Friday, September 27, 2013

Don't Insult Clean Athletes by Calling Ben Johnson "One Of Our Greatest Athletes"

Twenty five years ago, I probably couldn't stop smiling. The 1988 Olympics were on and every spare moment I had was spent watching them or reading about them. Ben Johnson had just won gold on the weekend and Canada was celebrating.

That was about to change when the news broke that Ben Johnson had failed a drug test. I didn't want to believe it. I was one of many who defended Ben and believed the test result to be a mistake. I believed the excuses "he didn't knowingly take anything", "someone spiked his drink", but then the Dubin Inquiry showed us how naive we were.

A couple of days ago, Canada's sports media were recognizing the 25th anniversary of the 100m race that Ben Johnson won.

I think what was more profound and had more of an impact on Canada was the day we found out that Johnson was stripped of the gold medal because of a positive drug test. Let's mark that anniversary instead.

Ben Johnson took performance enhancing drugs that led to his winning that race. He's no hero or victim. He may have been punished more severely than the others and politics may have been at play, but even if every single sprinter was on PEDs then, we should not be celebrating that performance.

Last year, I saw the documentary 9.79*.

In the documentary we learn that 6 of the 8 athletes in that final either tested positive or have been implicated in a drug scandal since then. We learn that Carl Lewis' friend Andre Jackson may have given Ben a tainted beer before Ben's drug test. Ben tested positive for a different steroid than he was actually using.  Andre is interviewed in the documentary and when asked whether he did, he says "maybe I did, maybe I didn't". If he didn't wouldn't he deny it or is he just an attention seeker wanting a moment in the spotlight?

Whether Ben's beer was drugged or not is not the issue. The beer only leads to Ben getting caught. It doesn't change the fact that he did use performance enhancing drugs for years.

Stephen Brunt's article on the last page of Sportsnet Magazine, has captions like:
"Twenty-five years after Seoul, Ben Johnson should be remembered not for his PED ban, but for his greatness"
" The line dividing what is considered cheating and what is not is often arbitrary"
He makes the ridiculous declaration that his 1988 race was the "greatest athletic accomplishment in history". Sorry but, the greatest athletic accomplishment in history can not be enhanced by drugs!

In an interview, he asks Ben how fast he could have gone, like if it doesn't matter that he was taking PEDs - comparing it to baseball's Canseco and McGwire.

Reading all the comments from readers on various Canadian sites defending him makes me think that this story is so biased. If the scenario was reversed and Carl Lewis had won then tested positive with the same circumstances as Ben endured, we would not be defending him. We would say that Ben deserved the gold because he didn't get caught. The arguments are completely patriotic. Reading comments on Canadian sites vs comments on American sites show the bias.

Ben Johnson says that the Canadian government should have protected him like other governments protected positive test results for their athletes. What?

The argument is made that "everyone was doing PEDs then" so it was a level playing field.  Really? I don't agree. There were clean athletes, they just weren't making it to the final or not making it to the Olympics at all. Take away PEDs and the competitors in the 100m final may be completely different. The final in 1988 didn't involve the fastest men in the world. It involved the fastest men willing to take performance enhancing drugs.

Two wrongs don't make a right. Just because your competitor takes PEDs, does not mean that it's okay for you to do it. Just because another country's government protects cheats, does not mean that we should protect cheats.

Ben Johnson paid the price for his actions (perhaps overpaid). I don't think we need to continue to punish him, but I also don't believe we should put him on a pedestal either.

It's a moment in our history. We can look back and try to understand it better and try to learn from it but it is ridiculous to say that:
"He is one of our greatest athletes. He provided one of our greatest moments. And as time goes by, everything else means less and less."
That he took PEDs means less and less? That he continued to take them after serving his two year ban means less and less? Not for me.

That is an insult to every clean athlete to have ever competed for Canada.

The moment in history when the drug test came back positive led to the Dubin Inquiry which led to the creation of Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport. Having the CCES testing Canada's athletes on a regular basis will help avoid a Ben Johnson story in the future. It's not a perfect system but seeing tweets from athletes from those early morning surprise visits by drug testers gives me hope that there are a lot of athletes, especially amateur athletes, who are racing and competing clean.

What I take away from looking back at the event in 1988 is that a 20th place by a clean athlete can be as impressive a feat as a medal winning performance. Competing clean should be the goal - that is what makes a great role model.  Should those clean athletes make it to an Olympic or World Cup podium is a bonus.

Some sports are cleaner than others by nature of the sport. Any time there is speed, endurance or strength, some athletes and some countries will use PEDs or other methods to get ahead. I prefer that we lose cleanly than win dirty. I am thankful for Own The Podium and other resources that help our athletes win cleanly and be the best that they can be.

Whether an athlete cheats or not, whether an athlete gets caught or not, they still have look at themselves in the mirror. They have to live with the truth or the lies they tell. They have to live with the health consequences for their choices. They know whether they deserve the medals, the records and the adoration that may come with it.

Revisiting the 25th anniversary of Ben Johnson's positive drug test reminds us why it's important to test athletes year round and why it's important for athletes to be the best that they can be....clean!

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