THE SEOUL GAMES / THE BEN JOHNSON CONTROVERSY : Reaction in Seoul : It’s About Time a Star Is Caught, Athletes Believe
The track and field community, at least that part that jogged and practiced handoffs and stretched and just watched Tuesday morning at the Olympic practice facility, did not seem particularly shocked at the news that Ben Johnson had tested positive for steroids.
The feeling was: finally. Not just that Johnson was finally caught, although his 9.79-second speed was long rumored to be something other than factory-installed, but that an elite athlete, a headliner, was pegged and penalized.
“There’s been a feeling that the stars would be above the law,” said Jack Scott, the sports psychologist who has lately been Carl Lewis’ physical therapist. “A feeling that the most they would do is knock off a guy from Outer Mongolia, some javelin thrower who finished 10th. I mean, we’re talking about a sport where 50% of the people are doing it.”
And finally one of this multitude, the world record-holder in the 100 meters, was caught. “This will send a powerful message,” Scott said.
Scott, who also has worked with Johnson at times, said the Canadian sprinter is not unlike many of the others in that he may have succumbed to ambitions other than his own, in a sport where financial pressures are escalating.
“Ben is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Scott said. “But let me put it this way. In 1971, I wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine that they titled, ‘It’s not how you play the game, it’s what drugs you use.’ That was when the money available to athletes was infinitesimal. Now, Ben’s people are saying he’d be worth $10 million over the next 5 years.
“I think he got trapped with a bunch of ambitious people.”
Lewis’ coach, Tom Tellez, told Reuters Tuesday that Lewis’ first reaction was disbelief that Johnson had been caught. “I guess that confirms what we thought all along,” Tellez said Lewis told him.
Whatever the reason Johnson took steroids, Scott claims there is more reason than ever not to take them. “Over 50 people tested positive at Helsinki (in the 1983 World Championships),” he alleged, “and all they said was, clean it up.”
Johnson’s penalty changes that.
Scott said track officials couldn’t afford to suspend athletes. He said it is “legend” in track and field that top athletes threaten officials if drug results turn up positive.
“The IAAF (International Amateur Athletics Federation), in particular, was more willing to bend to the argument that (not suspending an athlete) was for the good of the track. The IOC apparently believes it’s simply wrong.”
So until now, Scott said, the athletes had acquired a certain arrogance regarding the sophisticated testing system. “No. 1, that they wouldn’t get caught. And No. 2, that if they did get caught, the elite athletes are above the law,” he said.
As a result, he said, drug users are “more the exception in those events that (drugs) help. And what events won’t it help?”
Some of the athletes and coaches doubted testing was necessary in Johnson’s case. Abdul Mansaray, a sprinter from Sierra Leone, said: “I’m not a scientist, but I didn’t expect a 9.7 in this century. He didn’t do anything more exceptional than we all do. I had a feeling (there was) something behind the whole thing.”
Added Tellez: “Everybody knew what was going on, but what can you do when you know almost for sure but it can’t be proven. You can’t say anything. It would just be sour grapes.
“The medal is no big thing. The important thing is that we learn from Ben getting caught and clean up the sport.”
Robert Cannon, a triple jumper, and the only U.S. athlete to brave the track Tuesday morning, said: “I really feel bad for him. It’s a shame to see anyone get caught, but then again, drugs are not part of the sport. It’s about time that some who are doing it get caught.”
Cannon shrugged his shoulders when asked whether he suspected Johnson of taking drugs. But a Netherlands coach, Willem Verhoorn, said a coach would have to be a fool not to be aware of his athlete’s use.
“Or else not be a real coach,” he said.
“Usually,” Scott said, “a good pair of eyes is all you need. You couldn’t find a world-class athlete, except maybe someone from Nepal, who would be surprised that a leading athlete would test positive.”
“Carl wouldn’t do it,” Tellez said when asked about the possibility of Lewis taking drugs. “He’s good enough to have success without it.”
Scott seemed to think this indictment, more than the testing over recent years, would restore a fairness to the sport. “Think what it’s like,” he said, “to train for 10-15 years and lose to your equal.”
Certainly that might be the feeling of Lewis, who acquires the gold for the 100-meter event well after the fact. Lewis had long hinted at drug use among sprinters. And certainly it is the feeling of Calvin Smith, who comes into the bronze.
“There are some mixed feelings,” Smith said. “On the day I did run, I did not get to get up on stand and get the respect of other runners.”
Now even Johnson loses his respect among runners and fans. He is someone who cracked under the pressures, someone, finally, who is all too typical in track.
“Ben is just an ordinary athlete,” Verhoorn said, “someone who wanted to be the best in the world. That was his handicap.”