Ben Johnson vs. Carl Lewis: The race and the disgrace

Ben Johnson vs. Carl Lewis: The race and the disgrace

The steroid scandal still haunts us, but 3 decades later, what have we learned?

By David Giddens, CBC Sports
September 23, 2018

Note: This feature was original published for the 30th anniversary. It's been updated to reflect that the date of Sept. 24, 1988 has now reached its 33rd anniversary.

Never underestimate a good rivalry.

Given the right ingredients, a minor beef between a pair of coddled athletes can blow up into something that will rankle for generations. A truly great rivalry can sweep up so much passion that the world will come to a standstill to watch it unfold. Rivalries can make parents struggle to tell their kids why a 33-year-old sporting event still bugs them.

These aren’t just moments in history, these are moments that shape history. Good rivalries change their sports. And the best rivalries always have a dirty underside — the loftier the rhetoric, the more unseemly the business behind the scenes.

For 62 hours, all of Canada revelled in the epic victory Ben Johnson, right, delivered over American Carl Lewis in the 100-metre final at the 1988 Olympics. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters) For 62 hours, all of Canada revelled in the epic victory Ben Johnson, right, delivered over American Carl Lewis in the 100-metre final at the 1988 Olympics. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

The greatest rivalry North America has seen in the last two generations played out over 10 seconds in 1988. Ben Johnson, Canadian, raced the 100-metre final against Carl Lewis, American, at the Seoul Olympics. We are still getting over it. Most middle-aged Canadians can still remember the aftermath, but very few can recall how it was that we all got so deeply invested in that one race. The details of the Lewis-Johnson rivalry, the skullduggery that stoked our fascination, that is what seems to have slipped our collective memories. You can never tell what your mind is going to retain when you are in the midst of a car wreck, natural disaster, or national trauma.

Sept. 24, 1988 (Seoul)

The race was all of that, for Canadians. And all the more nauseating because it began so beautifully. Johnson’s win was the best sporting moment we could imagine. Our modest guy lined up, with all the world holding its breath and watching, and he just destroyed a showboating American at his own game.

It was so, so great. Johnson made something happen that I only saw once in my life. When he won, my mother leaped off her couch. She shouted and sprang up like a cricket and starting doing a jig on the carpet. 


We hooked arms like barn dancers and did a circle while my dog barked himself into a frenzy. It’s one of my favourite memories of my mother. Canadian life was beyond sweet for 62 hours.

But then...

Lewis now says he always understood that his rivalry with Johnson was good for business of sport. (Submitted by David Giddens) Lewis now says he always understood that his rivalry with Johnson was good for business of sport. (Submitted by David Giddens)


Aug. 11, 2018 (Toronto)

At six-foot-two Lewis is exactly my height. He has grey hair now and he’s wearing a little drawstring knapsack. He could be another tourist, up from Texas. He is padding along the track in Nike runners with big see-through acrylic heels. They remind me of inflatable chairs from the 1970s. I can’t decide if they are cool or not.

Lewis is in Toronto for the NACAC Games — he is coaching Canadian long jumper Jared Kerr. Since he is in Johnson’s hometown, I ask him if he has any message for his old rival. Lewis has been generous and smart with his answers so far. But for the first time, this one makes him sigh. He’s at a loss for words for a couple of seconds. But this is Carl Lewis ... so he gets around to it:


“Success is going to be what you do after track. It isn't what you did in it. And Ben still to this day has a wonderful platform to talk to young people about what to do and what not to do, who to trust who not to trust. Because it wasn't just about him being some demonized person … a lot of it was about trust, trusting the wrong people.

“And we all did that at 17, 18, 19 years old so I'm not blaming him, but unfortunately the effects of the people that he trusted, that were not good people, were much worse to us. So I think that at this point in time you now look at your granddaughter, look in her eyes and see: how do I inspire her? What do I want her to believe and know about me when she grows up?”


'I’ve moved past 1988'

To his dying day, Johnson will likely be a man we don’t fully understand. Unlike his talkative rival, Johnson has never given long explanations about why he ran, how he sees himself, what it was like to be the most famous cheating athlete in a generation of cheating athletes.

Johnson returned to the Seoul track in 2013. He still dislikes discussing the events of the 1988 Olympic 100-metre race. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press) Johnson returned to the Seoul track in 2013. He still dislikes discussing the events of the 1988 Olympic 100-metre race. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press)

I asked Johnson to talk to us for this article, but he was reluctant. He has not had a great experience with the media, including CBC Sports, and he declined comment. I persisted, and promised I would quote him verbatim. Johnson wanted to know what Lewis said, and once I told him, he sent along a single statement.

