And in many ways, a new era in sports had begun.
“It was stunning, absolutely stunning,” said Don Catlin, an anti-doping chemist who was one of the first to review Johnson’s sample at the Seoul lab, confirming that it showed the presence of stanozolol. “The Games literally stopped in their tracks for 24 hours. People were wandering around in disbelief.
The first major drug bust in sports history produced a change in perception that was never undone, and which has colored nearly every world record and many Olympic gold medals since. The London Summer Games, which begin later this month, surely will produce moments when victorious athletes are scrutinized as suspects rather than hailed as champions — never mind that better nutrition, technology, training methods and sports science suggest that records should continue to fall.
“The question they always ask the winners is, ‘Are you clean or are you dirty?’ ” said U.S. sprinter Wallace Spearmon, the U.S. champion in track’s 200 meters.
The pall cast by doping might be the most lasting legacy of 21st century sport. Hardest hit are the sports and athletes that deal in the currency of speed. Doped-up offensive linemen only indirectly affect the outcome of football games. Drug-enhanced hitters drive more baseballs out of ballparks, but the drugs themselves can’t place a bat squarely on a 90-mph pitch.
In sports in which athletes engage in straight-up racing against other athletes and a clock, drugs don’t just matter, they distort and destroy. Events that once romanced fans and delivered records with enduring clarity — one second in 1900 is the same as one second in 2012 — lost their aura and significance. Two of the last four men to hold the men’s 100-meter world record, the same one Johnson held, were stripped of the marks because of drug bans.
Even worse, the expectation of drug use does as much damage as the reality of it. It doesn’t matter if you are clean, if nobody actually believes it.
Ben Johnson’s bust “tainted the field,” said Curtis Frye, a longtime U.S. track and field coach. “The best guy isn’t the best guy, he’s the best-assisted guy. It hurt track and field in a tangible, personal way with Joe Citizen.”
American track star Lashinda Demus, the reigning world champion in the 400-meter hurdles, said the questions are so justifiable that she finds herself asking them.
“You have suspicions when somebody runs fast,” Demus said. “I’m sure people have suspicions of me.”
Problems at home
Brooks Johnson, a longtime U.S. Olympic track coach, speculated that justification for doping began to emerge soon after World War II, as nations whose youth had been decimated through combat felt they had the right to enhance their reduced ranks of young athletes with steroids and other substances. By the 1960s, questions about performance-enhancing drug use began to emerge among Olympic insiders, especially in sports such as weightlifting.