Jeanne Zornes, "Taking the High Road," Pursuit, Vol. V, No. 1, 1996, pp. 13-15
Canada's 100-meter sprinter Ben Johnson, arguably the fastest man in history, flew down the track in a world-record 9.79 seconds, only .13 of a second in front of 1984 quadruple gold medalist Carl Lewis of the U.S.
But photographs freezing that astounding moment of the 1988 Seoul Olympics reveal a dark side of Johnson. At the finish line, in angry celebration and to taunt Lewis, Johnson thrust an index finger to the sky. Johnson later told reporters, "I don't care about the perfect race. I don't care what the world record is. I just wanted to beat Carl."
Johnson's pursuit of shaming a rival brought shame upon himself. The Olympics' crackdown on illegal drugs, requiring post-race urine tests of all winners, revealed Johnson had taken stanozolol, a forbidden anabolic steroid. Within three days he was stripped of his medal and record and banned from competitive athletics for two years. He left Seoul like a criminal, hiding his face behind a briefcase as he was mobbed by photographers. This is the man who once said, "Running is my life," The man who sold out to the luxuries and fame it brought.
Born in Jamaica, Johnson came to Canada when his parents wanted a better education for their six children. His mother found work as a kitchen server in a Toronto hotel and sent for the children in 1976. The father also came to Toronto for a while but returned to Jamaica to a better job than Canada could offer.
A puny 14-year-old, Johnson entered the eighth grade and proved an average student. After high school he dropped out of an auto mechanics course. Nudged into athletics when his brother joined a track club, by 1980 Ben was 50 pounds heavier, six inches taller, and beginning to win medals in international competitions.
His mother took a second job at another hotel to help pay for Johnson's training, which included weight lifting six days a week. How did Johnson show his appreciation for that kind of sacrifice? According to a reporter for Chatelaine magazine, Johnson spent his free time "listening to reggae [music], chasing girls, or tinkering with his car." He never worked except for one job that lasted four days.
But wealth came with professional athletics. The year before the Seoul Olympics his income was estimated at about a million dollars. His appearance fee rose to a reported $30,000, and he signed multimillion-dollar contracts with sporting goods manufacturers.
His high living, however, was marred by allegations that his superbly muscled body got that way through the use of illegal steroids. Just days before the Olympic track events, an American trainer noticed Johnson's eyes "so yellow with his liver working overtime processing steroids that I said he's either crazy or he's protected with an insurance policy." After Johnson's disgrace at the &ls;88 Olympics, his coach admitted Johnson had used steroids for nearly seven years.
In October 1988, just months after the Olympics, Johnson was charged with pointing a starter's pistol from his car at another motorist on a busy highway. In 1989, in a scuffle with five men outside a Toronto night club, he suffered a broken tooth and swollen lip.
In 1990 his agent sued him for $425,000 for breach of contract. In 1991 he pleaded guilty to assault charges involving a former teammate. She told police that at a Toronto track and field center Johnson had pushed her and grabbed her throat. Reports said he was angry about comments she made to reporters about his Olympics drug test.
A seemingly small decision to enhance athletic performance with an illegal drug set Johnson up for a life out of control.