon character,” she said. “In some ways, the book is also a character study of a Canadian who was involved in this iconic moment, and he has not been fully understood all these decades, I think, until now.”

“So, I’m hoping that they understand a young Canadian at the time probably didn’t get all the due process, not just in Seoul, but I’m talking about [in] the media as well. Like, I think I could have done a better job back in 1988. Better late than never, I guess.”

World’s Fastest Man* is a compelling page-turner of a book that offers new insights into a story that most of us only thought we knew. It may not change your mind about Johnson, but it certainly adds complexity to a story that isn’t as simple or black-and-white as we first thought.

World’s Fastest Man* — The Incredible Life of Ben Johnson is published by Sutherland House.

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