SEOUL, South Korea — Willie Banks, who has been in track and field a long time, was crammed in a phone booth in the middle of the athletes’ village, dropping coins at a furious pace. “I just heard,” he said. “And I’m aghast! And when the rest of the guys wake up, they’ll be aghast, too.”
The news had sneaked in during the night and had stabbed the Olympics right in the heart. Canada’s Ben Johnson, the Olympic 100 meters champion, had failed his drug test, an anabolic steroid had been found, he had handed over his gold medal, fled the country, and the greatest performance of these Summer Games has now become its greatest shame.
Did you see Johnson run that race Friday night? Did you see him set that world record of 9.79 seconds, and beat his arch- rival, Carl Lewis? Weren’t you moved, inspired, chilled by the very sight of what human beings can do when they are at their best? And now, we learn, he was at more than his best. Superman was using a battery pack.
Ben Johnson. Steroids. The words will frame these XXIV Olympics now and forever, it is awful, horrible, and, some say, only fitting. “Maybe now people will stop denying that this is a serious problem,” said James Puffer, a doctor with the U.S. Olympic team.
“Were you surprised?” he was asked. “No,” he said.
No. The shock that rippled through the athletes’ village and left Banks and other athletes “aghast” was less the fact that Johnson had used steroids than the fact that he had gotten caught. Already six other athletes in these Games had been expelled for drug violations. But none as famous. None as big. This — Ben Johnson, the so-called “fastest man on Earth,” whose event was watched by a billion people worldwide — was the siren that would stir the giant called International News.
And here is the story: It begins simply, with moving a checkers piece or kicking a golf ball, and it swells and grows as the stakes get higher and now, as you see, it can lead to someone swallowing chemical substances.
It’s called cheating. That’s what this is about. Ben Johnson was not some misguided man who fell into a nasty drug habit. He was — assuming there was no monkey business in the testing process — looking for an edge.
It’s all about winning.
How far will we go for it? What is the limit? Where will we draw the line and say: “I am doing the best I can. I am satisfied?” It really doesn’t matter if Johnson was a victim of sabotage — he claims someone may have drugged his drinking water — or anything else. These are the facts: Steroids and blood doping are rampant in sports, particularly amateur sports, and it stems from pressure and pride and the glorious pedestal upon which we place the word “Victory.”
Think of what Johnson had to gain with that 100-meter win: Forget the medal, forget the history. Financially, he would be set for life. That’s how big a stage the Olympics really are. One race. Ten seconds. And no worries forever.
Could you resist that? And yet Johnson found himself just a few months before the race less than 100 percent. An injury. Perhaps he felt that this was too big an opportunity to lose. Against the wishes of his coach, he went to St. Kitts, a Caribbean island, to rehabilitate. There is talk about a doctor. Who knows?
But remember that he had been tested countless times in the past two years
— since he emerged as the best 100-meter man in the world — and he always passed. Was he masking the steroid then, or was there something about the Olympic stage that made him dip into the dark athletic makeup?
Whatever. His gold medal now goes to Lewis. When informed of the test results, Johnson, sitting alongside his mother and his coach, reportedly
“could not speak,” according to a Canadian official who was present. And despite the army of reporters in his hotel lobby and the battalion of photographers waiting at the airport, he left without a word.
So the news spoke for him; stanozolol, a muscle-building steroid that is difficult to detect. The village buzzed with whispers of “You’re kidding!” and
“My god” in French and German and Swahili. And athletes were grilled over the issue and some were chuckling ironically that it took the shortest event in track and field to open the biggest can of worms.
“It’s a problem that’s been going on for years,” said Billy Olson, a longtime pole vaulter for the U.S. team. “And it’s going to continue. As long as there are drug tests, there will be people who are trying to beat it. . . .
“There’s so much pressure to do well here. From you team, from your families. I always thought Ben was just an awesome stud guy. Maybe this was a desperation ploy.” He sighed.
“God, I hope people won’t always look back on the 1988 Olympic Games and say, ‘Those were the ones where Ben Johnson messed with drugs.’ “
How can they help it?
And here is the real victim of this ugly affair: the Games themselves. For once, we finally had just about everybody gathered for a competition. The world tuned in. Things were going well.
And now, because of this — and because of the inexhaustible news that will surely follow on how athletes can mask their steroids from doping tests
— no one will be able to watch a winning Olympic performance without wondering: “Does he, or doesn’t he?”
There are thousands of athletes who do things the old- fashioned way — hard work, dedication and dreams. And there are probably thousands who have a little help — drugs, steroids, blood doping. One got caught. The big one. And now everybody is a bloodhound, and everybody is a cynic and this is what one man’s actions had led to: As divers and archers and fencers and basketball players sweated and strained and tried their Olympic best, most of the world’s media was gathered in news conferences or on the long-distance phones.
Sad. On Friday night, as Johnson crossed the finish line with his right hand raised in victory, broadcasters around the world were screaming in disbelief. “It’s a miraculous performance!” yelled one. “Just miraculous.”
Oh, if that were only true. But the grim news came during the night, and breakfast was served with cold reality Tuesday in Seoul. And nobody believes much in miracles anymore.