Sunday 26 May 2019

Ben Johnson 25 years on: What I did was wrong

Cheat: Ben Johnson winning at the Seoul Olympics of 1988
Cheat: Ben Johnson winning at the Seoul Olympics of 1988

Simon Peach, PA

IT IS 25 years since the race that shocked the world.

Ben Johnson, Canada's dominant sprinter, got the better of his fierce rival Carl Lewis once again, romping to 100 metres gold at the 1988 Olympics.

On that sunny day in Seoul, he lowered his own world record to 9.79 seconds and might have gone even faster had he not raised his hand towards the end of the race.

Johnson had done it, he had reached the goal he had always strived for: Olympic gold.

Three days later it was gone. The world came crashing down as a routine drugs test came back positive for the steroid Stanozolol.

"I didn't really worry about getting caught," Johnson said, speaking two and a half decades on in the basement of a central London hotel.

"I was in fear of my life so if I do get caught I said at the time 'I'll deal with it when the problem came'.

"The problem came, so I dealt with it. I took the bull by the horn, this is what I did, this is what happened, move forward. That's it.

"No panic, no fear. Even with what happened I still have tremendous fans until this day.

"Everybody wants to embrace me and be with me and take pictures - it's just getting greater and greater as time goes by."

A long time may have passed, but it is surprising to hear Johnson speak so matter-of-factly about the incident that made him the most infamous drugs cheat of the 20th century.

He still claims "sabotage" in Seoul, insisting he was spiked with Stanozolol, but does not deny being a drug cheat.

When Johnson watched sport as a kid, he thought everybody was clean - an illusion shattered by his coach in the early 1980s.

Told his rivals were doping, after weeks of deliberation the temptation of glory proved too much for him.

"As a young boy, my God, what a decision to make," the Jamaican-born sprinter said.

"I was running clean but thinking 'how am I going to win against these guys doing, what they're doing?'

"I decided that wasn't fair, I'm going to join the game. And that's what I did.

"I didn't tell my mother about it, or anybody else, just keep it a secret.

"I came back to the track and I say, 'yeah, I will try it'. And ever since things change, my life."

Johnson will never be forgiven by many for what happened, but is, belatedly, trying to make a difference as the unlikely face of a new anti-doping campaign.

The sprinter recently kicked off a world tour with sportswear company SKINS as part of the initiative culminating at the scene of the crime: the Seoul Olympic Stadium on September 24, the 25th anniversary of the 100m final.

"Winning a gold medal and being the best in the world it cost me my reputation, my life," Johnson said.

"I'm here to try and change that.

"I'm trying to clear the air and clear my part of life, trying to help future generations and future athletes, athletes of my calibre, who have tested positive, been in the same boat as me, trying to help them and say you're not alone.

"If I can help change the mind of athletes in generations to come, that's what we are here for."

Johnson is not receiving any payment to lead the #ChooseTheRightTrack campaign, which aims to radically improve a system that athletes are still breaching today.

"Most athletes want to win," he said. "It's a temptation. Once you go across that bridge there's no turning back.

"You want to win? You want to win a gold medal? Be fastest in world? You keep asking yourself these questions.

"This is the price you have to pay, but this is what you can get in the end, on the other side. What choice are you going to make?"

So, does Johnson wish he could go back and do things differently 25 years on?

"Yes, I do have some regrets," he said. "What I did was wrong. I'm trying to change that."

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