120 years, 120 stories (Part 39) : Ben Johnson and the ‘Dirtiest’ 100m ever


On September 24, 1988 Ben Johnson crafted one the quickest starts off the blocks and engineered it well for the next 9.79 seconds in a star-studded field to ensure an Olympic gold with a world record time. But neither the medal nor the record did sustain beyond the next couple of days.

In our special Olympic series observing 120 years of the biggest sporting event in the history of mankind, we have tried to bring in almost everything that the Games are all about – from fame to shame, from born-winners to hard-worked medal winners, from endurance to excellence and so on – the list seems to be an ending one. In this episode, we plan to take the readers back to the “controversial ever 100m” at the Seoul Games of 1988.

Benjamin Sinclair Johnson was a Jamaica-born speedster who represented Canada at the international level athletics. Johnson was a two-time Olympic bronze winner from the 1984 Los Angeles Games – in which the sports was taken to a new level by his American rival Carl Lewis who emulated Jesse Owens foursome at the do.

Johnson, who could first beat Lewis only in their ninth meeting, however transformed into an unbeatable entity post the Los Angeles Games. He started winning routinely the 100m at the major international platforms. At this point, he entered the Seoul Games as a strong-favourite to win the 100m.

He did perform up to the expectations. The “Big Ben” as he is called fondly became the first Canadian to win the most important track event in athletics in six decades. So far it looked like a dream run which soon got tarnished with allegations of doping. And who other than Carl Lewis – the American and Johnson were as immiscible as oil and water – could have made the toughest allegations!

In a controversial BBC interview, Carl Lewis stated, “There are gold medalists at this meet who are on drugs, that race will be looked at for many years, for more reasons than one.”

In reality, athletics in the 1980s were run on steroids which can be backed by the fact that six of the runners – including Olympic medal winning quartet of Carl Lewis, Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell and Desai Williams in the 100m final at Seoul did fail a drug test at some point in their career. Three days after the race, Johnson was disqualified for his urine sample contained banned stanozol and the gold went to second-placed Carl Lewis who achieved the rare feat of defending the 100m Olympic gold. The race touted as the “greatest ever” got relegated to the “dirtiest ever” in a span of 72 hours.

Ben Johnson went to Seoul as a proud Canadian but returned as a disgraced sprinter being denounced as a Jamaica-born. In his defence Johnson, who later served a ban till 1991, went on: “You only cheat if no one else was doing it. I was aware of what other people were doing in the field. I just did it better than anyone else. It doesn’t make you a fast runner … It was my training regime that was better than the rest of the world. My training was tailored for Ben Johnson and my coach was a genius. Now the whole world is using my program.”

Johnson was also skeptic of the Canadian government for openly criticizing him and not coming to his rescue. Even now, he feels vindicated due to his ethnicity.

In a Telegraph article on the 25th anniversary of his crestfallen race, Johnson stated, “I know what I did was wrong. Rules are rules. But the rules should be the same for all. But politics always plays in sports.”

Johnson made a comeback after his suspension period in 1991 but failed a subsequent drug test two years hence which made the IAAF ban him for life. Later in 1999 when the sprinter tried to come clean on allegations to his repeated drug offence, Johnson’s urine sample was found to be contaminated with hydrochlorothiazide – a banned diuretic used as a masking agent.

In a CBC radio documentary broadcasted on the occasion of 25th anniversary of the Seoul saga revealed that about 20 athletes were caught guilty of steroid use in the 1988 Olympics but were pardoned by the IOC.

Ben Johnson still fights the stigma of being the “fallen one” and the race still being disdained the “dirtiest one ever”. Concluding this piece quoting Johnson from the above cited Telegraph article, “I was nailed on a cross, and 25 years later I’m still being punished…Rapists and murderers get sent to prison, but even they get out eventually.”


Photo by adamgn