Len Bias Remembered

Len Bias was drafted by the Celtics during the 1986 NBA Draft. He was expected to be one of the greats. But all promise ended in tragedy two days later.
22 year-old Len Bias was drafted by the Celtics during the 1986 NBA Draft. He was expected to be one of the greats. He was even compared to Michael Jordan. But all promise ended in tragedy two days later.

Today is the birthday of basketball player Len Bias. He’d be 50 years old today. It’s one thing for a life to be cut short early but it’s another to see how much has happened since.

Bias was born in Landover, Maryland and grew up there attending high school in Hyattsville. His nickname since childhood was ‘Frosty.’ He then attended the University of Maryland upon graduation. His freshman year didn’t start well and most coaches saw him as raw and undisciplined. The 6’8″ Bias would develop into an All-American player in the latter years. His junior year proved impressive as he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring and was named the ACC’s Player Of The Year. His senior season was highlighted by a performance against top-ranked North Carolina where he scored 35 points including 7 in the last 3 minutes of regulation and 4 in overtime. At the end of that season, Bias collected his second ACC Player Of The Year award and was named to two All America teams.

Right in his senior year, basketball fans were very impressed with Len Bias. His most impressive traits were his amazing jumping ability, his physical stature and his ability to create plays and was considered one of the most impressive players in the United States. NBA scouts in 1986 already had seen him as the most complete forward of the Class of 1986. Even Boston Celtics scout Ed Badger said of him:  “He’s maybe the closest thing to Michael Jordan to come out in a long time. I’m not saying he’s as good as Michael Jordan, but he’s an explosive and exciting kind of player like that.”

On June 17, 1986, the 1986 NBA Draft took place at Madison Square Gardens. Bias was the second overall pick and he was picked for the Boston Celtics. He admitted that he always wanted to play for the Celtics: “and my dream’s come true.” He and his family returned back to his home in suburban Maryland later that day. The following day, Bias and his father flew to Boston for an NBA club draft acceptance and a product endorsement signing ceremony with the Celtics coaches and management. Bias was also in talks with Reebok for a five-year endorsement package worth $1.6 million. It seemed like it was all uphill from there.

After returning home to Washington, Bias retrieved his newly leased sports car and drove back to his dorm room at the University of Maryland campus. He left campus at around 2am on June 19 and drove to an off-campus gathering, which he attended briefly before returning to his dorm in Washington Hall at 3am. It was at that time Bias and his friends used cocaine. According to friends accounts, Bias felt pains in his chest, had a seizure and collapsed around 6:30am that morning while talking to teammate Terry Long. At 6:32am while friend Brian Tribble made the 911 call, Bias was unconscious and not breathing. That was echoed in Tribble’s haunting 911 message: “This is Len Bias. You have to get him back to life. There’s no way he can die. Seriously sir. Please come quick.” All attempts at resuscitation from paramedics in the ambulance were unsuccessful. Additional attempts to revive Bias were made upon his arrival at Leland Memorial Hospital in the Emergency Room but it was all to no avail. At 8:55 on the morning of June 19, 1986, Leonard Kevin Bias was pronounced dead. He was only 22.

Len’s death was a shocking blow to those who knew him and those who followed basketball. Four days after his death, more than 11,000 people packed the Cole Field House at the University of Maryland for a memorial service. Speaking at the service was Celtics manager Red Auerbach, who said he had planned to draft Bias with the Celtics for three years. Michael Jordan sent the Bias family their first set of flowers: peonies, Larry Bird sent the second set of flowers, President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy sent sympathy cards as well as other heads of state, athletes called the Bias house. The popularity of Len Bias surprised his mother. The Celtics honored Bias with their own memorial service on June 30th that year. At that service, Len’s mother Lonise was given his never-used Boston Celtics jersey with his Celtics number 30 on it.

The reason why I’m focusing on Len’s death has a lot to do about the year he was born: 1963. 1963 was also the year a lot of legendary NBA greats were born: Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Spud Webb, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, and most notably Michael Jordan. The era in which they played in from the late-80’s to the 90’s would be an era that would change the NBA forever.

Without a doubt, Michael Jordan was king. He was not only famous for his playing style and his NBA record breaking but for his immense endorsement marketability. Everything Jordan touches, everything Jordan wore, everything Jordan ate saw sales reach impressive totals. He was Madison Avenue’s dream. Even his shoe endorsed by Nike, the Air Jordan, sold large enough to make the company the top athletic wear company. Hey, I don’t call the Air Jordan “the shoe that changed the world” for nothing. The shoe was originally meant to be an athletic shoe but Michael’s popularity eventually turned it into a staple of streetwear. I remember the popularity of Air Jordans too well. I wanted to be different and wore L.A. Gears with snazzy-colored triple laces hoping to make Air Jordans wearers envious. It didn’t work because it wasn’t how cool your shoes looked; it’s whether they were Air Jordans or not.

Michael Jordan may have been king during that time but it also worked magic for the whole NBA too. In the few years just before Jordanmania, the NBA was already doing well with the star power of Larry Bird, Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, Julius ‘Dr. J.’ Erving and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. However it was Jordan who created the revolution with a superstardom that even surpassed the best baseball players and football players at the time. His popularity catapulted the NBA from simply being a third major sports league to even rivaling the popularity of baseball and football. Seven new NBA franchises have since started up since his popularity. Sportswear and athletic uniforms, especially basketball jerseys and anything with Chicago Bulls, were a men’s wear phenomenon. Other basketball teams also sold a lot of sportswear like the San Antonio Spurs, L.A. Lakers and the Charlotte Hornets. I remember I did the Phoenix Suns because I was tired of all this Chicago Bulls stuff and also because I liked Charles Barkley.

Also Jordan may have been the Babe Ruth of his time but his megastar status helped promote other basketball stars like David Robinson, Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Isaiah Thomas and Shaquille O’Neal to superstar status. Yeah, basketball players sure got the rock star treatment back then. We should also not forget the Dream Team. That was the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team whose twelve team members consisted of eleven NBA greats. That was when NBA professionals were allowed for the time to compete in the Olympic Games. Since Jordan’s retirement, the NBA still thrives well but still lacks the glory days of the late 80’s and 90’s. Even today’s top NBA star Lebron James isn’t able to fill Jordan’s shoes.

Okay, now that I’ve talked of all this, you may wonder what does that have to do with Len Bias? As I mentioned, Bias was born the same year as a lot of NBA greats including Jordan. Ever since I saw the 30 For 30 documentary Without Bias, directed by Kirk Fraser, it left me wondering what would have happened to Bias had he not taken that fatal dose? It’s not just how well Bias could’ve excelled in the NBA that had me thinking. Sometimes I think it could’ve been the Celtics who could have most rivaled the Lakers and the Bulls for major NBA championships during that time. The Celtics could have had the power duo of ‘Bird and Bias.’ When I think of all those sneakers that were advertised during that period of time, I wonder what type of Reebok posters Len would’ve had? Even in thinking of the Dream Team of 1992, I wonder would Len have been part of the Dream Team? Those are questions no one will ever know the answer to.

A tragedy like that is always a sad occasion leaving me and others asking ‘why’ and ‘what if?’ You wonder would any good come out of it? Good did come out of it. One thing we should remember is Bias’ overdose came while cocaine was the biggest problem in the War On Drugs at the time. The basic powdered cocaine was already an epidemic and crack was already starting to create its own problems. Tribble was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Bias’ University of Maryland teammates Terry Long and David Gregg were charged with possession of cocaine and were dropped from the team. Tribble would later be convicted of drug dealing and be sentenced to ten years in prison. The University of Maryland came under huge fire including cover-ups in Bias’ cocaine possession to Bias’ academic status. Bias’ father called for investigation of the University of Maryland and the NCAA responded. Athletics director Dick Dull resigned soon after.

