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

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).

Apt slogan
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.

“Also, even today, when an athlete tests positive, a lot of people still talk about Ben Johnson. This was another thing for me, too, to get involved. Because I’m only a very small part of the puzzle. And so if I can be a help, to help make track and field a cleaner sport, a cleaner environment, for future generations.”

Yet given how many times he’s recounted his story, at best sadly contradictory, at worst unreliably deceitful, the big doubt is whether Johnson is sincere in his motives for cleaning up his sport, or simply interested in clearing his conscience. What is certain is that he’s not being paid a single cent (beyond the travel expenses of the three-week tour), and Fuller is convinced that Johnson’s heart is in the right place.

“When I watched that ESPN documentary last summer, 9.79*, the thing that hit me most was how Ben had been given such a bad rap,” says Fuller, “especially as we now know that six of the eight athletes in that 100m final have been associated with performance enhancing drugs in one way or another.

“Then my recent experience with sporting administration, namely the cycling body, made me realise that Ben had been dumped over pretty badly, in terms of being isolated, used as a scapegoat, by the administers, who just wanted to deny the issue within the sport, and point to him, saying, look ‘he’s the bad guy, over there’.

“When I realised it was coming up to the 25th anniversary of Seoul, that made me think, as well, that this is the perfect opportunity, to go back to Ben, see if he was repentant, sorry about what he did, and if his view was aligned with ours. So I hopped on a plane to Toronto to meet with him. I wanted to look him in the eye when having that conversation. I also explained to Ben, that for the campaign to have full credibility, it would have to be voluntary, and Ben very generously agreed to that. It indicates how serious Ben is.”

Not that Fuller didn’t realise that some people would view Johnson as the worst possible face of an anti-doping campaign: Johnson was never utterly despised, nor indeed capable of playing the evil villain, and yet, not too unlike Lance Armstrong, his most conspicuous regret seemed to be getting caught.

“I knew Ben would be a contentious choice,” says Fuller, “and I’ve had it said to my face, that we should be promoting a clean athlete, someone who has never gone down the road of doping. My first answer to that is no one would want to hear that story.

‘Ultimate cheater’
“Yes, Ben is the poster boy of doping, but it’s wrong to build on that perception, because the perception that Ben is the ultimate cheater is so wrong. To get the message of this campaign across, to eradicate doping, we also wanted someone who has gone from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, because the message is that strong. I just don’t think someone with a clean record could make as strong a case for that, and particularly around the 25th anniversary of Seoul.”

Johnson’s record is certainly anything but clean, although he still seems a little confused over just how beneficial the drugs actually were. Despite the He-Man shoulders, Godzilla thighs, the bloodshot eyes and generally treacherous look of a man bent on some vengeful act, Johnson maintains he was running more on natural talent than anything else.

“No, drugs did not make a big difference. If you don’t have the genetics, the right training programme, a good coach, the right biomechanics, everything, you’re not going to run fast. If the only reason I ran fast was because of drugs then the whole world would be running fast.

“Like, the drugs I was taking didn’t even make me put on that much weight. I was lifting weights since 1980. In 1988 I weighed 172 pounds. Not that big. And when I was taking performance enhancing drugs, 25 years ago, I was using only 5mg of winstrol (as in the brand name for stanozolol). That’s all I was using. That was enough for the body can absorb. The rest to be flushed out. So, if you speak to any expert on this subject, any doctor, endocrinologist, or a PhD in nutrition, or biomechanics, they will tell you the drugs only make you train harder. They don’t make you run faster.”

Level the playing field
There was and probably still is the argument that athletes such as Johnson also took drugs primarily to level the playing field, in that absurdly distorted way. It’s partly justified by the fact only two of the eight finalists from Seoul (the American Calvin Smith, and Robson da Silva from Brazil) were not somehow guilty of taking performance enhancing drugs. Lewis, who was later awarded Johnson’s gold medal, we now know failed three tests at the 1988 US Olympic trials.

