Ben Johnson was the only track-and-field athlete disqualified for doping at the 1988 Olympics. A report kept under wraps for 30 years reveals that the Canadian sprinter was shown no mercy by Olympic officials, while others received leniency
An Olympic anti-doping report kept secret for 30 years has revealed that some athletes at the Seoul Summer Games, including two medallists, escaped punishment for potential drug infractions while others — including world champion Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson — were summarily disqualified.
Details contained in the 1988 Olympic Medical Commission documents obtained by the Star provide the first official accounting of how top anti-doping scientists responded to the Games’ cheating athletes and, in particular, how they handled the Olympics’ most explosive and enduring drug scandal: Johnson’s positive test for an anabolic steroid.
Quick background: On Sept. 24, 1988, Johnson, then 26, won the Olympic 100 metres in world record time, beating American archrival Carl Lewis in the Games’ most hyped showdown. Three days later, the Toronto runner was stripped of his medal and his record, and was flying home from Seoul in disgrace. Lewis was awarded the gold.
Though Johnson would later admit that he, in fact, had used banned anabolic steroids during training, his story remains compelling as more details about his treatment in Seoul — including his withheld lab report and alterations made to parts of it, a Star investigation found — continue to emerge three decades later.
When asked about the new revelations, Johnson, who regularly deals with the public during his travels for speaking engagements, said his story strikes them the same way he sees it. “People think, ‘Who in their right mind would take something (banned) leading up to Games, knowing they’re going to win at the Games and that they will be tested?’ ” said Johnson, a 57year-old grandfather of three. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) did not return a request for comment on the report’s release.
The 134-page medical commission document makes it clear there was no benefit of the doubt for Johnson. He was the lone track-and-field athlete disqualified from Seoul for doping.
Johnson told the Star he was “targeted” for disqualification, saying: “I came in clean and came out dirty”
Information in the report suggests the IOC’s anti-doping police doubled down on quashing the Canadian’s theory that sabotage could explain the presence in his urine of the metabolites of stanozolol, a musclebuilding steroid commonly used in training periods prior to competitions. Johnson had claimed a stranger in the doping control room after the race sat close to him and could have spiked his beer.
In a departure from its routine, the commission presented an unofficial testing method to detect long-term steroid use as additional damning evidence against Johnson — a method not applied to other athletes discussed in the archived document as proof of cheating. In addition, one commission member proposed to block attempts by Johnson to challenge his doping infraction by not permitting future tests on the runner’s race-day water bottle and his other medications to undermine the Seoul findings. (Later testing would show that the water bottle was free of steroid traces.)
Meanwhile, others received leniency. That included a group of track-and-field athletes from the U.S. and Britain, according to the IOC document.
Eight unnamed Americans, tested during competition shortly before the Games, were not sanctioned after their cases were discussed in Seoul. Star British sprinter Linford Christie barely avoided Olympic disqualification, despite one commission member declaring Christie’s test result after the 200 metres “a clear case of doping.”
In the 100-metre race, Christie was awarded the silver medal after Johnson was sent home. The British runner passed his drug test in that sprint, held a few days before the 200 metres, without incident.
Johnson maintains he was “targeted” at the Games for disqualification.
“I came in clean and came out dirty,” he said in an interview.
In most Olympics during the early days of competition, challenges with venues and logistics arise. Seoul was no different. The medical commission report noted there were security problems at doping control rooms and lab issues, including:
New “wide-necked bottles” for athletes’ urine samples sometimes leaked, causing potential problems with labelling numbers “as some bottles had been replaced”; people without special identification passes were entering secure doping control room areas (where athletes provided samples) — in one case, an overly curious Turkish team doctor was forci- bly removed from volleyball’s control room; four “instruments” in the main IOC antidoping lab broke during the Games, pushing lab testing to capacity midway through the Olympics.
One thing that pleased the commission was the skill of the main lab where urine samples, collected at various sports venues around Seoul, would be analyzed for a long list of prohibited substances. It reported to its members that a pair of planted samples by system testers had been correctly identified.
