The Ben Johnson Steroid Inquiry : USOC Test Was Used to Avoid Detection

Times Staff Writer

When Ben Johnson’s coach, Charlie Francis, alleged last week that the U.S. Olympic Committee conspired with athletes to beat drug testing at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, it was not the first time that charge has been made by a Canadian.

Months before the Games, a Canadian Olympic Assn. official wrote a letter to Col. F. Don Miller, the USOC’s executive director at the time, expressing concern about a USOC educational drug program. The official apparently believed that the primary education U.S. athletes were receiving was in how to avoid detection.

“It was a legitimate question,” Dr. Kenneth S. Clarke, who administered the USOC’s drug program in 1983 and 1984, said in an interview. “Everyone suspects somebody else.”

The program began in December, 1983, three months after the anabolic steroid scandal at the Pan American Games at Caracas, Venezuela, that finally convinced USOC officials that there was a serious drug problem among U.S. athletes. As originally designed, the program allowed athletes to submit urine samples for testing and learn the results without fear of penalties.


Clarke, now the USOC’s assistant executive director, said the program had two purposes.

One was to educate athletes about the vast number of drugs on the International Olympic Committee’s banned list. As the list included a number of over-the-counter medications, the USOC wanted athletes to realize that they could inadvertently test positive, thus losing their eligibility, if they were not careful.

The other purpose was to give UCLA’s analytical laboratory practical experience in testing a large number of samples before it was inspected by the IOC in April. The laboratory, the first in the United States to apply for IOC accreditation, was to be used at the Los Angeles Olympics.

“I was naive,” Clarke said. “I was surprised that people could read into it that we were trying to beat the system.”


But, in fact, that is how the program was used by some U.S. athletes.

In an effort to learn precisely how many days they could use certain drugs before a competition without testing positive, the program provided invaluable information to athletes. If they learned that the sample they submitted was positive, they knew that they had miscalculated. Some kept trying until they got it right.

“There was a potential for abuse there since there were no sanctions,” said Dr. Don Catlin, director of the laboratory, adding that there were some positives among the approximately 100 samples tested during the program. “I became concerned, but I don’t believe in my heart that the USOC deliberately set up the program to beat the tests.”

After Catlin expressed his concern, Clarke said that the USOC changed the program in March, 1984, warning athletes that there would be penalties if they tested positive.

“There was no reason to keep flirting with the chance that the athletes who were using drugs were gaining an advantage,” he said.

Francis made that allegation Wednesday, the second day of the track and field phase of the Canadian government’s inquiry into drug use by athletes in international sport. Earlier that day, he also implicated Soviet officials.

He said that they arranged to purchase four GCMS machines, which are found in most drug-testing laboratories, to place on a ship that they planned to dock at Long Beach while their athletes competed in the 1984 Summer Olympics.

“They could have tested the urine of their athletes at the Games’ site,” Francis said. If an athlete tested positive, he or she would not have been allowed to compete, sparing the Soviets the embarrassment.


The order was canceled, Francis said, when the Soviets decided to boycott. He did not reveal the source of his information.

Francis’ testimony is like one of those mysteries that are virtually impossible to put down. Unfortunately, just as he was about to answer questions Thursday about the two months before the 1988 Summer Olympics at Seoul, the hearings were adjourned until Monday.

After three days of often riveting testimony by Francis, there are two crucial questions remaining to be answered:

Francis, who has been coaching Johnson since 1976, revealed that the sprinter began using steroids in 1981. He also said that Johnson used a steroid, Furazabol, during three periods between the time he set his first 100-meter world record in October 1987 and mid-summer 1988.

But he did not test positive for Furazabol after winning the 100 meters at Seoul. He tested positive for a different steroid, stanozolol.

When did Johnson take the stanozolol, a difficult-to-detect drug that is believed to clear the system within two to three weeks? And did Johnson know that he was taking it?

Francis may not be able to provide either answer. Although he administered Johnson’s drug use for much of the first seven years Johnson was using steroids, Francis said that Dr. Jamie Astaphan, who practices on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, took over in 1988.

In determining the events that led to Johnson’s disqualification at Seoul, Astaphan may be a more crucial witness than Francis. Or even Johnson.


But Astaphan has been coy about whether he will appear here, protesting that it will cost too much money to interrupt his practice. The commission conducting the inquiry has suggested a compromise, offering to temporarily move the hearings to St. Kitts. In any event, Astaphan probably would not be asked to testify until mid-May.

Francis could be on the stand through next week. When the commission’s co-counsel, Robert P. Armstrong, concludes his questioning, cross-examination by attorneys for Johnson, Astaphan and others will begin. That will be a better test of Francis’ grace under fire.

So far, he has proved not only cooperative, thorough and candid but also entertaining. He told a story of a 1979 Canada-Great Britain dual meet in England, where a meet official revealed that the third-place finisher in the 400 meters would be tested.

“I told our fellows, whatever you do, don’t finish third if you’ve got anything to worry about,” Francis said.

Thus inspired, one of the Canadians dueled a British runner down to the finish line for second place. But when it became apparent that the British runner would beat him, Francis said that the Canadian virtually stopped in his tracks to allow the man who had been far behind in fourth place to pass him for third place.