Johnson doesn’t deny the argument still holds true today, although he has some other theories as to why athletes are running times even quicker than his 9.79. He’s claimed on previous occasions that he’d beat Bolt, were he competing these days, and could probably run around 9.30, which begs the question what he thinks about the credibility of elite sprinting 25 years on from Seoul.

“It’s not a hard question to answer, no. Number one, technology has changed over the last 25 years. Now, the people in track and field industry are spending millions of dollars on developing tracks, hard surfaces, that are faster. And most of the tracks that they make now are down slope. It’s like a hill, but you don’t see it. It’s why most tracks are dug up after the Olympics. Because they’re not under the regulations. So they dig it up.

“Now, talk about doping again. Yes, technology has changed, with more powerful drugs, for more oxygen in the blood. The more oxygen in the blood, the harder to get tired, so they keep going like a race horse. Right? And that’s what’s going on right now. I’m not saying those guys don’t work hard, don’t put the work in. Because you take a lot of steroids, and if you don’t train, you’re not going to make it. It’s a drug that you train with, so the body can go to a next level, advance endurance and your strength. Nothing else.”

So is Johnson saying that some like Usain Bolt must also be “training” with drugs? “I can’t point fingers at the 100m right now. It’s not for me to say. I can’t point fingers.”

‘Hugely suspicious’
So Fuller, as if on cue, intervenes. “Well I can point fingers,” he says. “Because when we look at sporting anti-doping administration, and the statistics recently released from Jamaica, 179 tests in 2012, [and only] one out-of-competition test in the five months before the London Olympics, then I think we have every reason to be hugely suspicious of the performances that we’re seeing, incredibly sceptical. I’m not saying I don’t believe in Usain Bolt. But when we have that sort of behaviour going on, it raises enormous flags, when a country like Jamaica over-indexes dramatically in terms of athletic performance.

“That’s why the first point of our campaign is that Wada is not only suitably resourced, but has suitable authority and power, and independence, free from political interference. Saying things like ‘we’re catching Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, so the system works’ is nonsense, when in fact there is so much evidence out there that no, the system doesn’t work. We’re not catching who we need to catch, or specifically targeting the culture of doping, as opposed to just testing, testing, testing.”

It is a mostly chilling scenario, Johnson agreeing that things are no better than in Seoul, not that the future is without some hope. “I believe nothing has changed in 25 years. Except that it has got worse. But hopefully athletes can get the message, now, that if you test positive, there is no excuse anymore. Or, to say they made a mistake. The one thing about this campaign is to warn people, hopefully get the message across, get athletes to sign the petition.

“Most people still tell me that I was wronged. That I was not the only one. And for me, coming forward now, there has been great affection from the public. It’s been overwhelming, coming through the fire, and doing something positive, at this time of my life. It was tough, to come through.

“Now it would be very nice if more athletes that test positive wanted to come on board, and support that campaign. I’d like people to contact us, because it would give us more clout. But personally, I don’t think they’ve got the guts to come out and do what I’m doing.”

Doping culture
Another element of the Pure Sport campaign is an athletes’ support council, reporting to Wada, offering education and whistle-blowing services, and also a truth and reconciliation process to help break the doping culture chain. Johnson has claimed that when he decided to take drugs, the one person he was sure not to tell was his mother, Gloria, because if she told him “no, don’t do it”, then he absolutely would not have. His mother was the one person on earth he would not disobey.

If there had been a way out, such as the athletes’ support council advocated here, Johnson might well have gone down a different path: “I never did see a way out. I never had a second opinion. That’s why the support now can help, to do the right thing. It could have helped me, maybe. But then the problem was so big. Big money. Big sponsorship. Nobody was looking at it. Now, it’s not so hard, to do this, for me. It’s more about the future. I want people to see me in a good light, good way. I want to leave some good legacy behind.”

In some ways, Johnson’s frankness is refreshing. Yet over the course of the interview he so repeatedly shifts between little acts of contrition and obscene egotism – with all the sudden explosiveness that marked his 100m start – that in the end much of what he says comes across as impossibly contradictory as his performance in Seoul 25 years ago. But if Johnson cannot go back in time, at least he is trying.
To sign up to Johnson’s petition see choose-the-right-track