Ben Johnson: ‘I believe nothing has changed in 25 years. Except that it has got worse’
The former Fastest Man on Earth is now the contradictory face of a new anti-doping campaign
Today Ben Johnson seems a little confused over how beneficial the drugs were, and maintains he would still have won the 1998 Olympic 100 metres gold medal if he hadn’t been doping. Photograph: Reuters
“Sprinters are born, my friend. Not made. You have to understand that. The hard training was put in there, 12 years of hard training. The only thing the drugs did was help me recover from the hard training. I wouldn’t know if I would have run 9.79. But I know I would have won the gold medal, in 1988, even without taking drugs. Yeah.”
That Ben Johnson is telling me this, 25 years after playing the starring role in the most delusional drama in sporting history, should come as no surprise, and perhaps some relief. Johnson, it seems, has lost none of his capacity to astonish, and turns out he’s only settling into the starting blocks.
Certain running tracks, he tells me, are now built with a “down slope”, and help explain why someone like Usain Bolt can run 9.58. The doping landscape, 25 years on from Seoul, has not changed, “except that it has got worse”, and Johnson only has to look at the 100 metres now to realise that, because “they keep going like a race horse”.
As for his own health, at age 51, and after years of steroid abuse, Johnson answers with a question. “Did you read something in the media that I’m dead yet? Or I have health problems? I still work out, run once in a while. I eat very well. Only healthy food.”
That Johnson is telling me all this as the face of a new anti-doping campaign might cause some confusion, and perhaps some disappointment. It’s like Keith Richards advocating no sex or drugs in rock n’roll – a tad incongruous. Part of his message, it appears, is that the drugs don’t work – when in his case, they so obviously did.
Nor is Johnson the easiest person to interview, at least not over the phone, when he’s sitting in a hotel room in New York City: it’s not so much the slight delay on the line, but that Johnson’s accent – part Caribbean, part Canadian, and heavy on the monosyllabic – is topped with the occasional stutter, traced back to when he was 11-years-old, and his mother, Gloria, first moved from Jamaica to Canada (it was four years later before Johnson followed).
Thankfully, for both of us, also sitting in on the conversation is Jaimie Fuller, the Australian entrepreneur and chairman of Skins, the Swiss-based sportswear company, who helps keep most of Johnson’s comments in check, or at least in some perspective. Fuller might be familiar already for his crusade against doping in cycling, and specifically his calls to end Pat McQuaid’s tenure in charge of that sport, and now he’s turning his campaign – entitled Pure Sport – to track and field. He’s dubbing it #ChooseTheRightTrack, and it’s an apt slogan, aimed not only at convincing athletes to choose against doping, but also at athletes that have been doping, and may want to choose to come clean.
Which is where Ben Johnson comes in: the men’s 100 metres that unfolded in Seoul on that September day, 1988, originally billed as the Race Of the Century, later amended to The Dirtiest Race In History, turned him into the ultimate sporting pariah. Some 48 hours after pointing his right arm towards the sky, even before the finish line, destroying Carl Lewis and the rest of his rivals as much as rebuffing them, lowering his own world record to 9.79, Johnson tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol – although that was only the beginning of Johnson’s end.
“It does still haunt me,” says Johnson. “Yes. I’m not going to lie. But it doesn’t matter to me, anymore. It was all politics, at that point in time. I’m moving forward. It’s behind me.”
Which explains the Johnson-Fuller combination: Johnson’s willingness to move forward was met with Fuller’s desire to find of a face for his campaign, so they chose the same track, so to speak. A three-week campaign tour started earlier this month in the UK, took them to the US, then on to Australia and Japan, and they’ll finish up in Seoul, on Tuesday week, September 24th when – exactly 25 years to the day since that 100 metres – Johnson will revisit the Olympic Stadium, walk down the same lane, and unroll a large anti-doping petition, labelled #ChooseTheRightTrack.
If it all seems a slightly bizarre way to mark the 25th anniversary, it somehow made perfect sense to Johnson, and especially Fuller.
“Jaimie contacted me, a few months ago, up in Toronto,” says Johnson, Toronto still being his home. “We spoke over lunch, about two and a half hours, about the terms of the campaign, how Jaimie wanted to move it forward. So he explained it all to me, what he wanted to do. And I just said I’d be into it.
‘Wrong thing for me’
“Because when I was involved with performance enhancing drugs, I knew it was the wrong thing for me to do. Even though I said yes, at the time. But in my heart, and in my mind, I was not feeling good about it. I think some of it was trying to please some people, in my observation. You could say that. So I decided to say yes, to Jaimie, to help him move forward with his campaign.