In 1988 U.S. Congress passed a stricter anti-drug law known as the ‘Len Bias law.’ Even the NBA got involved with having its stars promote anti-drug messages. In fact one person said Len Bias never tested positive for drugs but had he done so, it wouldn’t have affected his NBA recruitment back then. The NBA was that lax about it back then. Len’s death changed all that. Another thing that came to light over Bias’ death was that he was credits shy of graduating college and even failed courses in his last year knowing he was about to be signed to the NBA. Back in Bias’ day an athlete could be signed on to a sports league without graduating via a letter-of-intent. The NCAA system of athletes had to be revamped and reformed with stricter minimums for college entry and regulations for graduation.Nowadays no athlete is signed to a letter-of-intent without a review by the office of admission.

The Bias family would once again experience tragedy in December 1990 when their youngest son James Bias III was shot to death in his car in a shopping mall parking lot. The Bias parents, James and Lonise, have become involved in causes involving their sons’ deaths. Lonise became an anti-drug spokes person visiting schools, telling the story of Len and giving the message “Peer pressure destroys, peer pressure kills if you don’t know who you are.” James has lobbied for stricter handgun control. Another footnote: Seven years later the Celtics would lose one of their own, Reggie Lewis, to a heart attack caused by cocaine use.

Some of you may think that it was the 30 For 30 documentary that inspired me to write this on this day. True, just like it inspired me to write the 9.79 articles of the big run and the aftermath. It’s one thing to be reminded of a moment in sports like this while watching a 30 For 30 documentary. It’s another to hear the moment and even learn of who Len Bias was from the people that knew him best. Len Bias didn’t come across as your typical cocaine abuser. Actually in watching Without Bias, you’d think that Len was a sweet kid. He loved his parents terribly. He was close to his family. He even had a friendship with his church pastor Rev. Gregory Edmond. Even hearing of Len’s excited reaction on the day he was out promoting sneakers made me think he must have been a sweet kid. That doesn’t sound like your typical cocaine abuser. Just as shocking was how it was top-of-the-line cocaine he tried. It’s like one said, how social cocaine users could get cocaine that pure and that potent is unheard of. Normally it’s bought by people higher up the social ladder. Hearing it all just makes me want to shake my head.

27 years have passed since that tragic day. The NBA has seen its fair share of talents own the spotlight for many years. For the Bias family, they’re left with memories of a son and the heartbreak of missing him. For the University of Maryland, they’re left with regret over letting such an incident go overlooked until it was too late. For the Boston Celtics at that time and even the NBA, they’re left with the wonder of what Bias would have been like. We’ll never know. Watching Without Bias really made me think. Seeing his mother receive the Celtics jersey at the memorial service was a gripping moment. Even hearing the quotes from people who remember him really make me think: “He had the purest jump shot I’ve ever seen… and it was a work of art.” “Both Jordan and Bias played with a rage. A controlled rage.” “Len Bias as a player as I remember him was a consummate  inside/outside force. A truly exciting player.”  Makes you wonder.

Happy 50th Birthday, Len ‘Frosty’ Bias. You’re gone but still remembered by many. It’s unfortunate you’re best known for your untimely death but many remember you as a great player. That’s as it should be.

9.79: What Has Been Learned Since?

Ben Johnson taking the stand at the Dubin Inquiry in June 1989, eight months after testing positive for stanozolol at the Seoul Olympics.
Ben Johnson taking the stand at the Dubin Inquiry in June 1989, eight months after testing positive for stanozolol at the Seoul Olympics.

“Sooner or later your ability to succeed on natural talent runs out when you run against a chemical barrier. The question became do you take drugs to try to win or do you content yourself with losing forever by staying away from them?”

– Charlie Francis

“I think about it for about three weeks before I say yes. Why should I train hard doing it clean and then these other guys are not clean? Face fear…I was young, in the business and (Jamie Astaphan) was a doctor and he said ‘If you don’t take it, you won’t make it.'”

– Ben Johnson

Back on Tuesday, I posted my memories and thoughts of the big run, the events leading up to it and the aftermath. It made sense since it was the 25th anniversary of that controversial run. Today is another 25th anniversary: the anniversary of the bad news hitting the fan. Here I will reflect on what I’ve learned from watching 9.79* and all that I’ve noticed in doping in the years since.

I know I talked a lot about the ESPN 30 For 30 Film 9.79* in my last article. For those who haven’t seen it, 9.79* is a very informative documentary about the Ben Johnson scandal that not only tells about the process of how Ben got into taking steroids but also about the changing world of track and field at the time as well as the widespread doping amongst those in the track world at the time too. It not only interviews Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis but all eight runners that participated in what’s commonly called ‘the dirtiest race in Olympic history:’

  • Lane 1: Robson da Silva – Brazil
  • Lane 2: Raymond Stewart – Jamaica
  • Lane 3: Carl Lewis – USA
  • Lane 4: Linford Christie – Great Britain
  • Lane 5: Calvin Smith – USA
  • Lane 6: Ben Johnson – Canada
  • Lane 7: Desai Williams – Canada
  • Lane 8: Dennis Mitchell – USA

It also interviews the coaches of Carl Lewis, Calvin Smith and even the coach of the US Olympic track team of 1988. Calvin Smith is of special focus too as he was the 100m dash World Record holder until Ben broke it at the 1987 Worlds. It also interviews two of Ben’s former teammates from the Scarborough Optimist Track Club: Angella Issajenko and Desai Williams who had stories of their own of what they saw around them and what they themselves did. It also interviews those associated with the USOC Doping programs like Dr. Robert Voy and Dr. Don Catlin from the UCLA lab during the 1984 Summer Olympics. Members of Canada’s Olympic Committee, Robert Armstrong from the Dubin Inquiry and a doping historian are also interviewed as well as Mary Ormsby: a Toronto Star journalist. Mary’s analysis of Ben Johnson and those associated with him as well as Canadian attitudes and even celebrations of Ben during those times really summed it up well and really struck me.

There are many key people who were not present in the film like Ben’s mother, Dr. Jamie Astaphan, human growth hormone Dr. Robert Kerr, Charles Dubin, Alexandre De Merode and Charlie Francis because they’re all now deceased. There is however one film footage of interview of Charlie from 2000. Also Andre Jackson, whose significance I will talk about later, is not interviewed either.

BEFORE IT ALL STARTED

Long before the whole Ben Johnson scandal, I knew about doping in sports. I first took an interest in the Olympic Games back in 1984 in the months leading up to the Los Angeles Olympics. I was a kid back then and with each preview show and each book I read, my curiosity grew and grew and I continued to learn more about the Games. Even seeing shows about Olympians past like The Olympiad widened my knowledge and excitement. However there was one Olympic preview show that focused on the subject of doping and anabolic steroids. They even made mention of athletes from the Pan American Games the year before that tested positive including two Canadian weightlifters.

Later on I’d learn just slightly more about doping. Actually I learned about an Olympic fatality from 1960. It was Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen in the team road race. Two other members of the Danish team also dropped out of the race. The coach later admitted to giving his riders Roniacol. Amphetamines were also found in his autopsy. That would lead to the start of doping tests in 1968. The first athlete stripped of a gold medal for a doping violation was American swimmer Rick de Mont for using an asthma medication. Even though the substance is no longer on the banned list, the IOC won’t give back his gold medal. Steroid use was known in the 70’s and it was actually 1976 that the Olympic Games started testing for them. There were steroid positives in Montreal. Moscow in 1980 had no positive tests but some medalists including two track and field gold medalists had been banned for a positive steroid test in the past.