"I have moved past the events of 1988 and am enjoying a full life with family and trusted friends — I have not allowed that time in my life to define me. It is just unfortunate that some in the media and in the bureaucracy of sport still feel a need to vilify me. Life is too short."

Dec. 30, 1961 (Falmouth, Jamaica)

Born on the second last day of the year, Johnson was destined to always be the youngest among his cohorts. His family was not rich, but they certainly never lacked for good healthy food. They kept bees, pigs, ducks and chickens. His dad, Ben Sr., was a phone installer Monday to Friday, and drove a taxi on the weekends. When he was three, the younger Johnson contracted malaria. He was a skinny kid, and always quiet. A primary school teacher said they could never quite tell what little Ben was thinking about.


When he was 11, Johnson’s mum, Gloria, came to Canada to try to boost family fortunes. She was away for four years, and during that time, her youngest son developed a hesitation or stutter in his speech. He was bullied. He challenged one of his tormentors to a race. Guess who won. Is that simple story the start of it all?

Charlie Francis, right, was more than just a coach to Johnson. (Hans Deryk/Canadian Press) Charlie Francis, right, was more than just a coach to Johnson. (Hans Deryk/Canadian Press)

Johnson and his brother, Eddie, joined their mum in Canada in 1976. Their father stayed back in Jamaica. They got a colour TV and Johnson was glued to the Montreal Olympics. Eddie ran with the Scarborough Optimists track club.

When Johnson was 15, Eddie took him to meet his coach, Charlie Francis. For 11 years, Francis was Johnson’s coach, and even a dime-store psychologist would agree, a father figure.

When do we start talking about the steroids? Francis raised the subject with his young runner in 1981. Johnson had to think about it. Somewhere around this time, the muscle mass began pouring onto Johnson’s frame.

In 1980 he was still just another scrawny kid. He and Lewis raced for the first time that year, at the Junior PanAms in Sudbury, Ont. Lewis won in 10.43 seconds; Johnson came sixth in 10.88.

Two years later, Johnson won silver in the Commonwealth Games. That was a shocking improvement.


Two years after that he raced Lewis at the Los Angeles Olympics. Johnson false-started, but still prevented an American podium sweep. He came home with bronze.


Pivotal Olympics

The 1984 Games were pivotal for Lewis. If Johnson was edging onto the radar as the new, shy, fast Canadian, Lewis seemed to embody every negative cliché Canadians might harbour about Americans. He was beyond flashy.

While Lewis, left, won the 100 metres at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Johnson put his American counterpart on notice with his bronze-medal effort. (Getty Images) While Lewis, left, won the 100 metres at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Johnson put his American counterpart on notice with his bronze-medal effort. (Getty Images)

Lewis won four gold medals at the Los Angeles Games. That put him in the pantheon with Jesse Owens. It really should have earned him national adulation. But instead, Sports Illustrated described Lewis as a vain and selfish man. The feeling was that Lewis’ confidence was repellant. The day after he won the 1984 Olympic 100 metres, Time Magazine had a cover photo of Lewis with the gold around his neck.  This was back in the day of film cameras and analog printing presses. How did that cover happen so fast? Lewis and his coach, Joe Douglas, had posed for their gold-medal victory shoot days before the event was even run. The confidence was justified — but jeez, kind of grating. 

Lewis came out of the 1984 Games without the big sponsorships that his medal count should have given him reason to expect. It is not a certain matter to say why Adidas  and McDonald’s and the other big boys hesitated to hitch their wagons to Lewis, but a 1992 New York Times article points out that there were widespread rumours about Lewis’ sexuality. Younger readers might say, “so what?” The Times specified that In the 1980s many media outlets repeated anti-gay slurs that track rivals aimed at Lewis, without public backlash. So it is depressing, but not surprising, that Madison Avenue was less than gung-ho for the Lewis brand.


Speaking of which ... give Lewis props for picking up the slack on his own branding mission. He took acting classes. He recorded an album — Break It Up.


Eesh! Back to racing, please.

4-year runway

There never was any love lost between the two sprinters, but from 1984 to 1988, the Johnson-Lewis rivalry went into a long simmer. Richard Moore, in The Dirtiest Race in History, quotes Johnson saying, “after L.A. I knew Carl was good, but I knew I could beat him. I knew it.”

