For Big Ben Johnson of Canada, star sprinter and international celebrity in the making, the Olympic clock struck midnight all too quickly.
Unless something drastic happens to reverse the sanctions taken against him here Tuesday by the International Olympic Committee for his use of an anabolic steroid, or he somehow is able to regain eligibility for the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain, his Olympic history could be labeled “Four Days in the Life of . . . “
Those four days went like this:
--Saturday, Sept. 24: He steps onto the track at Olympic Stadium shortly before 1:30 p.m. The crowd is near capacity at 70,000. The majority have come to see him run against Carl Lewis. It is one of those showdowns that capture headlines and public attention. It helps that Johnson and Lewis don’t like each other and don’t go out of their way to hide that. It is track’s equivalent of High Noon.
--As the runners get into the blocks precisely at 1:30, the electricity in the stadium is quite evident. Johnson is in Lane 6, Lewis in Lane 3.
--There are no false starts. Johnson, the quickest starter in the history of the 100 meters, is out of the blocks first again. And he never looks back, only sideways, toward the lagging Lewis, as he crosses the finish line in a stunning world record 9.79 seconds. He had shocked the world of track and field with his 9.83 in the World Championships in Rome last summer. Now, he had done it again.
--Lewis seeks him out to congratulate him afterward. It takes a couple of awkward seconds to get Johnson to turn away from some of his friends and teammates he has gone to along the sidelines. And once he does turn and accept Lewis’ hand, it is a minimal acknowledgement, as close to a brush-off as there is. At the moment, few are thinking about Lewis’ highly publicized statement after the World Championships that some elite athletes were using performance-enhancing drugs. Most who heard it then concluded that Lewis was talking about Johnson.
--As a medal winner, he is quickly ushered off to drug testing. All medal winners and a few other competitors randomly picked are tested after each event at the Olympics. Nothing happens for these people until after they give their urine sample. No press interviews, no long celebrations with family and friends. Just off to doping.
--While Johnson is being ushered to a waiting room, an official is gathering his belongings and taking them to the same waiting room. Johnson’s belongings, according to information that came out Tuesday, include a carrying gym bag or shoulder bag of some sort. And in the bag is a plastic drinking bottle, similar to the kind and size cyclists clip to their bikes. It is filled with Johnson’s own sarsaparilla concoction, something sugary and syrupy. This becomes very important later.
--It is 2 hours 45 minutes before Johnson returns to meet the press. There are some who ask about that seemingly excessive amount of time, but it is explained away that athletes often have trouble urinating after competing. That seems to make sense for distance runners or marathoners, but how much dehydration does one get from running 100 meters?
--According to the established IOC procedures, once Johnson urinates into the bottle, his sample is split in two and labeled A and B. The A sample is again split into two and both parts are tested. If either part of the A sample shows any evidence of a banned drug, the other part of the A sample is tested. If both parts show traces of a drug, the wheel of fortune toward a drug disqualification for the athlete has begun.
--Sunday is a day of rest, of light workout on the practice track at the Athletes Village. Johnson’s mother and sister are here--his father had planned to travel here from Jamaica, but was unable to do so because he is a phone linesman and the recent damage caused by Hurricane Gilbert in Jamaica forced him to stay at work--so there is some celebrating. As far as Johnson knows, his Olympic experience has only begun, because he will be a member of Canada’s 400-meter relay team Saturday.
--Early Monday, 1:45 a.m. to be exact, while Johnson is sleeping at the Hilton Hotel, where he stayed during the Games, the IOC Medical Commission delivers a letter to the Canadian Olympic Assn., informing them of a positive finding for the anabolic steroid stanozolol on the A sample.
--A bit later, 7 a.m., Carol Ann Letheren, chief of the mission of the Canadian Olympic team, and Dr. Bill Stanish, chief medical officer, find Johnson and his coach Charlie Francis, and inform them of the IOC finding and letter. Letheren later describes Johnson as shocked almost to the point of being unable to speak.
--At 10 a.m., still Monday morning, the Canadians adhere to IOC specifications and meet with the medical commission to witness the unsealing and testing of the B sample. Nothing has been done with this sample until now. Representing Canada in the meeting are Stanish, Francis and the Canadian team leader Dave Lyons. Johnson had the right to be present, but he passed. The sample is tested, the same result is reached and the Canadians are told to go back and gather their own evidence for a hearing at 10 p.m. that night.
--The Canadians meet and Francis and Johnson present the possible scenario that, when Johnson’s shoulder bag was transported from the stadium to the doping waiting room, the sarsaparilla was somehow tampered with, causing the positive test result. Francis and Johnson tell the Canadian officials that Johnson did, indeed, drink from the bottle after the race but before doping. He also drank “several beers,” a quite common occurrence in doping.
--At 10 p.m. at the Shilla Hotel, about 3 miles from the Hilton, where Johnson is waiting, the Canadian officials meet with the IOC medical commission, which will hear Johnson’s case and make the final ruling. They hear the Canadians out. Later, the Canadians will say they were impressed with the patience and care with which the IOC medical commission handles the hearing.
--At about 2 a.m. Tuesday, the IOC medical commission, which has met alone after having the Canadians leave the room, calls the Canadians back in and informs them that Johnson’s positive will stand, and that he is out of the Olympics.