“Two test positive samples had been placed among the boxing controls and had been successfully detected by the laboratory for (the anabolic steroid) oxandrolone and caffeine,” it was noted in a meeting on Sept. 19, 1988.
Oxandrolone was printed on Johnson’s 1988 lab report paperwork, then scratched out. Stanozolol was the final finding.
In Seoul, medical commission members didn’t always agree among themselves when considering athletes’ explanations for doping infractions.
In Christie’s case, for instance, there was a “lengthy discussion” among members after which “it was decided that that athlete should be given the benefit of the doubt” that the levels of pseudo-ephedrine in his system were linked to ginseng consumption. The vote was not unanimous. Christie’s case was publicly discussed during the Seoul Games by British Olympic team officials.
As for the two Olympic medallists who avoided sanctions, the Star is not identifying them other than to say they were not track-and-field athletes.
The eight American athletes had their identities protected in the medical commission report while almost every other athlete with potential doping infractions was identified — in- cluding one athlete who had also tested positive for a banned substance prior to the Seoul Games.
(One unnamed cyclist is mentioned in medical commission notes, referencing his “low concentration of an anabolic steroid because of cream applied in his trousers.” It’s unclear if the cyclist was in Seoul; there were no more details about him.)
The American cases went before International Amateur Athletics Federation officials, who listened to a presentation from the United States Olympic Committee on Sept. 19, according to medical commission notes. The notes go on to state that “the cases had concerned over-the-counter herbal preparations containing ephedrine” and that the IAAF “was satisfied with the report submitted and ruled that no sanctions would be taken and the case was now closed.”
In 2003, Sports Illustrated reported that at the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials, Carl Lewis tested positive three times for “small amounts” of banned stimulants found in cold medications. Lewis was initially disqualified from the Seoul Games but the USOC overturned the decision on his appeal, agreeing that it was inadvertent doping, the sports magazine reported.
Lewis is not named in the1988 IOC Medical Commission report.
When Johnson’s case came before the commission, it was all over in about three hours.
In Seoul in 1988, Montreal lawyer Richard Pound — who was a well-regarded IOC vicepresident — defended Johnson. Neither Johnson nor his coach, the late Charlie Francis, attended the hearing; others,
including Roger Jackson, then the president of the Canadian Olympic Association, and Canadian chief medical officer William Stanish, an orthopedic surgeon, were at the session that began at10 p.m. on Sept. 26.
The 1988 report stated that early in the meeting, it was noted that commission member Prof. Manfred Donike had been “responsible for the analysis of the B sample” and he explained the findings to the group. The B-sample testing confirmed the steroid findings in Johnson’s A sample.
According to the report, Pound told the commission the Canadian delegation didn’t want to challenge the scientific results but broached a “certain lack of security” between the end of the 100-metre final and the time Johnson provided his urine sample, at the doping control station at the trackand-field stadium.
The report goes on to say Pound “stressed the build-up which had surrounded the 100m race and the two principle athletes (Johnson and Lewis) involved” and that Pound “felt there had been a general breakdown in procedures following the race, rendering the result of the doping tests questionable.”
Pound stated that people who accompanied Johnson to doping control, including an RCMP officer assigned to the athlete, claimed there were “many other people in the dope control station other than those whose presence was required for the test.”
The lawyer also raised the possibility that Johnson’s water bottle had been tampered with when he put it in a basket with his warm-up clothes to race. Pound told commission members a stranger was in the doping control room, offering to get the sprinter beer (Johnson got his own) but who sat “very close to the athlete.” According to meeting notes, it was later al- leged — though it’s unclear by whom — that the unknown person had been seen with Lewis, which commission chairman Alexandre de Merode “pointed out as possibly quite harmless.”
(The Star tracked down the stranger, a friend of Carl Lewis’ named Andre Jackson, in a 2016 investigation.) Before the commission, Pound described Johnson as “a slow learner” but an athlete who “retained the importance of collecting his own beer.”
