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Positive tests strip runner of Seoul gold

Ben Johnson defeats Carl Lewis, but quickly loses distinction as world's fastest human.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 4, 1999

On Saturday, Ben Johnson was the world's fastest human.

On Monday, he was a disgrace.

The Canadian sprinter beat the United States' Carl Lewis in the 100 meters in the 1988 Seoul Olympics with a time of 9.79 seconds, breaking the world record of 9.83 he set at the 1987 World Championships. And he could have run faster. As Johnson approached the finish line, he eased up and raised his right hand in a victory salute.

Within moments, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney telephoned Johnson with congratulations and told him: "There is an explosion of joy here in Ottawa. You have made all of Canada proud."

But Proverbs 16:18 tells us: "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall." In the Olympics and other international track and field competitions, medalists and other finishers picked at random are required after their event to give a urine sample to be tested for the presence of drugs.

If a test reveals a banned substance, a second test is required. If that result is positive, the athlete and his coach are told.

When Lewis lost to Johnson at the World Championships, the U.S. sprinter, without mentioning names, said some "champions in this meet" had used performance-enhancing drugs.

At Seoul, both Johnson's post-race drug tests were positive. They showed traces of stanozolol, a water-based steroid similar to the male hormone testosterone.

On Monday, Sept. 26, as word of the test results spread through the Olympics and around the world, Johnson met with International Olympic Committee and Canadian Olympic Association officials.

At about 10:30 p.m., Johnson surrendered the gold medal. Shortly thereafter, he left Korea, refusing to talk to the media horde at the Seoul Airport.

Canadian Richard Pound, an IOC vice president, attended the meeting. He said Johnson denied using a steroid. "He sat there looking like a trapped animal. ... He said he didn't do anything wrong and he hadn't taken anything," Pound said.

Johnson's coach, his manager and some Canadian Olympic officials said Johnson could have taken the banned substance accidentally or his test sample could have been sabotaged. But with no evidence to support those claims, the IOC rejected them. And Pound acknowledged that the chemical analysis indicated a "chronic suppression of his adrenal functions," meaning Johnson had been using stanozolol for an extended period.

In 1993, Johnson was banned from international competition for life when another test found high levels of testosterone.

In his disgrace, Johnson served one noble purpose. A spotlight was shone on the shadowy world of performance-enhancing drug use; it spurred changes in attitudes and hastened the introduction of reforms and safeguards.

-- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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