Dr. Jamie Astaphan administered Johnson’s steroid injections. (Bill Becker/Canadian Press) Dr. Jamie Astaphan administered Johnson’s steroid injections. (Bill Becker/Canadian Press)

Johnson's certainty might have been chemically enhanced. His training with Francis took a strange twist around 1985. Everyone else in the sprinting game was focussed on the endurance aspect of racing.

But Francis was all about boosting Johnson’s top speed, which was not the normal approach. By this time, Johnson had lost eight races to Lewis, but he started getting closer in his top speed. The winning edge, like Francis was insisting, came from speed, not stamina.

Canadians will remember the slippery figure of Dr. Jamie Astaphan, who had teamed up with Francis since 1983. Barbara Frum’s interview with Astaphan was one for the ages.

By 1985, Astaphan was so involved in Johnson’s pharmacology that he was rivalling Charlie “the chemist” Francis for top spot in Johnson’s camp. Johnson had been injecting hefty doses of human growth hormone (HGH), but in 1985, Astaphan switched him to the steroid Dianabol — used for lean muscle mass, increased stamina and physical strength.

Johnson beat Lewis for the first time in Zurich in 1985 by 1-100th of a second. In that fleeting instant, the rumours began. It was rare for an athlete to make the improvements Johnson had made.


Track was rife with steroidal cheating back then, but the mistaken belief was that it was mostly a Communist bloc thing, that Western athletes were above that kind of cheating program. But even so, Johnson was attracting unwanted suspicion. Astaphan switched up the steroids again. Estragol was the new juice, an anabolic steroid that was harder to detect if the doping testing started to get serious.

Around this time, Canadian sprinter Desai Williams had seen enough. He was buddies with Johnson, and they both trained and both cheated under Francis’s leadership. Williams hadn’t yet owned up to his steroid use, but he stated that in 1985, he called Glen Bogue, the manager of athlete services at Canadian track and field. Williams says he explained that Johnson was on steroids, and he was worried for his health. More than 30 years later, who can say? If whistles really did blow, a good number of Canadians turned deaf ears.

Now that Johnson was pushing the world’s fastest man, the media began to pour insulting fuel onto the rivalry. Lewis took the inspiration where he could get it, gritted his teeth and ran harder in the face of sexual orientation slurs. Johnson faced unkind commentary about his intellect. The media made him out to be a brute. Lewis had beautiful running form, all agreed, but the implicit contrast was that Johnson ran ugly. That he was just an overpowering giant. Much was made of Johnson’s incredible starts. They were, in fact, a shocker to behold. Johnson came out of the blocks like he was leaping from an exploding building. Famously, he once started so hard that his shoes were destroyed. They couldn’t make spikes strong enough to withstand his acceleration.


There's a race in Seville, Spain in 1987 where the two go head to head, and it is the first time Johnson receives a higher appearance fee than Lewis, adding heat to the rivalry. Johnson takes off out of the blocks like usual, Lewis closes the gap. Johnson wins in 10.06 to Lewis’ 10.07. But as they shoot across the line, Lewis throws a victorious arm up and insists that he won. Johnson calls him a clown. It gets a little hot between them. The rivalry metre goes up a notch.

Thirty years later, Lewis tells me he is clear-eyed about the whole thing:
“You know, the Canadian, the American. The good guy, the bad guy. I understood that. I get it. I don’t sit here and say it was rosy. It wasn't like that, but I understood how even the appearance of certain things helped elevate it. And so I was a businessman, and I thought it was good.”


Aug. 30, 1987. Rome

Johnson and Lewis square off again. Johnson is out of the blocks like a Howitzer shell. People think it is a false start, he is so fast. This time Johnson runs 9.83. Everybody who knows anything about track is astonished.

Johnson, right, broke the world record in Rome at the 1987 world championships while overwhelming Lewis at the same time. (Michel Lipchitz/Associated Press) Johnson, right, broke the world record in Rome at the 1987 world championships while overwhelming Lewis at the same time. (Michel Lipchitz/Associated Press)

Johnson has lopped a 10th of a second off the world record, when trimming hundredths of a second is a big deal. Lewis has been quite verbose in the run-up to this race, but in the minutes after the incredible run,  NBC's Dwight Stones presses a live microphone into Johnson’s face.

“You said you’d run 9.85 and you ran 9.83...” says Stones.

