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Disgraced former Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson ponders a question at a news conference in Ottawa, on Aug. 23, 1999.Jim Young/Reuters

After winning the 100-metre final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, now remembered as “the dirtiest race in history,” Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson failed his drug test and was stripped of his gold medal. He later admitted to steroid use and has lived in ignominy since. In her new book World’s Fastest Man*: The Incredible Life of Ben Johnson, author Mary Ormsby raises serious questions about the science, procedures and prejudices that led to Johnson’s disqualification. This is the second of three excerpts: Tomorrow, ‘I’d do it again’.

The doping case against Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson seemed open and shut. The fastest man on earth was unmasked as a cheater at the 1988 Seoul Olympics when his post-race urine test yielded traces of a banned anabolic steroid. Stripped of the 100-metre gold medal he’d possessed for just three days, Johnson was disqualified and flew home to Toronto in disgrace.

It’s since become apparent that Johnson was denied due process in Seoul. Among the troubling issues at his hearing before International Olympic Committee medical commission members: Johnson’s drug test analysis was riddled with unsigned handwritten alterations, including a changed athlete-identification code; a second unofficial urine test (which reportedly tracked long-time steroid use) was dropped on shocked Canadian officials who, in turn, did not challenge this lack of disclosure or the reason for the test. It’s also been learned that the IOC medical commission gave the benefit of the doubt to some athletes facing doping sanctions in Seoul but not others.

American forensic toxicologist Dr. David Black, an expert witness in doping matters who was once hired by Johnson, last year reviewed the former sprinter’s post-race urine screening documentation from Seoul. Black called the data “unacceptable under current laboratory requirements and should have been unacceptable in 1988.”

Not everyone is warm to the idea that Ben Johnson was denied a fair hearing in Seoul. “What good would it have done if he’d kept his gold medal after failing a drug test?” demanded an experienced antidoping expert who wishes to remain unnamed for fear of reprisals. “That means a longtime cheat would have gotten away with it. How fair is that to other athletes who don’t touch banned drugs like steroids?”

Solid point. It’s the counterargument that polarizes the Ben Johnson story. He was a cheater who broke doping rules and was suitably punished. At the same time, is it fair to ask if a cheater can be cheated by the system when deprived of due process?

The answer is yes, even for some who are unflinching anti-doping advocates. The Hon. Hugh Fraser was not part of the proceedings in Seoul. He said while hindsight is beneficial when reviewing decades-old decisions, he felt Canadian sports officials fell short of aggressively protecting Johnson’s right to due process during and after his Olympic disqualification proceedings.

“You’re talking about the highest profile event at the Games,” Fraser said. “The gold-medal winner, the world-record holder, [and] you think that you would pursue every possible avenue of appeal that there was until every door was slammed shut, and then, finally, you would accept that result. To me, that’s not an endorsement of ‘we support’ Ben Johnson or anything else. That’s just part of the due-process rights that every athlete is entitled to.”

‘There has to be some mistake’: Ben Johnson was bewildered at his positive test

Fraser recalled arbitration cases he handled that, at first blush, looked hopeless for the athlete but would turn if procedural deficiencies were found. “I’ve seen some cases that on the face of it, [one asks] ‘Why are they even bothering? They’ve got this athlete dead to rights.’ Then you get into it and you realize, ‘No, we are upholding this appeal and restoring [the result] because there have been screwups in the process, or [there’s] evidence in a [urine] contamination case that clearly would not be attributed at all to an athlete.’ You have to explore all those things because you can’t just jump to conclusions at the front end and say, ‘It must be this because this is the finding.’”

Athletes have far more protection these days, especially after the advent of the World Anti-Doping Agency. Athletes’ rights, including the right to hearings before an independent panel, were enhanced under WADA. Johnson did not get an independent hearing in Seoul. Nor were the conflicts of interest of medical commission members sitting in judgment of him challenged in any way. Canadian lawyer John Barnes provided one of the few assessments of the Seoul situation in the 1991 Ottawa Law Review:

“Johnson’s urine was certainly tainted, but no more than the summary proceedings he faced.

“In any other walk of life, the defects in due process would fatally flaw the disciplinary action. … The accused does not have full notice of all the elements of the charge, and it is not clear what constitutes evidence of knowing use.

“A particular abnormality in Johnson’s case was the ad hominem use of the endocrine profile to prove repeated steroid application; use of the profile is not expressly authorized in IOC rules, and the evidence was introduced as an unprecedented surprise. The hearing process denies an adequate chance to rebut the allegations and evidence, and particularly gives rise to the apprehension of bias.

“Doping control requires IOC officials to act as testers, prosecutors and judges (and Johnson further muddled the roles by asking an IOC vice-president to serve in the very difficult position of defence counsel). There may also have been serious breaches of security rules in the presence of unauthorized persons at the doping control office and in the publicity given to Johnson’s positive ‘A’ sample.”

Barnes argues that “Johnson might have relied on the numerous irregularities in the IOC’s proceedings to challenge his disqualification. A delegation and [a Canadian] government fully committed to athletes’ rights might well have encouraged him in this course.”

Had Johnson been able to keep his Olympic gold, he’d be just another tainted champion on a growing list of world-class sprinters with doping histories and Olympic medals. Of the Seoul 100-metre finalists, Carl Lewis, winner of four golds in 1984, was absolved of stimulant infractions weeks before he was awarded the 1988 gold; Linford Christie tested positive for the steroid nandrolone in 1999, seven years after racing to Olympic 100-metre gold in Barcelona and 11 years after narrowly avoiding a stimulant violation in Seoul, where he earned a silver; and Dennis Mitchell retained his Barcelona bronze after high testosterone levels were detected in his 1998 urine sample. And it’s not only late-20th-century sprinters on this list. American Justin Gatlin, for instance, failed two drug tests (in 2001 and 2006) and won Olympic medals (gold in 2004, bronze in 2012, silver in 2016) before and after serving his four-year doping ban (from 2006 to 2010).

Ben Johnson’s aunt, Laura Case, has her own read of track-and-field politics. Sitting on her Clark’s Town porch, fanning herself under a blistering Jamaican sun, she put her nephew’s fate in blunt terms:

“They sentenced him to life before they tried him.”

Excerpted from World’s Fastest Man*: The Incredible Life of Ben Johnson, now available from Sutherland House.

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