THE SEOUL GAMES / THE BEN JOHNSON CONTROVERSY : Reaction From Canadians : Official Had Been Warned About Johnson
The stunning disqualification of Ben Johnson for having an anabolic steroid in his system should not have come as a surprise to Canadian sports officials.
Jean Charest, the Canadian sports minister, said at a hurriedly called press conference in Ottawa that he had been warned on two occasions by private citizens that Johnson was using steroids. Charest said he dismissed those accusations as little more than rumors.
However, those rumors became reality Monday when the International Olympic Committee stripped Johnson of his gold medal in the 100 meters and awarded it to Carl Lewis.
Charest added intrigue to his comments by not distancing other members of the Canadian team from the serious implications.
“We don’t know yet whether anyone condoned it,” Charest said. “We are led to believe Ben Johnson was probably not acting alone.”
The fact this happened to a Canadian athlete is especially surprising considering their reputation for strict drug testing and sanctions. The country currently is implementing a plan that allows for random unannounced drug testing. It also has a reciprocal agreement with Norway, which allows for either country to test the other country’s athletes.
If the Canadians follow their policy, Johnson will be ineligible to compete in the next Olympics, 2 years after his IOC suspension is lifted. In addition, Johnson will lose his “A” card, which provides a subsidy from the Canadian government amounting to about $800 a month.
Chris Kelly, the president of the Canadian Track and Field Assn., told United Press International that everyone in Johnson’s camp would be investigated and that he would ban anyone who was connected with the incident.
Kelly added, however, that he has no reason to suspect Johnson’s world record set at the World Track and Field Championships in Rome 13 months ago. Johnson was tested after that race and no trace of any banned substance was found.
Johnson was last tested in February of this year and has undergone 8 tests since February of 1987. However, he was not tested at the Canadian Track and Field Championship in Ottawa in August or before leaving for the Games in Seoul. Canadian athletes were tested randomly, but Johnson was not among them.
“I feel disappointed,” Charest said. “I feel bad for Ben Johnson. It’s obviously a great personal tragedy.
“Last Friday night was a moment of great national pride, and in a very short time we have gone from there to now sharing a moment of national disappointment.”
Charest’s sentiments seemed to reflect those of the people of Canada, who in 2 months have seen their national hockey treasure, Wayne Gretzky, traded to the Kings and their celebrated Olympic star stripped of his medal.
The news about Johnson spread quickly. Some people were shocked, but many others felt that Johnson had let them down and owed the people of Canada an explanation.
“The thing that bothers me is that he hasn’t come forward and apologized to Canadians,” said Lesley McRae, 28, who works as an occupational health nurse in Toronto.
United Press International also polled several others in Canada and found similar reactions.
“Next to Wayne Gretzky, he’s probably the best known sports hero in Canada,” said Kevin Heather, 28, of Toronto. “Now his name is dirt.”
Ian Noble, 18, of Toronto said: “Everywhere you walk on the street, that’s what everyone is talking about. I think it hurts our nation pretty bad. We had a gold medal, and we thought we had the fastest man in the world. And then you find out he’s done it illegally.”
Robert Guthrie of Vancouver said: “It stinks. It takes away from everything he has done. Like when he set that world record the first time, was he on drugs then? It’s so embarrassing.”
Mary Hudson of Quebec City said: “I really don’t think anyone will get over it. I’m so mad at him. He’s so dumb.”
Predictably, however, not everyone found fault with Johnson. Clare Rodney, Johnson’s sister who lives in Toronto, defended her brother.
“He is not guilty,” she said. "(There) is no doubt in my mind. He is not guilty.
News of Johnson’s disqualification certainly will do little to boost the spirits of the Canadian Olympic team in Seoul.
“Morale has pretty well bottomed out,” said Stephen Kerho, who was entered but did not run in the 110-meter hurdles for the Canadian team. “Everyone on the team looked up to him. I’m hurt and very much disappointed. I’m a proud Canadian, and this does nothing for Canada’s international image.”
Kerho said that he learned about Johnson’s positive test for steroids from the Canadian team’s medical staff. “They all looked as if their mothers had just passed away,” he said.
Bruce Smith, the Canadian track sprint coach, echoed Kerho but with a hint of optimism. “I’m feeling very much in shock,” he said. “The key right now is to keep the athletes who still have to compete focused on what is at hand.”
There was additional shock and surprise from those trying to ride the Johnson fame for financial gain.
Jim Christie, who works for the Toronto Globe and Mail, recently completed a book about Johnson, called “Ben Johnson, The Fastest Man in the World.” It hit the bookstores at the beginning of this month and looked to be a very saleable item.
“I can’t say how much I’ll lose on this,” Christie said from Seoul. “There’s just no way of knowing.
“Ben will lose a great deal. He had a $2.4-million contract with a shoe company for 4 years, and that will be gone. He’ll lose all his sponsors, for sure. Each of them had a clause in the contract that the deal was off if he got caught in drug testing.”
Christie said he had a difficult time believing that Johnson took drugs. “I never had a hint of anything like that, and I spent a lot of time with him preparing the book,” he said. “I just don’t know. I sure don’t like to get lied to.”
Wellem Verhoorn, a coach with the Netherlands team, tried to put it in perspective for whoever would listen.
“Don’t blame Ben, he’s surrounded by a staff of doctors,” Verhoorn told the Associated Press. “It’s the team that takes the victory, so the team must take this as well. One question is what to do if so much money is involved. If you have a headache, you take an aspirin and go to work. But in this case, it’s an Olympic athlete whose future is at stake.”