The surprisingly crisp response:  “Yeah. I don’t talk shit.”

When Lewis was beating Johnson consistently, the Canadian had little to say. When Johnson finally started outrunning Lewis, the American’s comments were infamous. Three days after Rome. Lewis said drug use was everywhere. He said the times were impossible without steroids.

“The main culprits are the second-class athletes who do it to try and catch up.” He is pointedly talking about Johnson.


Lewis is telling the truth. But since he has just gotten his clock cleaned, it sounds like he is being sucky about it.
Tongues may be wagging behind the scenes, but Johnson inks a deal with Italian clothing company Diadora for $2.3 million US. It’s the biggest payout in athletics history.

May 13, 1988 (Tokyo)

Johnson pulls a hamstring. He and Francis have not been seeing eye to eye. So three months before the Seoul Olympics, Johnson gets some space from the disagreement by going to stay with Astaphan on the island of St. Kitts. There is some human growth hormone and a lot of pill taking, and rehab training in the water. Johnson comes back to Toronto from the Caribbean fit and healthy. Johnson and Francis air their grudges and get back to work.

Aug. 17, 1988 (Zurich)

Johnson and Lewis have one final meeting before Seoul. They are right beside each other, in Lanes 4 and 5. Johnson false starts. Somewhere around 80 metres, Lewis finds the next gear and wins in 9.93. Second place goes to Calvin Smith. Johnson has fallen to third in 10 flat.


Lewis' failed test kept quiet

A month before Seoul, Astaphan and Francis work together on Johnson’s last pre-race steroid injections. Johnson gets hypodermics of HGH and Estragol. Less than four weeks to go, it’s time for the Canadians to hide the needles, flush Johnson’s system, and try to get their guy through doping controls. Just for perspective, two months before this was going on, the first world conference on sport doping was being held in Ottawa. 

With Seoul approaching, Johnson breezes through Canadian national trials. The Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) does not test him for banned substances. The Americans are a bit more rigorous, but we don’t find this out until the year 2003.

Lewis escaped punishment at the U.S. trials despite testing positive for stimulants. (Getty Images) Lewis escaped punishment at the U.S. trials despite testing positive for stimulants. (Getty Images)

Lewis goes through drug testing, and after his samples are checked three times, the executive director of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) finds three kinds of stimulants in Lewis’ system: pseudoephedrine, ephedrine and phenylpropanolamine. It’s cause for disqualification. These aren’t steroids, these are uppers. And by today’s rules, Lewis would be permitted to have those substances in those quantities in his system. But back then, no dice.

So that causes a bit of a flutter in Colorado Springs. Quietly, a three-person tribunal looks at Lewis’ case and agrees that this was an inadvertent slip. Cold meds taken in error. Lewis is back in business.

The countdown to the fastest 100 metres in history begins. Even if media hype fostered the grudges, the Johnson-Lewis, Canadian–American rivalry is no contrivance anymore. Canadians really, really want Ben Johnson to win. Just a week previous, Wayne Gretzky tearfully said goodbye to Edmonton after being traded to the Los Angeles Kings. Canadians need a win.


On the eve of the Seoul Olympics, President Juan Antonio Samaranch opens the IOC session. No big public hoopla at this meeting. Behind the doors, Samaranch addresses the powers that be. His speech begins, “doping equals death.”


Sept. 24, 1988 (Seoul)

The minutes to the race tick down. It seems every Canadian has found a place in front of a TV. Many quietly cross their fingers and try a little private version of “please, oh sport gods, give us just this one win.”

In Seoul's Olympic Stadium, 70,000 fans watch as the eight lanes are quietly occupied by the fastest men in history. For the first time, running under 10 seconds will not guarantee a podium. The gun goes off. The race is over. Johnson’s raised arm and pointed finger silently shout No. 1 at the world.

Watch the epic 1988 Olympic 100-metre final

Within half an hour, the gold medal is draped around Johnson’s neck. In silver position on the podium, Lewis’ face is beyond thunder. He has made his only rookie mistake in years: turning to look at Johnson while the race was afoot. Great Britain's Linford Christie takes bronze. Calvin Smith has run 9.99, only good enough for fourth place. History will show that he and Brazil's Robson da Silva are the only runners on the track that day who are never implicated in banned substance scandal.