WHAT LED TO IT ALL

Back to the subject of Ben Johnson, I made mention of how Ben Johnson burst onto the international scene by winning bronze in the 100m dash at the 1984 Olympics. That was a great improvement from the World Championships a year before where we only got as far as the semifinals. His two bronze was rather quiet news for Canada’s athletes as they had their best Olympics ever with 44 medals. Ten of them gold. Our ten golds during those Games were not only a delight but a relief since our last Summer Olympics gold medal came back in 1968. Between that time we had to deal with the embarrassment in Montreal in 1976 of becoming the first and so far only host nation of a Summer Olympics to fail to win gold. We also had to deal with the heartache of our 1980 Summer Olympics team not even making it to Moscow as Canada joined the U.S. in boycotting those Olympics.

What was going on is that the sports world knew what was going on in terms of doping back during the 70’s and 80’s. Just like Calvin Smith said:”(Track athletes) know more than the public ever will.” I guess you can say that about every sport. Charlie Francis, Ben Johnson’s coach, would compete for Canada in the 100m dash at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He would hear rumors of how 80% of the field were on steroids. The crunch of sport being full of people on performance enhancing drugs would get heavier after the 1976 Olympics and the successes of athletes like the East German swimmers and weightlifters from various countries who many knew were doped but they won and passed the drug tests. When Charlie himself took to coaching, he was determined to make champions out of his athletes. However he had to deal with the challenge of an unlevel playing field and felt the only way to win was to encourage his own athletes to use steroids. That attitude: “If you don’t take it, you won’t make it.” He would give them drugs he knew the East Germans were taking at mass level. He even hired Dr. Jamie Astaphan after the 1984 Olympics to increase sophistication in his steroid program.

As for why Ben and his teammates agreed to take steroids, it was more than just about the desire to win. It also wasn’t until I saw the film that his athletes considered him not just a coach but a friend. Ben Johnson, Desai Williams and Angela Issajenko looked up to him very highly. They were Canadian immigrants from the Caribbean who felt like misfits and they took aback to Charlie how he made them feel like they belonged and how he helped them to succeed as athletes. In fact Francis helped coach all three of them to the 1984 Olympic Games where they all came home with Olympic medals. In addition to Ben’s two bronzes, Desai was part of Canada’s bronze medal-winning relay team and Angella was part of Canada’s silver medal-winning women’s 4*100m  relay team. It’s that coach-athlete relationship thing that could have a lot to do with why they agreed to take the steroids at his encouragement. They looked up to him that much. Coach-athlete relationships are also of focus in 9.79* as it shows the relationships between Carl Lewis and Tom Tellez and Joe Douglas as well as Calvin Smith and his coach Wayne Williams. One thing the film showed me is that for all the show-off and braggart I always saw Carl Lewis to be, I admire him for the huge respect he had for his coaches and still has. Like he sang in his flop song: “You can’t win on your own.”

I’ll admit I knew a lot about doping even before the 1984 Summer Olympics. I’ll admit, as evident in my article from Tuesday, that I learned a lot of what was going on in the Scarborough Optimists Track Club and other athletic sources around that time. In watching the film 9.79*, the things that stuck most with me were the things I don’t remember or didn’t know about. The mention of the USOC and the drug testing programs back in 1983 were a surprise to me. Even as well the number of noticeable tampered or ‘chemically masked’ samples they attained and how none of the athletes were punished but warned instead. I’ll admit I didn’t pay much attention to the BALCO scandal that came to light in 2003. I knew only partial details and mention of Carl Lewis testing positive for a banned stimulant but I didn’t know all the facts. Also I didn’t know about the missing positive results from the last days of the 1984 Olympics. Nor did I know about Human Growth Hormone being untestable at the time. I’ve always known it to be testable but I forgot there was a time when it wasn’t.

This film gave more information about the doping programs created and the lightweight actions carried out. One of the things I was not surprised about was when Dr.  Don Catlin talked about him asking the athletes why they were taking drugs. The answer was obvious: they want to win. Even as track and field was being professionalized, it became obvious that success was winning medals. In fact I remember the USOC conducted a survey in 1988 where they asked athletes who trained at the US Olympic Centre in Colorado Springs the survey question: “If you were given a pill that was guaranteed to make you Olympic champion but would kill you within five years, would you take it?” The result: 52% said “Yes.”

THERE’S MORE TO IT THAN DOPING

The film doesn’t just simply show you thoughts and opinions of those surrounding the event, and especially the subject of doping in track and field. The film also focuses on the sport of sprinting. It shows a lot of the training whether it be old videotapes of Ben’s workouts or even Dennis Mitchell coaching his young athletes. Ben will remind you in his conversations as demonstrated by Dennis Mitchell in his coaching that track athletes push their bodies beyond the human limits to be the best. Desai Williams summed it up well in his own words: “You work every single day, five or six days a week. You’re going to beat yourself into the ground. It’s tough: the sacrifice that every track person makes with no guarantee. None.”

The film also shows the times in which this was all happening too. The film also reminds us that this was happening at a huge turning point in track and field. Until 1980, professionals were not allowed to compete at the Olympics. If you wanted Olympic gold, you couldn’t make a single penny off your sport. Any money you made had to be a well-kept-secret. In fact track and field had separate amateur and professional leagues. Once professional athletes were given the green-light to compete in the Olympics in the early 80’s, things changed. Athletes who dreamed of Olympic gold didn’t have to accept under-the-table money anymore. Meets run by the IAAF could pay the athletes. Athletes in Olympic sports who had high profiles could hire agents. However professionalizing track and field it didn’t come without its growing pains. Meets hopping on the professional bandwagon had to market themselves. Hence Zurich’s Weltklasse being passed off as ‘The Olympics In One Night.’ Only athletes with big star status like Carl Lewis or Daley Thompson could command big appearance fees. The Carl Lewis/Ben Johnson rivalry was a great boost to the professionalizing of the sport and created a rivalry that drew crowds. Prize money per athlete varied anywhere from big money for the top finishers to chicken feed for the also-rans. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the prize money thing could cause problems in terms of doping.

That was quite an era for track. I don’t think there has been an athlete since Carl Lewis that could be that big of a draw, although I see a rival in Usain Bolt currently. There also hasn’t been a rivalry as exciting as the Carl Lewis/Ben Johnson rivalry. Not even the Carl Lewis/Mike Powell rivalry in the long jump that happened years later was as exciting, nor the rivalry of Carl Lewis vs. age during the mid-90’s. There isn’t a rivalry nowadays, not even Usain Bolt vs. Yohan Blake, that has the same excitement.

WHAT’S HAPPENED SINCE

Also remember how I talked about the East Germans and that being Angella Issajenko’s drive to hop on Charlie’s doping bandwagon? Well shortly after Germany reunified in 1990, just a year after the Dubin Inquiry concluded, the confessions were out that East Germany had a program of systematically administering steroid to their athletes headed by the Stasi, East Germany’s equal to the KGB. They knew which drugs to give which athletes, when to break them off to avoid detection, how often doses were needed to reach top performance and which drugs were undetectable at the time. After the confessions, many former East German Olympic champions have admitted to being part of the program. Some have asked their records be stripped and some are willing to give their medals back. One thing is many are reluctant to give their medals back, giving a common claim: “Yes, I was on steroids but I had the talent to win.” The thing is all of the records held by East Germans, even the world records, still stand and none of the medals have been demanded back by the IOC. That especially bites as a Canadian knowing that in three women’s swimming events in 1976, the fastest non-East German was a Canadian. It’s a shame. Three gold medals from Montreal that could’ve been and should be.