Pound further expanded the sabotage theory — a theory that would be debunked later at a royal commission.
He said stanozolol was a drug that metabolized quickly, “thus favoring its use should anyone wish to ‘frame’ someone else,” and that it tightened muscles, something not “sought for by a sprinter,” according to report notes. Pound added Johnson was an experienced athlete who knew he’d be tested after an Olympic race; had been tested several times in 1988 with all results negative; and “that con- sidering the reasonable doubt which surrounded the test, an athlete of such calibre was entitled to the benefit of the doubt.” The anti-doping experts pushed back.
Dr. Arne Ljungqvist, a Swedish commission member who was also chairman of the International Amateur Athletics Federation Medical Commission, was in the doping control room when Johnson arrived after his race. Ljungqvist said he questioned staff there, but “staff were convinced that no unauthorized persons had been present,” according to the meeting notes.
Even so, the archived document states that “regarding entry of the unauthorized persons to the dope control station,” Ljungqvist reported that a large sign had been placed after the concern was raised at the entrance to the track-and-field doping control room.
Prof. Donike told the Canadian delegation that sabotage was not consistent with the steroid profile interpreted from the failed test — meaning longterm use was detected by the endocrine profiling method Donike had pioneered.
He also acknowledged the magnitude of Johnson’s predicament. Donike, who is now deceased, said “the entire commission was perfectly aware of the implications of a positive case for such an athlete and for sport in general.”
Pound “clarified” that Johnson had a negative test just weeks earlier at a Zurich race. After that, the Canadians, including Pound, left the meeting room, and de Merode opened the floor for discussion.
Behind closed doors, Donike said a negative test before the Games “was of no consequence” and concluded “a single dose application just prior to testing could be excluded.” Donike was the commission member who didn’t want Johnson’s test challenged by analyses of his water bottle or medications, according to the archived document. Chairman de Merode asked for opinions in the room, including that of an IAAF representative. After that, “the Commission voted unanimously for the exclusion of Ben Johnson from the Games of the XXIVth Olympiad in Seoul.” The commission’s recommendation, which came at about 12:45 a.m. Sept. 27, 1988, was forwarded to the IOC’s executive board later that morning. The board accepted it and Johnson was disqualified. He lost his medal and his world record of 9.79 seconds.
Thirty years later, Johnson said Pound didn’t aggressively defend him before the IOC Medical Commission.
“I believe he didn’t reach out far enough or strong enough to protect me,” Johnson said, after learning more about the report.
In fact, the report refers to the ethics of whether Pound was in a conflict. One member, Dr. Kenneth Fitch of Australia, didn’t feel it was “correct for an IOC vice-president to appear before the IOC Medical Commission in order to protect an athlete from his country.” The commission unanimously requested that de Merode speak to the IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, “to ensure that such a situation did not occur in the future.”
Pound says he had previously cleared the matter with Samaranch.
In a recent phone interview, Pound said he’s never seen the Olympic Medical Commission document from 1988. He also said science made it clear that preparing any defence of Johnson in Seoul would be difficult.
“If you’re caught with the sample being analyzed containing the stanozolol metabolites, you’re dead,” Pound said.
You might feel like Russia is going to get away with it, and this being the world that it is, you’re probably right.
At least partly right, anyway. Yes, the World Anti-Doping Agency has finally been allowed into the infamous Moscow lab, and finally has access to the thousands of suspicious urine samples from the state-sponsored doping years before 2015. Just look for the ones that glow in the dark.
Well, that’s if they’re even the real samples, and people across anti-doping wonder if they are. It’s taken over two years to grant investigators access to the lab, and now the shadow of actual punishment looms: WADA’s compliance committee meets in Montreal Monday and Tuesday, and if they recommend a return to non-compliance for Russia’s anti-doping apparatus, then WADA’s executive committee can vote to re-suspend Russia. Ooooooh.