Minutes after the race, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney phones Johnson to tell him about the explosion of ecstasy his win has caused in Ottawa. Next stop? Doping. Johnson goes into the booth. He cannot pee. He sits and drinks an unbelievable eight bottles of beer. Nature takes its course and Johnson’s next stop is the post-win media press conference. He is bleary, drunk and it shows. As humiliations go, it is a tiny pinprick compared with what is to follow.

The Korean lab director has 100 samples — all anonymous — to test that day. One of them throws up a positive. Eight nanograms of stanozolol. Another official matches the anonymous sample to Johnson. The IOC’s head of drug testing, Prince Alexander de Mérode, writes a note and hand delivers it to Canada's chef de mission, Carol Anne Letheren.

Watch an IOC official announce the stripping of Ben Johnson's gold medal

Sept. 26, 1988 (Seoul)

Dick Pound is the only Canadian lawyer on the scene. He finds himself in a ghastly situation, having to defend Johnson at the outset of the most disheartening show in sports.

Letheren has a horrible job herself: going to retrieve the gold medal  from Johnson. He had already given it to his mom. Johnson co-operates completely. He looks to Letheren as he hands the gold medal back and says, “I can’t lose something I never owned."

Watch Ben Johnson leave Seoul in disgrace

No love back home

Johnson flew home from Seoul to Toronto. He was booed at the airport. In some quarters, Ben Johnson, Canadian, had become Ben Johnson, Jamaican-Canadian. It is a point of pride that many Canadians were disgusted by that shaded nationality. Johnson was Canadian when he lit the track world on fire. He was still Canadian when he lied and cheated. And he is still Canadian now that he has fully admitted to doping. Heros and heels, sport teaches us to own our own.


When Johnson got home, he mostly stayed inside. He’d come out once in a while and bomb around in his Ferrari. Heading down the 401, he waved a starter pistol at someone from the driver’s seat of his Porsche. 

A month after the Olympics, Mulroney asked Ontario's chief justice, Charles Dubin, to launch The Commision Of Inquiry Into the Use of Drugs and Banned Practises Intended to Improve Athletic Performance.


Jan. 11, 1989 (Toronto)

The commission hearings begin. They last for the longest 11 months any Canadian sports fan will ever remember. There are 122 witnesses, a 600-page final report and 1,400 pages of testimony. At the very core of Chief Justice Dubin’s report is the simple, perfect message:

"We cannot allow sport, which we expect to build character, to become a means to destroy it."

During the inquiry, 46 athletes admit to steroid use. We learn that this was absolutely not just Canadians doing the cheating. Dr. Robert Kerr, who was working with Francis in secret from Los Angeles, said 20 of his athletes won medals using banned drugs that he prescribed in 1984.

After the scandal, the USOC set up a drug hotline for athletes to use. It has been reported that many callers asked, "how can I get my hands on whatever Ben Johnson was taking?”


The aftermath

What’s become of the sprinters from that infamous 100-metre final at the Seoul Games?

Raymond Stewart, who came eighth, was busted for HGH administration in 2008.

Johnson broke down while he admitted to taking steroids during the Dubin inquiry in 1989. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters) Johnson broke down while he admitted to taking steroids during the Dubin inquiry in 1989. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

Williams, who finished seventh, admitted to taking Astaphan’s steroids, telling Team Canada about it all in 1986.

Da Silva came sixth. He ran in three Olympics from 1988 to 1996, winning two bronze medals. Da Silva is South America’s greatest sprinter. He has never been connected with any drugs scandal.

Dennis Mitchell, fifth, tested positive for testosterone in 1998.

Smith finished fourth, but was upgraded to bronze following Johnson's DQ. Like Da Silva, he was never implicated in any steroidal investigation. Some say he should be the winner of record for the Seoul 100 metres.

Christie came in third, upgraded to silver. Christie won gold in the 100m in 1992. In 1999 he tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone.

Francis, an Olympic runner himself in 1972, died in 2010 at age 61 from non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Astaphan was busted for selling steroids and cocaine in 1994. He died of a heart attack in 2006.

Lewis, who would win nine Olympic medals in his career, says his Seoul gold in the 100m is his favourite of them all.


Johnson was the final witness in the Dubin inquiry. On June 12, 1989 he told the inquiry:

"I lied. I lied and I was ashamed for my family, my friends, other Canadian athletes. I was just in a mess.”

Johnson cheated. He took boatloads of steroids. He admits that fully. But Johnson still has an issue with the whole process. Five of the other seven runners in 1988 were eventually caught cheating too. It still hurts Johnson deeply that he is the only one singled out for public shaming.

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