The thing was the intention of the Dubin Inquiry was not just to get to the bottom of Ben Johnson’s positive from Seoul. It was also to expose truths about doping in the sports world and hope to clean up sport not only in Canada but around the world too. If it did, it was quite minimal. You know how there are a lot of things that would eventually defeat their purpose over time like called ID and warning stickers on records? The Dubin Inquiry also defeated its purpose in a lot of aspects. This was the only time in history athletes confessed their doping use under oath. The subsequent punishments to the athletes who confessed caused many athletes to be a lot more protective of their innocence even after they test positive. Some would maintain their innocence to the point of taking their doping situation to court. They know that meets outside of the World Championships and the Olympic Games have doping labs that don’t have the same top-notch consistency and errors in procedures can result. They can use that to overturn their positive. There are even countries that know of positives in their own country but hide it around Olympic time so that the athlete can compete and win. A country like Canada can’t afford to do something like that, not after the embarrassment of Ben Johnson’s positive.

The 1996 Atlanta Games would present a new doping situation. There were many cases where athletes with positives outside of steroids would give explanations of taking medicine given by their team doctor. They’d be exonerated and they’d get their medals back. However it was made obvious at Sydney in 2000 that this kind of forgiveness was over when Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan tested positive for a stimulant provided to her by the team doctor. Instead of exoneration, the stripping of her all-around gold medal stood and the doctor was suspended for two Olympic cycles. That was it. No more exonerations over a team doctor’s bad medicine. Enough was enough.

Doping still continues to be an issue in sport. New drug discoveries, new incentives or new needs to revamp the testing, new ways of dealing with doping, and even new commissions like WADA: the World Anti-Doping Agency, which was started in 1998 after officials believed the IOC lacked consistency in cracking down on dopers. WADA is headquartered in Montreal and headed by Canada’s Dick Pound who used to be the Vice-President of the IOC. In the 2000’s it was the Americans that were most under fire for doping in sport. If there were cover-ups during the 80’s, the cover-ups weren’t happening anymore as many sprinters were faced with positive drug tests. Marion Jones was the most famous as she would take years to confess her own steroid abuse since 2000. Even while two ex-husbands of hers had already tested positive during the times of her marriages, it still took her until 2007 to confess it all.

There are always new drugs. There are always new ways to try and get them and try to stay ahead of the tests. One thing is that there are some advancements. Out-of-competition testing has increased with surprise tests and even programs sponsored by the USOC where top runners volunteer to have themselves tested. One of which is sprinting star Allyson Felix. In addition, each Olympics takes doping tests to unprecedented levels than from before. Beijing 2008 introduced a new procedure where all tests would include samples frozen for four years and retested to crack down on athletes who thought they could be ‘ahead of the game.’ London 2012 had it so that every athlete in every sport that finished in the Top 5 in each event was tested. Also I don’t think we’ll ever see an equal to the sophistication of the East German doping program. That has to be the most successful systematic doping program of all time. China tried to copy that program in the 90’s but it wouldn’t work as positives resulted.

Steroid use isn’t just limited to sport. It’s also subject to professional wrestlers too and it was made a big issue in the wake of the murder-suicide of Chris Benoit and his family. Many believe ‘Roid Rage to be the cause. Steroid use is even rampant simply with men who go to the gym to work out. Ask anyone that works at a gym. There are even teenage boys and some as young as 11 going to guidance counselors and asking for steroids simply to look bigger. Even after they hear of the consequences, they still want it because they only care about their looks. I know there’s a lot of attention made to young girls and anorexia. I believe there should also be the same attention to young boys and steroids.

Interesting to note is that Track And Field is not the Olympic sport with the biggest doping problems. Weightlifting is. In fact just days before Ben Johnson would make the biggest doping news out of Seoul, two Bulgarian weightlifters who had won gold medals tested positive for diuretics, a drug possibly intended to be a masking agent. Funny how it could mask the steroids but failed to mask itself and caused the lifters to give back their gold medals, both receive the same sports ban as a steroid positive and cause the whole Bulgarian weightlifting team to return home prematurely and in embarrassment. Weightlifting has gotten tougher on doping. They have since changed the weights of weight classes and erased past records to start on a clean slate. They now give lifetime bans on the first steroid positive. They also place bans on nations who have multiple lifters that test positive consistently. One nation currently on that banned list is Bulgaria.

Funny thing is that the sprints are not the events in Track And Field with the biggest doping problem. It’s the throwing events. You’d be surprised how many Olympic medals have been given back in those events. The shot putters however have received the most doping positives and most returned medals. 9.79* presents the doping problem of the 1980’s and portrays it as the heyday of doping in sprints, or as Calvin Smith put it: “a time of big time drugs.” It doesn’t seem as rampant at first but 2013 shed light that it’s still a problem, if not at the same length as back in the 80’s. This year there were three doping positives from sprinters that made news which included former World Record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica and former World Champion Tyson Gay of the US. In fact Powell tested positive for the same stimulant his Jamaican teammate Sherone Simpson tested positive for. This could cause suspicion over the Jamaican track program which has been so dominant in sprinting and hurdling over the past seven years.

ADDITIONAL NOTES ABOUT THE FINAL

Interesting thing about that final is that all of the runners in that final would have won Olympic medals in their careers. In fact you’ll see in 9.79* footage of the victory ceremony of the 1984 Men’s 4*100m relay: the US won gold with Jamaica silver and Canada bronze. There in that footage you’ll see five of the eight finalists: Lewis, Smith, Stewart, Johnson and Williams. As for the other three finalists:

  • Linford Christie who finished third would get his bronze upgraded to silver in the aftermath and would be Olympic 100m champion in 1992.
  • Robson da Silva won bronze in the 200m four days later.
  • Dennis Mitchell would have to wait until 1992 to win Olympic medals where he won bronze in the individual 100m and gold in the 4*100 relay which Carl Lewis anchored to a new world record.

Also interesting to note is the drug issues the other athletes faced after the 1988 Olympics:

  • Raymond Stewart: His doping issues came as a coach after he retired from running. It was made evident he was giving performance enhancing drugs to his athletes. The USADA banned him from coaching for life in 2010.
  • Carl Lewis: so far that banned stimulant was the only known violation he did. Had proper doping procedures been carried out, he would have been banned for three months including the 1988 Olympics. However the USOC exonerated Lewis when he showed an official the supplements he was taking and classified it as an ‘inadvertent positive.’
  • Linford Christie: he actually tested positive for a banned stimulant after the 100m dash final but was exonerated by the IOC’s disciplinary committee vote of 11 to 10 to keep him from sanctions. He wasn’t so lucky in 1999. An indoor meet in Germany tested him positive for Nandrolone and he was slapped with a two-year ban.
  • Dennis Mitchell: he was banned for two years in 1998 for showing high levels of testosterone.

