Ben Johnson - finally happy
Many Canadians remember where they were the moment Ben Johnson won the 1988 Olympic gold medal in the men's 100-metre sprint, shattering his own world record in a time of 9.79 seconds.
Many more, perhaps, recall the International Olympic Committee's announcement three days later that the Toronto athlete had been stripped of his medal following a positive doping test for the steroid stanozolol.
A chaotic scene followed at Seoul's Kimpo International Airport as Johnson and his mother left amidst a media scrum that was televised around the world.
Twenty years later, Johnson is a 46-year-old grandfather.
He remembers surrendering the medal he had coveted since taking bronze at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles to Carol Anne Letheren of the Canadian Olympic Association.
"It was around nine o'clock in the morning," he recalls. "She said, 'Ben this is very hard for me to do, but I have to take back the medal.' I said, 'Here it is, I can't lose something I never owned,' so I gave it back.
"At the time, I just wanted to get my mom out of there safe. I didn't care if it was embarrassing.
"I just wanted to get my mom safely home. When everything was going crazy all over the world, I was nice and calm.
"I did nothing wrong, I didn't kill anybody. Nobody died in my family, so why should I worry?"
Suddenly, Johnson was an object of scorn and derision.
The press hounded him, making him a virtual recluse as they camped outside his house.
"The press camped outside my house for six months. It was good. You know why? Because my house was safe," he says, laughing at his own joke.
"Nobody could break into my house, my house was watched. I went to sleep at night safe, I watched television all day — it was most secure."
Over the past two decades, Johnson has tried hard to keep to himself.
Granting a scant few interviews, he declares he is now finally happy.
But he has endured personal and very public hardships: the Dubin Inquiry, for instance, in which he finally admitted to the world he had been using steroids; and the death of his mother, Gloria, from cancer in 2004.
"When she died, part of me died," he admits. "I went into a depression.
"Not very long, maybe for about three months. I had to deal with her death.
"I can't cook and my mother used to take care of me, so I moved into my sister's place then. I thought things over and accepted it.
"I didn't go to a doctor, I dealt with it myself. My mind is very strong [and] I came through the other side."
Johnson parks his car outside a restaurant in a town north of Toronto. The location is a secret as he doesn't want people to know where he lives.
Gone is the luxury red Testorosa he drove for years. Today, he drives a silver Mercedes-Benz C230 Kompressor with his granddaughter's spare diapers scattered on the back seat.
Over lunch, he stabs at a salad with his fork and speaks enthusiastically between bites, pushing slices of broiled chicken aside as he utters a statement drenched in irony.
"I shouldn't have ordered this chicken," he says. "It's probably been injected with all sorts of stuff. I eat kosher."
Indeed, he now pays close attention to what he eats and drinks. Cranberry juice has replaced beer and red wine. No red meat. No cheese.
On this day, he has come out dressed in a black short-sleeved shirt, and is unshaven. He refuses a picture request because of his facial growth.
A couple driving alongside him as he meets with a journalist recognize him and mouth the words, "Are you Ben Johnson?" He smiles in the affirmative.
For 20 years, all over the world, journalists have used the words "disgraced sprinter" when describing him. Part of his legacy will be as the man who coined the phrase "never knowingly," in reference to his positive drug test.
But to this day, he believes he was set up in the anti-doping room at Seoul's Olympic stadium.
"I don't think [it was sabotage] — I know it was sabotage," he firmly declares. "I never took stanozolol. Never.
"There was a lot of talk in Seoul that people got protected, and Ben gets thrown to the wolves."
Olympic champions, including American rival Carl Lewis, the man on the receiving end of the gold medal taken from Johnson, were later found to have tested positive for stimulants prior to Seoul.
The results were buried until recently.
Other members of the world's fastest men club also have tainted doping records.
Linford Christie of Great Britain, the 1992 Olympics champion, tested positive for nandrolone years later — after, it should be noted, he said he had retired.
American Maurice Greene, who equalled Johnson's world record time in 1999 and went on to win the 2000 Olympic gold medal, must now fend off accusations that he bought steroids from a distributor.
The man who finally eclipsed Johnson's mark, Tim Montgomery of the U.S., was stripped of his world record for drug use.
Even Justin Gatlin of the U.S., the 2004 Olympic 100m winner, has tested positive for steroids.
Gatlin once shared the 100m record at 9.77 seconds Asafa Powell, the current record holder from Jamaica.
It is remarkable that it has taken so long for anyone — drug-free or otherwise — to run faster than Johnson.
"It was fast at the time," Johnson says of his Seoul clocking. "But not 20 years later.
"That was my first mistake. I slowed down at the end. I thought I would have a chance to do it again. But it never happened.
"Now there's better tracks than I was running on, better supplements. If I was running today, on these tracks, I would run 9.5 [seconds]."
At the time of his humiliating fall, Johnson was under a multi-million dollar contract with Italian shoe company Diadora. He lived well and was financially supporting his mother, four sisters and nieces and nephews.
The contract terminated in 1989 and, since then, Johnson has had to earn a living through other means.
Personal training has been one source of income.
For a time, he counted Al Saidi Ghadafi, the soccer-playing son of Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi, as a client.
He also advised a few Italian professional soccer teams.
He has developed an athletic clothing line with one of his sisters. But that, he says, has been put on hold while he finishes an autobiography, which will be published in September.
Johnson is also coaching, by his count, about 10 young athletes in track and field, hockey and soccer.
Earning a U.S. college scholarship is the goal, and he wants his daughter and granddaughter to get the education he never had.
"I finished high school," he reveals. "But I walked out of college.
"I gave all my books to my classmates and said, 'This is not for me' because I was sure about myself. [Sprinting] was a gift from God, man."
Johnson smiles at the pretty waitress who interrupts the interview once again to bring the cheque.
"I'm very happy, I'm taking care of myself," he declares. "Once something happens to you, there is no turning back."
With that, he picks up the cheque and says, "I'll take care of it."Back to top