Angella Issajenko ran on the Canadian sprint team in the 1988 Summer Olympics along with Ben Johnson. She, like Johnson, took banned performance-enhancing drugs--steroids and human growth hormone. Unlike Johnson, who was stripped of his gold medal in the 100 meters, Issajenko never got caught.
Settled in Toronto now, she has four young children. Three run in track meets on weekends. Issajenko said she did not know what advice she would someday give her children, who range in age from 6 to 13, about performance-enhancing drugs.
"Who knows?" said Issajenko, 40, a personal trainer. "I'm all for people doing the very best they can. . . . If they had some drug that would make you intelligent, every single person would be on some brain drug, because it's human nature. People sit around and moralize, but people have worse skeletons in their closet than a couple of steroids."
Issajenko's viewpoint as a mother and former athlete, more than 10 years after Johnson left Seoul disgraced, provides a glimpse at the mind-set of athletes who use banned substances to enhance their performance.
Issajenko began taking steroids in preparation for the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, and won a silver medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games in the 400-meter relay. She twice was ranked fourth in the world in the 100 meters but never won an individual Olympic medal. Although she underwent drug testing on several occasions, she never tested positive.
Issajenko maintains that drugs won't "turn a donkey into a racehorse." She said Johnson, who was stripped of his 100-meter world record as a result of the scandal, nonetheless deserves to be called "the best sprinter of all time."
To Issajenko, drugs do nothing more than "help you train a bit harder" and do not present harmful side effects when taken in reasonable doses--though she admitted she suffered from hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which she attributed to taking hGH.
"I'm not going to say: 'Kids, this is bad for you,'" Issajenko said. "It is an ethical question--that's all it is. It has nothing to do with blowing livers, being bad for them, blah, blah, blah.
"Sometimes the less talented people sit on the sidelines, wailing that they are not on a level playing field. Even if they took steroids, they still wouldn't be ahead of [other] people doing it. They're not as talented."
Issajenko's drug use came to light only after she revealed it during the Canadian government's inquiry that resulted from Johnson's positive test in 1988.
Issajenko said she wanted to give herself every possible advantage. She had been criticized by the Canadian press in 1979 for failing--as the Canadian national champion in the 100 and 200 meters--to make an impact internationally. She didn't want the playing field tilted in somebody else's favor.
"I always felt people at my level were possibly doing them," she said, "and the people below me wouldn't have beaten me without doing them."
Issajenko also said: "There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It becomes quite tempting. In America, they put you on a Wheaties box. The lure of the money is quite amazing. They don't even want the silver medalist. You win the Olympics and become an instant millionaire."
Issajenko said she took the same steroid--Stanozolol--that Johnson was caught using. She used a variety of drugs--steroids Dianabol, Primabolin, Decadurabolin, Anavar, testosterone and human growth hormone--over a nine-year span, according to her testimony at the Canadian government's commission of inquiry in 1989.
According to the testimony, she received the drugs from a number of other athletes and several doctors, including Robert Kerr, a San Gabriel, Calif., physician.
Kerr years ago claimed to have given drugs to 20 athletes who won medals at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, but now says he no longer gives drugs to athletes to boost performance. For Issajenko, he prescribed human growth hormone obtained from Swedish cadavers.
Now, hGH is more commonly produced chemically, which some experts believe makes it less effective in small doses.
Issajenko's children have trained with Charlie Francis, who coached her and Johnson in 1988. According to the government inquiry, he received the nickname "Charlie the Chemist" for his involvement in helping athletes obtain drugs.
Issajenko said her eldest daughter, Alexandra, 13, showed a knack for sprinting but decided not to pursue it--despite the $20 a week Francis offered her to train. Issajenko said her younger children, however, seem more interested in the sport; her 8-year-old son Dmitry and two daughters--Natalia, 9, and Sophia, 6--run races on the weekends. Issajenko said she does not want to push her children too hard and believes they shouldn't engage in intense training until they are older.
"At this age, I don't care that he loses the 100 meters," Issajenko said, referring to her son. "It will get very serious at some point for my kids, but for now, it's a lot of fun."
Issajenko has big plans for the future.
"My ambition is to someday produce the Olympic champion," she said. "It will be my child, or someone else's child."