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Ben Johnson’s Gold Medal–Winning Race, 25 Years On
September 24, 2013
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Ben Johnson in Seoul

For many Canadians over the age of 30 or so, the events of September 24, 1988, are seared into their memory: on that day, Ben Johnson ran the 100m dash in a world-record 9.79 seconds at the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, winning Canada's first gold medal in the prestigious event. Three days later, after his urine samples tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol, Johnson was summarily disqualified.

At the time of his win, a wave of jubilation spread across the country. In a live post-race broadcast, then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said to Johnson, "My congratulations to you on behalf of all Canadians. You were just marvellous and all of us were so proud.... It's been a marvellous evening for Canada":

When he returned to the country, Johnson was greeted with a parade down Toronto's Bay Street, and was presented with a plate, a plaque and even a jogging suit by various politicians. 

After his positive test, the tide quickly turned. On The National that night, Peter Mansbridge said, "The nation is in shock tonight over the downfall of a Canadian hero." Abby Hoffman, the director of Sport Canada at the time, said, “It’s a disgrace not just for Canada, but for the whole Games." In the end, it turned out that six out of the eight sprinters who ran in that race tested positive for banned substances or were later implicated in a drug scandal.

Following a three-year suspension from track and field, Johnson attempted a comeback in 1991, but failed to reach the finals at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona. The next year, he tested positive for testosterone at a meet in Grenoble, France, and was banned for life from the sport. In 1999, a Canadian adjudicator found procedural errors in his lifetime ban, opening the door for an appeal, but Johnson tested positive a third time that year, and hasn't competed since.

Eight years after Johnson's win in Soeul, Donovan Bailey won Olympic gold in Atlanta with a time of 9.84, making him the first Canadian to win the race and to break the 10-second barrier cleanly.

For his part, Johnson continued to make headlines over the years. In 1999, it was revealed that he had signed on as the football coach of Moammar Gadhafi's son, Al-Saadi Gadhafi. And in 2006, he participated in a series of ads for an energy drink called Cheetah Power Surge, where he exclaimed "I Cheetah all the time!":

In a recent interview with the CBC's Adrienne Arsenault, Johnson charged that in the years since his doping, the sport has not been cleaned up. "Nothing changed. It's got worse," he said. "Now you have doctors making these drugs that can clear the system in 10, 15 minutes."  Indeed, Arsenault reports that in an anonymous survey of athletes at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, 29 per cent admitted to doping in the previous year. Johnson now lives in Markham, Ontario, and participates in anti-doping forums and panels.


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