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"We love you, but you're guilty": The story of sprinter Ben Johnson 

Tainted sprinter Ben Johnson
Modified 09 Jan 2018, 20:44 IST

1988 didn't start well for Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson. In February, he pulled a hamstring muscle. In May, he injured his leg. In June, he broke away from Charlie Francis who had been his coach for over a decade.

Soon, Johnson realised his coach's true worth and they reconciled weeks before the Seoul Olympics. Johnson ran well in the heats and before the final started, he was touted as the favourite to win the gold medal. In the final, long-time rival Carl Lewis was in lane 3. Johnson was in lane 6. They were separated by Linford Christie and Calvin Smith. Johnson sprang out of the blocks in a flash and won the contest comfortably.

Lewis knew that something was wrong but decided to keep mum. He walked up to Johnson, shoot his hands, and walked away. The Canadian fans kept on chanting, "When the gun go off, the race be over!"

Canada was proud of her son. The headline in the Toronto Star summed up the mood: "Ben Johnson - A National Treasure".

Ben Johnson was born in Jamaica on December 30th, 1961. At the age of 14, he moved to Toronto and from then on, became a citizen of Canada. Johnson progressed rapidly in his adopted country and by the end of the 1970s, was creating news in the athletics circuit.

Johnson first encountered Carl Lewis on August 29th, 1980. Lewis won that one and the story remained that way till 1985. Then, all of a sudden, Johnson started to win everything he participated in. He had developed a reputation as a very fast starter who was good at driving home the advantage he gained as soon as the gun-sound became audible.

He won the 1987 World Championships in Rome, beating arch-rival Carl Lewis. Lewis didn't take any names but indicated that he thought some athletes were taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Lewis' view was supported by many. Johnson's abnormally strong muscles and yellow-ish eyes helped the rumour gain credibility. Johnson had his haters and they made sure he had a nickname Benoid.

So, when 'Benoid' won in Seoul, people raised their eyebrows but there were others who dismissed all allegations against their hero. Johnson's urine sample was delivered to the Olympic Doping Control Center, numbered, and divided into two parts labelled "A" and "B". 


The testing centre, not knowing whose sample they tested, found that sample "A" was positive. The IOC's medical commission wrote a letter to the Canadian Chef de Mission, informing her about the developments. Three hours later, the "B" sample was tested and that too turned out to be positive.

At 3: 30 am, the chef de mission visited Johnson to collect the gold medal. She could only utter these words: "We love you. But you're guilty." At 10 am, the IOC called an emergency press conference to let the world know the news.

Back in Canada, the government hastily ordered for an inquiry. Testifying before the commission, Francis and Johnson's doctor revealed that the sprinter started taking steroids as early as in 1981.

In June 1989, Johnson appeared before the commission and accepted all charges against him. He was asked whether he had any message for young athletes all over the world. A teary-eyed Johnson told, "I want to tell them to be honest and don't take drugs. It happened to me. I have been there. I know what it's like to cheat."

He made a successful comeback in Barcelona Olympics and reached the semi-finals. On January 17, 1993, he was again tested positive for drugs and was banned for life.

Published 31 Dec 2017, 01:57 IST
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