You yourself would be interested seeing the reactions of them when they’re confronted by Gordon in 9.79* of their own doping issues. Raymond insists that what he was giving to athletes were Vitamin B12 and insists he’s innocent. Carl Lewis provided me with one of my favorite moments while watching 9.79* When confronted about his positive for the banned stimulant, he gets all defensive and even insists on the fact that the stimulant is no longer on the banned list. Looks like Carl isn’t completely the Mr. Clean he packages himself to be. Linford isn’t questioned about the stimulant from 1988 but he is about the nandrolone from 1999. He tries to make like he’s ‘Mr. Clean’ and denies his 1999 positive even though he never did anything to legally overturn the result.  Dennis Mitchell appears to be the only one of the others with a positive test willing to confess his wrongdoings. He admits to making a bad coaching decision and bad choices along the way.

It looks as though the only athletes never to have any doping issues in their careers was Calvin Smith and Robson da Silva, just two. If I had my way, I’d give the gold to Smith, silver to da Silva, get all the semifinalists who failed to qualify together for a run-off and give the bronze to the winner. That should fix everything. That’s another thing about the film is that it shows Calvin to be the one that should’ve been Olympic champion and even the sprinting great that could’ve been. Makes you wonder what would’ve happened had the field been level. Also sad to see that he may have received the bronze medal after Johnson’s disqualification but there wasn’t a second medal ceremony. Reminds you that even after justice was done, that’s the one thing missing.

The crazy thing about the whole doping thing is that the most honest former athletes in 9.79* were the Canadians. Of course, the Dubin Inquiry exposed it all. Ben, Desai and Angella were all punished. The Canadian ones lost the most and they have nothing left to hide and no one left to hide it from. Ben however acts like he still feels he deserves respect for what he did. Almost like he feels that since the field was unlevel and he was just the one that didn’t get away, he should receive some sort of vindication. Even his mention of Andre Jackson and the sabotage he claims–he claims Andre slipped pills in his beers and training water and even admitted it to him years later–makes me question his character. I felt like saying to Ben: “Just admit the truth.” Besides the Dubin Inquiry exposed the facts that Astaphan injected Ben with stanazolol that was called Winstrol before the competition. I want to think that it was the injections from Astaphan that caused the positive in Seoul. For those that didn’t see the film, Jackson responded to Ben’s allegations with an uninterviewed answer: “Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. What was carried out in 1998 cannot and will not be invalidated.” Nevertheless it does make me wonder how an athlete from the Santa Monica Track Club who never qualified for the Olympics was able to get Olympic credentials to be with the finalists and even be with Ben in the doping room. That claim from Douglas that he was there to see if Johnson was taking a masking agent to cover up steroids in his system even got me thinking.

Desai and Angella however made class acts of themselves in the film by being honest and setting the record straight about themselves, their own doping and about what it’s like to be an elite athlete. I don’t condone sports doping of any kind but can  understand the pressure to win these athletes feel. However I now have more respect for Angella and Desai as they have appeared to get wiser over time.

Of the non-Canadians, the most honest Americans were the doping officials Voy and Catlin. Now that the BALCO scandal exposed the cover-up facts starting in 2003, they can tell the whole story. Funny how Carl and his coaches deny everything. Carl’s lifetime coach Tom Tellez insists: “As a coach I wouldn’t want to (encourage steroid use.)You’re not a coach anymore!” Yes, there’s no evidence to suggest Carl used steroids–even coach Douglas’ statement about Carl’s eyes suggest Carl’s innocence–but seeing how defensive Carl gets when the positive at the 1988 Olympic trials is brought up suggests Carl may have something to hide.

Calvin Smith however was a class act as he was able to tell it how he saw it.  Robson was another class act too. I like how he made mention of the potential money he lost in that race and mentions: “…but I sleep very nice every night.” You probably can’t say that about those that doped, even those that passed every doping test in their career.

There are a lot of interesting notes about what has happened since that race. 9.79 is no longer the world’s fastest time. It would be 11 years until a runner was able to touch 9.79 and pass the drug tests. It was American Maurice Greene at the 1999 World Championships. For the record, Greene never tested positive in any of his drug tests. 9.79 his either been touched or surpassed by seven sprinters since. In fact 9.79 was only good enough for a bronze in the London Olympic final. The world record is now 9.58 set by Jamaica’s Usain Bolt in 2009. Bolt also holds the Olympic record with the 9.63 he ran in London last year. The Canadian Record is 9.84 and is owned by Donovan Bailey for his gold medal run in 1996 and Bruny Surin for his second-place finish at the 1999 Worlds.

There’s no record whether the Scarborough Optimists club still exists. It wouldn’t surprise me if it folded in the midst of the scandal. Charlie Francis returned to coaching after the Dubin inquiry but was later banned for life when he made it clear he would return to giving his athletes steroids. He would later become a respected personal trainer and in 2003 would secretly train American sprinters Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones who would later face heat for their own doping issues. Francis died in 2010 at the age of 61. Ben Johnson was a pallbearer at his funeral. Dr. Astaphan would continue to face doping and drug trafficking issues for years after the scandal. After a release from a US prison in 1996, he would return to St. Kitts where he practiced medicine until his death in 2006.

Angella Issajenko released a tell-all just two years after Johnson’s disqualification telling her story of how she got into sports and doping. She would later become a teaching assistant and a track coach. Desai Williams now works as a speed coach for the Toronto Argonauts football team and currently trains Olympic track athletes as well. Mark McKoy, who was not interviewed for 9.79*, would later move to Austria in the wake of his steroid admission and subsequent two year ban. He would continue to represent Canada until 1994 and would win gold in the 110m hurdles at the 1992 Olympics. He has since returned to Toronto where he now works as a personal athletics trainer and therapist.

Ben Johnson comes across in the film as a lonely person looking for vindication. Actually he’s not that lonely as he is both a father and a grandfather. Johnson may have tested positive three times as a runner in his career but he has found success on his own as a soccer trainer. He’s trained Diego Maradona and Muammar Gadhafi’s son. He also released an autobiography of his own in 2010: Seoul To Soul.

Many Canadians had felt that this moment made Canada look like a country that dopes to win. I myself didn’t really lose faith in my country’s athletes. In fact I was at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona where Canada won eighteen medals, seven of them gold. I will admit that the Ben Johnson incident did make me suspicious when I saw the men’s 400m hurdles and a new World record set by the US’s Kevin Young. I was also in Vancouver cheering on our winter athletes too. Many want to look at the Olympic athletes as noble people who compete for the honor of their country and that Ben Johnson’s positive scarred their dignity forever. We should also remember they face pressures we ourselves will never face like the pressure to win for their country or for prize money and even face a tainted playing field. Also they face the pressure of people saying they let us down if they don’t win gold. We the fans are guilty of that too. As for Olympians, I know for a fact that there was cheating in the ancient Olympics too. In fact cheaters during the ancient Olympics would have their names engraved on a stone wall to be disgraced for eternity.

Not all was lost since that infamous moment. The Canadian Olympic Team would eventually leave Seoul with ten medals. Three of them gold. Yeah, that’s one thing I didn’t like about the film. It made Canada look like a gold medal-starved country when in fact Montreal in 1976 would eventually become the last Summer Olympics where Canada failed to win a gold medal. Canada has left every Summer Olympics since with anywhere from the one gold won in London 2012 to ten golds won in Los Angeles in 1984. Canada would begin a strong anti-doping campaign of its own. One of the athletes within the infamous Scarborough Optimist ring, hurdler Mark McCoy would win gold in the 110m hurdles in 1992. The biggest treat came the following Olympics in Atlanta where Canada could again claim the World’s Fastest Man. This time it was Donovan Bailey. Like Ben Johnson, a Jamaican Émigré. Unlike Ben Johnson, he had a natural sprinter’s build. Combine that with excellent coaching and he won the 100m dash gold in a World Record time in 9.84. It only took two Olympics for a Canadian sprinter to redeem Canada’s reputation in the eyes of the sports world. Bailey then teamed up with three other Canadian teammates for the 4*100m relay and helped to win another gold. This was a remarkable feat as this Canadian team was the first 4*100 relay team to officially defeat the American team of the gold medal. Officially meaning cause the Americans to cross the finish line after the gold medal champions. Until then, the American team lost the gold only upon disqualifications and the 1980 boycott.

