The Illusion Of Clean: Why Ben Johnson’s Positive Test Still Resonates

By Dillon Friday / @noclassfriday

Twenty-four years ago, Ben Johnson lost his Gold medal in the most damning way possible. He tested positive for steroids. (Probably going to have to go to California Drug Rehab) To call Johnson a sacrificial lamb would be hyperbolic. To call him a scapegoat would be to pardon him.

In some ways he took the ax for a broken system that had long turned a blind eye to rampant performance-enhancing drug use.

ESPN’s 30 for 30 series took an extended look into that infamous 100 meters at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The documentary “9.79*,” a reference to Johnson’s tainted world record time, offers varying perspectives on the race and P.E.D. use from the participating runners as well as important figures within track and field.

The film is excellent. Director Daniel Gordon presents a downtrodden Johnson without exonerating or vilifying the man. Gordon merely portrays Johnson, as well as the other runners profiled, as a man with a choice: to cheat or not to cheat.

For those who chose the former, their reason was simple. They would rather be the best of the cheaters than the best of the rest. The playing field had been artificially tilted. The needle served as a tool to restore competitive equality.

Without dwelling too much on Gordon’s film, you should view it if you haven’t yet. Ben Johnson still has much to teach us about the role of performance-enhancing drugs.

First and foremost, the Canadian sprinter proved that steroids work. Through his drug regime, Johnson transformed from a middling world-class sprinter into the fastest timed man in human history.

In “9.79” he outlines his exhausting workout routine. He challenges the viewers to endure his heavy lifting program as a montage shows Johnson bench-pressing enormous weights and running on the beach.

No one can dismiss Johnson’s work ethic. But as someone in the film notes (I don’t recall who), the steroids provide the user with the strength necessary to endure the grueling work. The user can work twice as hard for twice as long. Moreover, the drugs allow these athletes to recover faster.

When Johnson crossed that finish line in 1988 with his finger raised in celebration, it might as well have been a call to arms for the meek athlete. The righteous viewed the fallout from the race as proof that the good prevail. The corrupt saw it as a way to the top.

In the flawed drug-testing system of the late 20th century, knowledgeable athletes could dupe testers for years while climbing the ranks in their respective sport.

Look at Major League Baseball. Look at world cycling. More hauntingly, look at track and field. To this day, every top sprinter must address P.E.D. allegations.

It all started with Johnson, the use and the denial, the perpetual work of an entire sport to rid itself of a contaminated past.

Late in the film, a drug tester from the 1984 Los Angeles games considers re-examining several test samples he had kept from the competing athletes. He eventually thinks better of it. To come clean entirely is to expose more dirt.

In 2012, performance-enhancing drugs are still a hot topic. The San Francisco Giants' Melky Cabrera as well as the Oakland Athletics' Bartolo Colon received 50-game suspensions for P.E.D. use. The celebrated Lance Armstrong finally wilted, albeit in denial, to the mounting evidence of his own drug use.

Some saw these punishments as victories for drug testing.

They’re not. In sports like track and field, baseball, cycling, and football, the illusion of clean is more important than the reality.

Ben Johnson created this illusion in less than 10 seconds. It’s lasted for 24 years. It will forever be his legacy.

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