So the real question is, how are they going to get out of this one? The punishment wouldn’t be small: Russian athletes would be banned from international competition, and lucrativein-the-right-hands Russian bids for international events suspended, until RUSADA is back in the good books. Individual sports federations could charge the specific athletes, and strip medals.
Of all the things Russia has faced after executing the most thorough and cynical state-sponsored doping scheme in modern times, serious punishment has rarely been among them.
So there has to be an angle, because the idea that Russia is cornered has always been a dream. As Canadian IOC member Dick Pound thundered during
the Pyeongchang Games, the IOC worked much harder to keep Russia in the Olympics than to cast Russia out. Their track and field athletes have been banned since the Rio Olympics because track and field’s governing body showed unexpected spine, which was emulated by precisely nobody. Russian athletes had to wear different clothes for three weeks in Pyeongchang, and didn’t get to carry their flag. Their fans did, though.
And then the International Olympic Committee reinstated the Russian Olympic Committee an entire week after those Olympics ended, even though WADA had not re-accredited the doping side. IOC president Thomas Bach has since signalled that as far as the IOC is concerned, Russia has suffered enough.
Maybe the way Russia pays money to host international events, and the way it has threaded people through all the right international sports federations, has made a difference. Maybe the IOC just never wants to completely ban a country from a Games, because what if China, or Kenya, or Jamaica — all of which have had some brushes with what looks like problems — are up next?
“The other piece is they actually just don’t care about clean sport,” said one source with deep knowledge of the antidoping movement. The athletes, the level playing field and all that, that’s not a priority for them, and it never has been, and this has just exposed that in a whole new scale. They are the business of sport.”
At some point, it seems the IOC decided that even the pretense of caring didn’t matter enough to bother. So there has to be an angle here, an escape hatch. WADA had already softened the conditions for Russia’s re-entry, which included access to the lab by Dec. 31, 2018.
Bach has made it clear that if WADA punishes Russia, it stands alone.
The true hearts of the clean sport movement don’t want to go on the record, and don’t know what to expect other than the usual disappointment. WADA’s mid-December visit seemed promising, but was cut short “due to an issue raised by the Russian authorities that the team’s equipment to be used for the data extraction was required to be certified under Russian law.”
Which does not sound at all like an excuse you would use in a sitcom about a rule-breaking Moscow drug testing lab whose employees were in the other room trying to frantically replace all the urine samples with pee from one unlucky lab employee who drew the short straw. HURRY UP, ALEXEI!
But the big suspense now is how Russia gets off the hook. Assuming WADA doesn’t kick the decision down the road — the data will take some time to be verified — then the next eight days are a fork in an already crooked road. Maybe WADA’s compliance committee finds a way to decide that getting access — even late access — fulfils the requirements, especially with RUSADA itself being currently run by people who are saying all the right things.
Maybe the executive committee takes its signal from the IOC and says individual athletes might be sacrificed, but Russia itself can carry forward.
And then there’s that slim chance that Russia pays for its sporting crimes, if between Olympics, because even all the money in the world can’t rig the whole system.
But otherwise, the anti-doping movement, battered by Pyeongchang, by Thomas Bach, by WADA itself, will wait for that escape hatch.
The best chance for real punishment has passed; whatever’s left can still enrage those who want the fight for clean sport to be something more than a marketing slogan.
WADA is this little underfunded thing, increasingly isolated, at sea among much more powerful tides. The IOC has made it clear it prizes other things. It’s up to WADA to prove what it cares about, and how much.
You might feel like Russia is going to get away with it. You wouldn’t be alone.
At some point, it seems the IOC decided that even the pretense of caring didn’t matter enough to bother
Ben Johnson maintains he was “targeted” for disqualification at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.
Ben Johnson, with his Australian friend Jamie Fuller and two camera operators, stand outside the IOC headquarters in Lausanne in 2013. Johnson, Fuller and the film crew made a video on the 25th anniversary of the Seoul Olympics. New documents have just been released from the IOC.