At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Ben Johnson dominated what had been billed as the greatest footrace in history, easily beating American Carl Lewis to win the gold medal. Johnson’s record time of 9.79 seconds vaulted him to hero status in Canada and turned him into an instant international icon.
The only sports news that made bigger headlines around the world came three days later: Johnson had tested positive for steroids. His fame turned to infamy, Johnson was stripped of his gold medal and declared a cheater.
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.”
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.
Athletes got bulkier and acne — a side effect of steroid use — started showing up on the backs of sculpted stars. In 1967, a British cyclist who had used amphetamines died during the Tour de France.
Even so, the issue rarely entered the public domain, let alone dominated it.
A rudimentary drug testing program was unveiled at the Olympic Games in 1968, but it did not include testing for steroids and generated just one positive — for alcohol. Americans tended to view steroids as the domain of the East Germans or Soviet Union. Around the globe, however, high-achieving U.S. stars also attracted skepticism. Indeed, John Ziegler, one of the American chemists credited with developing the steroid known as Dianabol in the 1950s, worked with the 1960 U.S. Olympic weightlifting team.
“We got better scientists than anybody in the world,” Frye said. Other countries “weren’t the ones that created it. Dianabol was happening in America.”
Said Johnson: “Americans were reluctant to assume [drug use among] American athletes, whereas Europe always assumed the Americans were on drugs.”
Whether they were or weren’t remains the subject of unresolved debate. At the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela, about a dozen U.S. athletes famously bolted town once they learned an anti-doping lab would be collecting urine samples. After the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, the International Olympic Committee’s late medical chief admitted losing information that identified five to nine athletes who tested positive at those Olympics, which had been wildly successful.
The names, which he claimed were stolen from his hotel safe, were never revealed. The chief, Prince Alexandre de Merode, died in 2002.
Sport governing bodies thumped their respective chests over their testing programs, professing a desire to keep their sports clean, but such oversight amounted to the fox guarding the henhouse and had little credibility. (The independent World Anti-Doping Agency wasn’t established until 1999 and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency followed in 2000.)
Thomas H. Murray, a bioethics expert and the former president of the Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y., said his membership on the U.S. Olympic Committee’s anti-doping committee in the 1980s “was the most frustrating assignment I had in my career.” Murray, who published research papers on doping in sport, said he felt ignored by U.S. officials who did not want to address the growing problem.
“Was I yelling into the wind?” Murray said. “It was more like I was yelling into a vacuum where sound doesn’t travel at all. At least yelling into the wind, the people downwind might hear you.”
That attitude would see a massive shift after Johnson’s bust in 1988.
Suspicions about Johnson emerged well before the 1988 Games. When he beat Lewis at the 1987 world championships in Rome and set the 100 world record at 9.83 seconds, Lewis complained, without naming names, that drug use had sullied the championships. Johnson’s running style raised eyebrows among sport insiders, if not among the viewing public. Frye recalled having difficulty comprehending how it was that Johnson managed to cover the last 30 meters of races faster than the middle 30.
“That makes all the track coaches leery who start seeing that,” Frye said. “It defies belief.”
The chatter, however, did not reach the mainstream. It apparently did not reach the Canadian Olympic Committee, either. In what was later described as an oversight, Johnson was not drug-tested at the Canadian Olympic trials just more than a month before the Seoul Olympics.
He was tested, however, immediately after lowering his world record to 9.79 seconds during his 100 race. Within 48 hours, the stanozolol had been discovered. Catlin said Alexandre, the medical chief, “wiggled and gasped” when informed that Johnson’s test was positive. Johnson got on a plane to fly back to Canada after being ordered to turn over his medal outside his hotel room at 3:30 a.m.
“It’s a sad thing,” Alexandre said then. “It’s a disastrous thing.”
It was treated like a disaster. The Canadian Minister of Sport, Jean Charest, called Johnson’s positive test a “national embarrassment,” and vowed to quadruple funding for drug-testing in Canada. A federal judge in Canada conducted month-long hearings — the so-called Dubin Inquiry — that exposed widespread doping practices. In the United States, Johnson’s bust spurred congressional hearings on steroid use that led directly to the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990.
Denial of the issue was no longer the problem, or even an option.
