53: Johnson flunks drug test, loses gold medal

As the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea, approached, the buzz throughout the world centered around the 100-meter race featuring the two fastest humans on earth, Ben Johnson of Canada and Carl Lewis of the United States.

This was the most highly anticipated race in the history of the sport. Nothing compared. This is what all the world talked about, what all the world longed to see. Ten magnificent, heart-pounding, riveting seconds.

Nearly 100,000 people jammed into Olympic Stadium on Saturday, September 24, to view this marquee showdown between two human blurs that disdain one another, elevating the matchup into another stratosphere.

Lewis, vying to become the first man to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 100 meters, detested Johnson so much that he not only accused him of winning the previous year's world championship showdown in Rome with a world-record 9.83 by virtue of a false start, Lewis also implied that Johnson was using banned steroid substances. Lewis' detractors laughed, saying Lewis was jealous of his rival.

In Seoul, Johnson duplicated his stunningly powerful start, bursting from the starting box like a bullet. Less than halfway through the race, with the crowd roaring, Johnson knew the gold medal was his. He embarrassed Lewis and the entire field by establishing yet another world record, this time a staggering 9.79, breaking his world record by .04 of a second.

Lewis finished at a career best 9.92 seconds, a U.S. record, to win the silver, and Linford Christie of Britain won the bronze in 9.97 seconds, the first time ever that the medal winners all came in under 10 seconds.

As the 26-year-old Johnson crossed the finish line, he raised his right hand and his index finger then turned to his left to look at Lewis, to gloat, to make sure his rival knew who was No. 1 in the world. Later, Johnson told the world press that it was as sweet beating Lewis as it was to establish a world record, deepening the Johnson-Lewis rift.

But as the hours passed following the race, rumors began to swirl that Lewis might be right, that Johnson's record performance might have been enhanced by a banned substance. Drugs were already dominating this Olympics. The Bulgarian weightlifting team was forced to pull out of the Games after the International Olympic Committee had stripped a second Bulgarian athlete of a gold medal for a positive result on a drug test.

Next, the focus was on Johnson.

It's Monday, 1:45 a.m., September 26, about 48 hours after Johnson's record-breaking gold medal run.

Canadian Olympic officials receive a memo from the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission with the shocking and numbing news that Johnson has tested positive for a banned anabolic steroid.

Canadian officials are stunned, speechless. They have just celebrated one of their country's exhilarating moments. Now, they're going from the ultimate proud moment to the ultimate embarrassment.

Carol Anne Letheren, head of the Canadian Olympic delegation, telephones Johnson and his manager/coach, Charlie Francis, requesting to meet with them at 7 a.m.

As Johnson and Francis arrive at daybreak, Letheren and Richard Pound, an I.O.C. vice president and a Canadian, tell them to sit down, to brace themselves for bad news.

They tell Johnson and Francis that two tests reveal Johnson used a banned substance called stanozolol, a water-based steroid similar to the male hormone testosterone. Stanozolol is one of more than 100 substances banned by the I.O.C. that can be taken by athletes to increase muscle mass, which can enhance an athlete's performance.

Letheren and Pound, speaking quietly, inform Johnson that he has also been stripped of his gold medal because of the drug revelations, that Carl Lewis is the new Olympic gold medalist, that Johnson would have to return his gold medal later that day, that he is banned from competition for two years, and that the Canadian Government will no longer send him monthly payments, which he was slated to receive for the rest of his life.

"He was so shocked that he was unable to speak," Letheren would tell the media afterwards.

When Johnson is finally ready to speak, he denies using an illegal substance and says that this is some kind of a mistake, some kind of joke, that someone is out to get him. That he's been framed.

''He sat there looking like a trapped animal,'' Pound would later tell the press. ''He had no idea what was going on. He said he didn't do anything wrong and he hadn't taken anything. He was nervous and could hardly speak.''

In Olympic international and national competition, medal winners and other finishers are chosen at random and required to give a urine sample after their events. If the initial test is positive, the I.O.C. medical commission and the athlete's national Olympic committee are notified and a second test is administered. If that one is also positive, the athlete and his coach are told and they must forfeit the medal.

Francis, Johnson's coach, vehemently denies that Johnson has used a steroid. Larry Heidebrecht, one of Johnson's managers, calls the test results ''sabotage.'' He tells the committee that Johnson was given a sports drink following the race at the stadium. He also says that later that night he saw ''a yellow, gooey substance'' on the bottom of the bottle.

Johnson tells the Olympic and Canadian committees that he can not remember who gave him the bottle and that he doesn't know where it came from. The I.O.C. Medical Commission recommends that the test result be accepted, but Pound argues on Johnson's behalf, saying that it's quite possible that such a scenario occurred or that a breach of security may have happened around the drug-testing operation at the stadium. However, without any clear evidence to substantiate either possibility, the executive board rejects Pound's argument.

Later, the I.O.C. reveals that the chemical analysis of Johnson's urine sample indicates a ''chronic suppression of his adrenal functions,'' indicating that Johnson was using the steroid for a period of time, proving Johnson is guilty.

Johnson stands to lose more than $3 million in athletic shoe and apparel contracts, endorsements and meet appearance fees. The sprinter has a long-term contract valued at $2.5 million with an Italian athletic shoe and apparel company, Diadora, and several sponsorship agreements with Japanese companies. All of Johnson's contracts included clauses that would invalidate them if it were discovered that he violated rules with the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Pound tells the media that ''this is a disaster for Ben, a disaster for the Games, and a disaster for track and field.'' But the upside is that stripping a world-class Olympian of his gold medal and banning him for two years "shows the world that we mean business," Pound would say. "We are prepared to act, not just to pick out a low-profile athlete in a low-profile sport. If it happens to the best, the same thing will happen.''

The message to the athletic world, Worrall would tell the media, is that "drug-taking doesn't pay," that you will get caught and penalized and be embarrassed in front of the world.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, the I.O.C. president, has said before the Games that "doping equals death.'' Alluding to the sophisticated testing laboratories, in which 4,000 drugs or more can be detected, Samaranch would go on to say, ''We are showing that the system works. We are winning the battle against doping.''