9.79* is one of those documentaries I watch over and over again. I know this blog looks like a mix of a 30 For 30 Film review with talk about doping but the film did remind me about the problem of doping in sport and even make me question a lot of the runners that didn’t test positive that race and still try to pass themselves off as clean even though there’s a lot of evidence suggesting otherwise. It also makes you question the braces on Carl Lewis from 1987 to 1988. Was he on Human Growth Hormone at the time? 9.79*not only gives us answers but it still leaves us with a lot of questions.

Hard to believe that it was 25 years ago the world was in shock. Canada was especially shocked. I too was shocked in disbelief even as I was watching the news that day. We would all receive more shocking news over the years about Ben Johnson, those associated with him and even his rivals at the time. You think that people would learn from this. They may have but probably not much. I remember going on Twitter to an account about sports quotes and one uncredited quote was: “It’s better to lose on principles than to win on lies.” Sadly most young athletes don’t feel that way.

9.79: Has It Been Exactly 25 Years Ago?

Ben Johnson (right) beat Carl Lewis (left) in the heavily hyped Olympic final of the 100m dash. A shocking truth would be unraveled three days later.
Ben Johnson (6) beat Carl Lewis (3) in the heavily hyped 1988 Olympic final of the 100m. A shocking truth would be unraveled three days later.

“It’s one of those moments everyone remembered where they were when he won.”

-Toronto Star journalist Mary Ormsby

It’s funny how time passes. We always think that way whenever we remember a great moment in sports. It’s that same feel whenever we remember one of the more infamous moments in sports too. Today marks the 25th anniversary of the 1988 Olympic 100m dash final: a moment that would eventually become Canada’s most infamous moment at the Olympic Games. Any Canadian who was around at the time will remember that moment whenever you bring it up. However I was reminded of it two months ago when I saw an ESPN 30 For 30 film about it entitled 9.79* It was a film I watched repeatedly on Youtube. The film brought back a lot of memories for me but it also showed me there was more than met the eye at the time.

THE START OF IT ALL

Here in this blog I will reflect on my memories of that moment, the years leading up, the years since, and my own thoughts while watching 9.79*. I was a teenager around the time of the Ben Johnson/Carl Lewis rivalry. I was one who followed the rivalry rather closely. I still remember how it was first a case of Carl Lewis and how he matched Jesse Owens’ feat of four gold medals at the Los Angeles Games of 1984 in the same four event Jesse won gold in 1936. I knew of the Canadian named Ben Johnson who won bronze in the 100m dash during those Games. Back then, Ben Johnson’s bronze and the bronze of Canada’s 4*100 relay was good news but quiet news. Thanks to the boycott of the Eastern Bloc nations, Canada won 44 medals in Los Angeles including ten gold.

A RIVALRY IS BORN

I remember around 1985 reading about a Canadian named Ben Johnson who won a big 100m race and beat Carl Lewis along the way. Already that would catch some Canadians’ attention, including mine. A Canadian that could beat the great Carl Lewis. Attention from Canadians grew in 1986 when Ben Johnson continued his winning streak against Carl in 1986. I even remember reading of a meet Ben won with a time of 9.95 which was just .02 seconds shy of the world record. I sensed Johnson to be a possible Olympic champion in 1988 at that time and maybe a possible world record breaker.

Then came the 1987 World Championships in Rome. There are only two competitions in an Olympic sport where one can truly prove themselves the best in the world: the Olympic Games and the World Championships. It’s especially memorable not only for Ben Johnson’s win but for breaking the world record with a time of 9.83: one tenth of a second. I myself remember the World Championships of that year and CBC’s live broadcast. There was additional excitement to this showdown as Carl and Ben were assigned in side-by-side lanes which added more excitement. I was hoping to see the final live but I went away for something at the time. I don’t remember exactly what I left for. That night I saw the race at the end of a news broadcast. Before they were to show the race at the very end of the news show, the man made mention of the ‘9.83 seconds of Ben Johnson.’ I thought to myself: “9.83? That can’t be. You can’t break a 100m dash world record by a full tenth of a second. That’s too much. That has to be wind-aided.” I saw the rebroadcast of the race. I heard it was legit and I took it at face value at the time. For a year, I felt the same excitement as the rest of Canada knowing that we had the fastest man in the World. I think Ben even stole a lot of attention away from Wayne Gretzky. How often does a track athlete get more attention in Canada than a star hockey player? It made the anticipated Olympic showdown in Seoul that more exciting.

1988 AND THE BUZZ BEGINS

The Olympic showdown in Seoul was definitely something to wait for in big anticipation but it was still one year away. And a lot can happen in a year. First off was the Calgary Olympics. Canada again failed to win a gold medal. The months and weeks leading up to the Seoul Olympics would provide both excitement and drama. First there was excitement of the anticipated Johnson/Lewis duel. Then there was mention of another Canadian, Desai Williams who was also Johnson’s teammate from the Scarborough Optimists track club, being another potential threat to the field. There were the two Angelas–Bailey and Issajenko– who were both threats for the women’s 100m dash. For the record, the two Angelas did not get along well off the track. There was the CBC Olympic preview show Road To Seoul which showed the potential medalists for these Games, both Canadian and foreign in the various sports, and them telling their stories of their training, competing and their goals for the 1988 Olympics.

Then there was the drama of learning of Ben Johnson’s injury: a pulled hamstring. I didn’t learn about his injury until I was watching an Olympic preview show and it talked of Desai winning an international track meet as an injured Ben was a spectator in the stands. It left a big question mark whether Ben would heal in time for Seoul, not just for the sake of their own competition but drawing excitement and big-time attention to the Seoul Olympics. During Ben’s healing process came some more exciting news. In addition to Desai’s win, Angella Issajenko won the 100m at an international meet beating 1984 Olympic champion Evelyn Ashford of the US. The US Olympic trials also added to the excitement as Carl Lewis won the 100m in a wind-aided 9.78. Even though the time was not legit enough to be a world record, it sent a message to Ben which Ben naturally brushed aside. Another surprise moment at the US Olympic Trials was the 10.49 world record of Florence Griffith-Joyner in the 100m. It chopped more than a quarter of a second off the world record and is still questioned to this day, even though Griffith-Joyner’s autopsy results from 1998 declared nothing of steroid abuse.

Another note: I also remember one Olympic preview show talk about doping procedures and how they’re conducted. After a sporting event the athlete would produce their sample and it would be divided into two testing samples. If the first sample called the A-sample tests positive, only the athlete is notified and they are given two options. I forget what the first option was but I know the second option was reproducing a sample. If the second sample called the B-sample is positive, it’s confirmed and the necessary penalties and suspensions are carried out.

