For almost two days, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was the fastest man in Olympic history.
The Jamaican-born Johnson had blown away American rival Carl Lewis in the 100-meter final at the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, using an amazingly powerful start to post a time of 9.79 seconds, besting his own world record by .04 seconds, and was being hailed in Canada as a conquering hero after winning the most highly anticipated race in track-and-field history.
Two days later, it all came crashing down on Johnson and became the most stunning moment in Olympic history, at least in my lifetime. Johnson had tested positive for a banned steroid and the International Olympic Committee stripped Johnson of his gold medal and awarded it to Lewis, who had finished second in an American-record 9.92 seconds.
I had watched the race on television with a group of friends and we were dumbfounded by the explosiveness of Johnson’s start. I had never seen anything like it – no one had.
The Seoul Games were marked by doping violations. The entire Bulgarian weightlifting team was sent home from South Korea after two of its athletes won gold medals only to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs after the competition.
In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been a complete shock that Johnson was found to have cheated; Lewis had been hinting at Johnson’s steroid use for a year, dating back to the 1987 World Championships in Rome when Johnson broke the world record with a mark of 9.83 seconds. But it was a different time; we weren’t accustomed to constant reports and insinuations about steroid use. The Johnson-Lewis rivalry was an acrimonious one and Lewis’ accusations were easy to dismiss as the sour grapes of a bitter, defeated competitor.
As it turned out, Johnson was just the tip of an iceberg that still engulfs the sport today. History was particularly unkind to most of the finalists of that 100-meter final in Seoul almost 24 years ago.
Of the eight men who raced that evening in South Korea, just two–Calvin Smith, who finished fourth and was elevated to the bronze-medal position following Johnson’s disqualification, and Robson da Silva–finished their careers unsullied by doping accusations.
Lewis had tested positive for three banned stimulants at the U.S. Olympic Trials in August 1988. Linford Christie, the eventual silver medalist, tested positive for a banned stimulant in Seoul but was successful in attributing it to a cup of ginseng tea. However, Christie later tested positive for anabolic steroids in 1999.
Fourth-place finisher Dennis Mitchell was found to have excessive testosterone levels in a 1998 doping test, a result he blamed on having sex with his wife at least four times on the day of the test, according to the Associated Press. Desai Williams, a Canadian who finished sixth in Seoul, admitted to a Canadian inquiry that he had used steroids. Even last-place finisher Ray Stewart was implicated in doping, earning a lifetime ban in 2010 for getting performance-enhancing drugs for athletes he was coaching.