“This woke the public up,” Catlin said. “The blinds were pulled off their eyes. It was right there; you couldn’t deny it.”
That recognition produced, at least, a theoretical will to stop the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports.
But then a new question emerged: How was that going to happen?
Catlin, who beginning in 1982 ran the IOC-accredited anti-doping laboratory in Los Angeles for 25 years, said few people understand the difficulties anti-doping chemists face. They imagine a urine sample put through some foolproof machine that starts buzzing and whirring when it detects a positive sample.
It’s not like that at all. It’s not easy to find performance-enhancing drugs. It especially wasn’t in the early days, when scientists like Catlin were starting from scratch. To detect any drug, a chemist first must know about it.
Even Catlin underestimated the challenge initially. He firmly believed that, once he acquired the profiles of all of the known steroids and stimulants, he could almost single-handedly clean up U.S. sport.
“I thought: ‘This is simple. The game is over,’ ” recalled Catlin, who now heads Anti-Doping Research in Los Angeles. “That was pretty wrong. It was wrong because I didn’t think about designer drugs.”
It didn’t take Catlin long to realize how naive he had been. He grew increasingly disturbed as, year after year, the rate of positives in drug-testing turned out to be far fewer than he expected, generally less than 1 to 2 percent. That meant either only a minuscule portion of athletes were cheating, or, more likely, testers were missing drug users. That’s when Catlin understood his foe to be so-called designer drugs, those created specifically to fool drug-testers.
Yet it wasn’t until 2003 that Catlin and the rest of the world comprehended the magnitude of the problem. That summer, a track coach anonymously sent USADA a syringe of a previously unknown steroid that was later dubbed THG. USADA sent it to Catlin. He had never seen anything like it before. Using the substance, he developed a way to detect it.
At the U.S. track and field championships that year, with Catlin’s new test secretly put into place, five athletes tested positive for THG. Federal authorities raided the lab, known as Balco, that had supplied the substance. They found drug calendars, ledgers and notes connecting performance-enhancing drugs to dozens of athletes across a number of sports.
“Everyone’s worst fears were realized,” said Travis Tygart, the chief executive officer of USADA. “The win-at-all-cost culture had truly taken over Olympic sport.”
Federal agents went after a number of those athletes and their coaches.
Within four years, America’s track darling, Marion Jones, who won five medals at the 2000 Games in Sydney, admitted to lying about her use of the Balco designer steroids.
The one-time glamour girl of her sport went to prison.
The anti-doping effort at the Olympic Games has become so big, Olympic organizers succeeded in selling sponsorship rights to it for the first time. The British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline will help staff and run a $30 million, 14,436-square foot laboratory about 45 minutes north of London during the Games. Some 1,000 lab officials will run 5,000 urine and blood tests, using improved equipment and expanded methods of detection
Anti-doping officials say the two-fold goal with such a show of anti-doping weaponry is both to catch cheaters and discourage use. They might add a third: to restore public confidence.
“I’m a sadder person when I watch sports,” Murray said. “I’m a bit less trusting that what I’m seeing are authentic performances.”
The Balco scandal directly led to a handful of federal investigations that crawled through the years and ensnared many of the decade’s biggest stars, including Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Lance Armstrong, who also faces formal charges from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Though Armstrong was never indicted, Clemens was acquitted and Bonds avoided a prison term, a society that once found sports doping easy to ignore, perhaps, now just wishes it would just go away.
For sure, the athletes do.
Spearmon works out regularly with NFL players and other professional athletes at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis. His friends at the gym regularly ask him about his craft, and top stars such as Jamaican world-record holder Usain Bolt, but the topic isn’t always one he would like to discuss.
“I’ll go out into the community . . . that’s the first question they ask: Is he clean?” Spearmon said. “I always tell them: ‘Yeah, Bolt is clean. I think he’s just talented.’ ”
Spearmon, addressing a group of reporters at a pre-Olympic event, said he believed fast times and gold medals should be achievements to celebrate, not second-guess.
“Until they don’t pass a drug test,” he said, “leave them alone and let them run.”
TIMELINE: Doping at the Summer Olympics
Chapter 2: Swimmer Missy Franklin was built for speed
Chapter 4: Dara Torres pursues speed for the ages