I was reminded in 9.79* of one key competition weeks before Seoul that would have a bearing on the story: the Weltklasse in Zurich. It’s funny how Zurich’s Weltklasse competition would provide a lot of key moments in the years of the Johnson/Lewis rivalry. In fact it was the 1985 Weltklasse where Ben’s first victory over Carl occurred. 1988’s Weltklasse was yet another focus of the Lewis/Johnson rivalry especially since this was Ben Johnson returning to competition since his hamstring injury. The Lewis/Johnson duel got even more attention than American sprinter Butch Reynolds breaking the 20 year-old world record in the 400m dash at that meet. I still remember CBC stopping broadcast of a soap opera at that time to show live telecast of that competition. I remember first seeing the warm ups and then seeing all of the runners shown lane-by-lane. Funny how the other sprinters who were in the same events of the Lewis/Johnson rivalry like Brit Linford Christie, American Calvin Smith and Jamaican Ray Stewart were frequently regarded by most as simply “lane-fillers” as Dennis Mitchell put it. I remember that Ben and Carl were again in opposite lanes and they both received the biggest cheers in the stadium when their names were announced. Then the run took place and Carl won with Ben third. That was Ben’s first loss to Lewis since 1985. I know it had some of us Canadian’s nervous. Hey, it was natural for us to want Ben to win in Seoul.

SEOUL 1988: THE MOMENT ARRIVES

Then came the Seoul Olympics. Sure enough the Lewis/Johnson rivalry was probably the most hyped-up rivalry before the Games. I can’t think of any other rivalry for Seoul that was more hyped-up. There were even the sentimental stories added to the hype of the rivalry. First was the constantly repeated story of Johnson being an immigrant and finding his place in track and field. As for Carl Lewis, his story was that his father died the year before and Carl put the 100m gold medal from 1984 into his coffin. He told his surprised family: “Don’t worry. I’ll win another.”

Even before the final, there was drama in the preliminary races. First was the quarterfinal Johnson ran in. Johnson finished third and with there being six quarterfinals, the Top 2 automatically qualified for the semi while the last four qualifiers would be the four fastest of those that finished between 3rd and 6th. Ben ran the first quarterfinal and would have to wait until all six were run to know if he qualified. You could bet it was an agonizing time not just for Ben but for Canada too. Even after it was clear Ben’s time was fast enough to qualify, many of us Canadians including myself were still nervous. After seven days of Olympic competition, Canada was still waiting for its first medal of any color at these Games and we didn’t know what to expect from Ben the next day. As for Carl, he not only won his quarterfinal easily but was the only one to run it under 10 seconds. Anyways Ben and Canada could breathe a sigh of relief in the semis the next day as Ben won his semifinal. However Carl also won his semi and just like in the quarterfinals, he was the only one to run it under ten seconds. The heavily-anticipated Lewis/Johnson rivalry in Seoul would finally be a reality in the final but the world would then have to wait an hour and a half for it to start.

THE FINAL: THE HYPE IS NOW A REALITY

I remember where I was during that exact moment too. It was a Saturday afternoon in Seoul when the event happened which meant because of the time difference, live broadcast took place late evening on a Friday for us Canadians. I don’t remember exactly too much about what I saw before the race started. I remember that my mother, my sister and I gathered around the television set. My father was at work doing overtime. Talk about hard luck that day. I remember the lane-by-lane rundown of all the finalists. I knew all their names but 9.79* reminded me of which runner was in which lane. I never forgot Carl was in Lane 3 and Ben was in Lane 6. I was also reminded by 9.79* of the starter and how he said “Take your marks” and “Set” in Korean. The film has made the memory hard to forget since.

Then the start. Surprisingly there was not a single false start beforehand: just one bang and it started. Then the race: I could remember Ben in the lead right at the start of the gun. All of us were glued to the television set in both excitement and nervousness. Once Ben crossed the finish line, we all jumped up and cheered loudly in celebration. I was also stunned to see the world record from Rome broken. My father even called from work as he heard it on the radio while working. I remember he asked me: “Did you see it?” in excitement. I remember going into a conversation though I forgot all we talked about. The following night I went to a party. We were all drinking and dancing. I remember one guy saying “Yeah! Ben Johnson!” Euphoria continued on the Sunday as well as relief that we were now winning more medals in other events.

THE TRUTH IS UNRAVELED

Then the bombshell. Everybody may remember where they were when they were when the final was contested and I’m sure most, if not everybody, may remember where they were when they heard the shocking news. I remember where I was when I received the first hint. It was late Monday afternoon and I returned home from school. My mother came and said: “I heard some bad news.” I didn’t know what she was talking about. Then she said: “There’s news of a positive drug test and they think it’s Ben Johnson.” I was surprised but I thought to myself; “It can’t be.” I then turned on the television. Within time I learned that it was true. Ben Johnson had tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol. I believe at first I didn’t want to believe it. However it was there on the television right in front of my face.

I remember switching between the channels showing Olympic coverage that evening. It was all the same. Both CBC channels, the English and French-language ones, had the story. Even NBC was showing it. I also remember CBC’s live broadcast from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Main Press Centre. It first started with an official announcing the sanctions to Ben: disqualification which included being stripped of his gold and a two-year ban from competition. It was followed by Alexandre de Merode, head of the IOC Medical Commission, being asked questions in various languages and responding in French. I was flicking between the three channels at that time. One station returned attention to the Olympic competition with the start of the men’s road race in cycling. Very ironically, it was won by Olaf Ludwig of East Germany. You’ll what I mean by ‘very ironically’ in my follow-up blog three days from now. That day did have some redeeming competition moments like Greg Louganis completing diving’s double-double of gold medals by winning platform diving and Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux receiving a porcelain box from the IOC for saving the life of a Singaporean sailor in danger of drowning days earlier.

The aftermath was ugly. I remember Ben’s sister constantly saying: “No! No! He would never do anything like this!” I remember many people were saying it’s possible to be sabotage. I remember news footage of Ben making his way to the Seoul airport and Ben’s arrival in Toronto.  Both times he was met by news people that were both hungry and hostile. I remember hearing of all the professional companies that endorsed Ben Johnson including Diadora withdrawing their endorsements to him almost immediately. Most Canadian athletes tried to compete without letting the news affect their own performances. The Canadian team would leave Seoul with a total of ten medals, three of them gold. The Canadian track team struggled to compete in the wake of that debacle. Canada’s only legit medal in Track and Field was decathlete David Steen’s bronze. The sprinters just fell apart. Canada was medal favorites in both 4*100m relays but the scandal just caused the sprinters to fall apart. The women’s team failed to qualify for the final and the men’s team could only muster 7th.

Outside of Olympic competition, I remember a lot of news stories continuing. I remember Ben publicly declaring he had never knowingly taken steroids. Charlie Francis added to the alleged insistence of sabotage. But Angella held nothing back when she returned back to Canada. She declared that Ben took steroids and he knew about it. I remember news talk about Charlie’s team doctor Jamie Astaphan. I don’t remember of any mention of Dr. Astaphan before the news of the positive. If there was any, it may have been footnotes. After the news of the positive, you can bet there was focus on him. All this would pave way to an inquiry to get answers. Did Ben knowingly take steroids? Or was it sabotage? Who else was involved?

On a comedic note, I remember watching the first Saturday Night Live of that season. There was the Weekend Report with Dennis Miller and he did some post-Olympic humor. First was of the American Joyner family. The second was on Ben Johnson. You’d figure SNL wouldn’t dare miss a chance on this. And they delivered as they had a segment where Ben inspired the All-Drug Olympics. The competition was held naturally in Bogota, Colombia and there was ‘live footage’ of a Soviet weightlifter attempting to lift a huge weight. The sportscaster detailed all the drugs the lifter took and said: “but it’s legit, actually it’s enouraged, here at the All-Drug Olympics.” The lifter didn’t just simply fail in his lift but his arms fell off, leading him bleeding from the joints. Miller ended the segment cracking: “With the Games half-over, Canada leads in total medals.” Further cracks from SNL on Ben Johnson would continue over the episodes which would piss my teenage sister off a lot. I don’t think she got it at the time but the reason why Ben Johnson and Canada got a lot of pot shots on SNL was because creator-writer Lorne Michaels is Canadian.

