It has been nearly 25 years since the “dirtiest race in history,” the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s gold medal-winning, and steroid-infused, 100-metre dash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Last Wednesday, a few weeks short of the anniversary, Johnson sat inside a midtown Manhattan hotel’s windowless conference room to present himself as a cautionary tale, a living lesson about the perils of doping, and a truth-teller in a world where he said cover-ups were as common as cleats.
“Just because an athlete didn’t test positive doesn’t mean they’re clean,” he said.
He said he decided to speak out because he wanted “to help make changes in today’s society about drugs in sports.”
Johnson, known for being brash, sounded a note of humility. “I want to set the record straight once and for all that I’m a small part of a problem,” he said.
Johnson was joined by Jose Canseco, another tarnished star who has made a second career out of discussing how he cheated during his first. Canseco suggested he be given carte blanche to enter major-league clubhouses to talk to baseball players about doping.
“It will never happen,” he said.
Though Johnson looked a few years past his running days, he still had some of the old bravado that made him one of his sport’s biggest stars.
“I’m sorry to say that the drugs overshadowed my great ability that God gifted me,” Johnson said, “Because you know, even in 1988, no one could react faster than me off the gun.”
He said he had felt pressured to use steroids.
“As a youngster like me, that’s what I was told by my coach, that everybody on my level was doing it,” he said, “so for me to be on a level playing field, I would have to join in, so to speak, so I said, ‘Why not?’”
Johnson’s medal was ultimately rescinded, and his legacy became one of cheating, not sprinting.
Wearing a black polo shirt, he looked as if he had stayed in shape during his years out of the spotlight.
He seemed ready to discuss something, anything, other than his old scandal.
“Life goes on,” Johnson said. “We’re only human. We make mistakes and try and move forward and try to change the way people think or feel about what we have done.”
Johnson and Canseco spoke to an audience of fewer than two-dozen people, mostly reporters. The event was organized by Skins, a Swiss compression clothing company, which is promoting an online petition to reduce doping in sports.
Johnson and Canseco spoke during a troubled time in track and baseball.
Major League Baseball has been engulfed this summer in a doping scandal that has led to the suspension of more than a dozen players, including New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, who is playing while he appeals his penalty.
In July, Tyson Gay, the top American sprinter, was one of several runners found to have tested positive for a banned substance. (Before the drug test, Gay had been one of the faces of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s “My Victory” anti-doping campaign.)
Johnson surveyed the racing landscape and said little had changed since his Seoul race, when he was one of several competitors to test positive for banned substances. If anything, he said, “it got worse.”
The conversation, moderated by Jaimie Fuller, the Skins chairman, touched on anti-doping topics large and small, including the discrepancy between anti-doping agencies’ puny budgets and the massive salaries earned by athletes they are supposed to police, not to mention the revenues that sports leagues take in.
“I spent my whole life running,” Johnson said. “I didn’t have a job. Track and field was my job. That was my passion; that is what I focused on since I was six years old.”
Johnson said he no longer watched much sports, track or otherwise. He said he spent his time coaching children’s soccer, football, hockey and baseball in Toronto.
Most of the athletes he works with were born after the Seoul Games and do not ask him about his history.