AN INQUIRY GETS TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS

The Canadian government set up an official inquiry at the start of 1989 to get the answers on Ben’s positive results. The inquiry would be conducted by chief justice Charles Dubin and would be officially known as the Dubin Inquiry. The Inquiry turned out to expose more than just the answers to the Ben Johnson scandal. In fact I remember one of the athletes testifying one month before Charlie Francis was a Canadian weightlifter who had nothing to do with the Ben Johnson scandal. Even some doctors involved in outside doping cases were interviewed. Shows that the inquiry was more than about getting answers to a positive drug test at the Olympics.

In March 1989, almost five months since the test results were made public, Charlie Francis took the stand to testify. He admitted that he gave steroids to his athletes and that Ben knew all along that he was taking them. He even said that steroids gave a one-meter advantage in an event like the 100m dash. Simultaneously I remember reading that Desai Williams, who was preparing for a track meet in Europe, confessed his own participation in taking the steroids given by Charlie Francis. His reason: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” I also remember Carl Lewis’ reaction in response. He declared Ben: “a liar and a cheat. At least I have the world record by a clean athlete.” Angella Isajenko testified the following week. She even went as far as bringing her diary where she documented her steroid intake since 1979. I never saw live broadcast of the inquiry or even news coverage of that event. I did however read about it in the local newspaper. That’s the most I remember of that, and the tears she shed for her teammates the following day.

There was one athlete not directly connected to the Ben Johnson scandal that caught my attention. It was Canadian sprinter Tony Sharpe. He competed at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and qualified for the 100m dash final and would run as part of Canada’s bronze medal-winning 4*100m relay team. He stated in his testimony that steroid abuse gave him physical complications and would eventually lead to his premature retirement from the sport back in 1985. Serves as a reminder that for all the physical advantages steroids give, they also cause a lot of physical problems too.

Funny thing is right when the Dubin Inquiry was happening, an American sprinter named Darrell Robinson said he saw Carl Lewis and Florence Griffith-Joyner purchase vials of steroids. I remember that story quite well. I also remember reading in Sports Illustrated that Robinson and Griffith-Joyner, who retired shortly after Seoul, were both interviewed on the Today show where Griffith-Joyner called Robinson a ‘lying lunatic.’ Robinson responded: “The truth will come out.” I remember hearing many stories about Carl threatening to sue Robinson but I don’t think it ever came about. I never did learn the end result.

Back to the Dubin Inquiry, Dr. Astaphan finally testified. He admitted of all the steroids he gave to Charlie Francis and his athletes but the biggest shocker is that he gave some steroidic medicines that were veterinarian medicines: not meant for humans! I also remember him talking frequently of Winstrol. The bizarre thing I remember about this was that after he talked of all that he administered, he said he was keeping in line with the Hippocratic Oath he swore under. Funny. Since when did giving athletes performance enhancing drugs become in allegiance with the Hippocratic Oath?

The crazy thing about this is that with every athlete or professional connected to the Ben Johnson scandal giving testimony, it made me more and more impatient in waiting for Ben himself to testify. Ben finally testified in June. I remember on that day, someone in my family was watching something else on television. It was the only television in the house at the time. I then turned on the radio and I could hear Ben Johnson examined by the justice. Later on he would admit to taking them. When asked why he said he never knowingly took them upon arriving home, he said it was because he was tired and frustrated from all that was happening. He also told the youth of Canada not to take steroids. Funny thing is even after Ben Johnson had completed his testimony, there were still people and doctors that testified some time after. Also I remember just shortly after Johnson’s testimony, Geraldo Rivera did a show about steroids on his talk show Geraldo. I remember at the conclusion of the inquiry, Justice Charles Dubin stated his conclusions and verdicts. He also blamed the cutthroat competitiveness of competitive sports and even things like the Olympic Games and high-payout athletic endorsements for the rampant use of steroids.

THE AFTERMATH

There were additional penalties after the Dubin Inquiry.  Both Desai and Angella were banned from competition for two years and were stripped of all their records. They would retire in that time. Other Canadian runners such as Mark McCoy who didn’t run his relay leg in Seoul in the wake of the scandal also received a two year ban. Charlie Francis would soon be banned from coaching for life. He appeared to have come clean after he admitted giving his athletes steroids. However he’d be disgraced again when he announced that he’d continue giving his athletes steroids. Once that was made public, he was banned for life. Ben Johnson’s world record from the 1987 World Championships was also stripped from the record books. The new record was the 9.92 run by Carl Lewis in Seoul. Ben was however allowed to keep both of his Olympic bronzes from Los Angeles. Desai and Angella were allowed to keep their 1984 Olympic medals too.

There are some interesting footnotes. One is that there were three books released in a matter of two years since that were either about the scandal or made mention of the scandal. The most notable was Carl Lewis’ autobiography Inside Track released late in 1990. In that same time period Charlie Francis released his book Speed Traps. However the biggest one for me was Angella Issajenko and her book Running Risks which was released around the same time as Inside Track. I remember she even had a radio interview on a Winnipeg station while promoting her book. She made mention of a meet where Canada’s senior women’s relay team finished behind East Germany’s junior relay team. That’s when she made the decision to go on steroids. She also said she believed the world has learned nothing from this. I admire Angella for most telling it like it was.

For years after Seoul, there was the big question about Ben Johnson running again. For a long time, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) was saying he can’t run for Canada again. Jamaica said they didn’t want him back. That changed when Carol Anne Letheren was made head of the COC. Johnson was allowed to compete for Canada again. I even remember a news story of Ben Johnson with his new coach in 1990.  Ben’s comeback began at an indoor meet in the winter of 1991. I remember tracing Ben’s comeback attempt at the time.  Upon returning, Ben looked less bulky since Seoul. Ben lost the race by a close margin. Ben would continue competing. However reality sunk in when there was a meet in France which was to be the first Johnson/Lewis rivalry since Seoul. It was actually won by American Dennis Mitchell. Carl Lewis finished second and Ben finished eighth and last. I was really hoping for Ben to come back from this and I was starting to lose hope in him. Further hope was lost when I learned he finished fourth at the World Championship Trials. His only berth at the Worlds came on the men’s relay. For the record, Canada had a new national fastest man: Bruny Surin. Ben was still persistent. He would qualify for the 100m dash at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona while Carl Lewis was ill at the US Olympic Trials and missed qualifying. Johnson only got as far as the semifinals in Barcelona. At that time I sensed some hope for Ben in the future.

Unfortunately the Barcelona Olympics would be the last major competition Ben would appear in. Months later, he allegedly failed another drug test. This time he was banned for life. I was shocked myself because I wanted to see him come back a winner. He protested his innocence but declined to fight the charge since he was nearing the end of his career. He did fight the charges five years later and won only to test positive again in 1999. By then, I just shrugged it off. I didn’t have to worry. Canada already had a new World’s Fastest Man in Donovan Bailey and he never failed a doping test. It was obvious that steroids made Ben.

So there you go. Those are my memories of the final in Seoul and what happened in the years leading to it and the years leading since. If I wouldn’t have seen that film 9.79*, I wouldn’t have remembered that today’s the 25th Anniversary of that moment. My how time flies. Anyways you heard my thoughts on the big moment today. I also posted my thoughts on doping in sport on Friday.