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I was nailed on a cross for 25 years: Ben Johnson

Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson returned yesterday to Seoul’s Olympic Stadium — 25 years to the day after the steroid-assisted 100m final victory that destroyed his career and reputation.

Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson

The runner revisited the site of his stunning triumph and downfall to bring an anti-doping message for a sport still hit by dopers. “It feels good to be back,” Johnson told AFP as he stepped out onto the track where, at 1:30 pm on September 24, 1988, he lined up for a 100m final that would become known as the ‘dirtiest race in history.’ “This is where history was made. Some might call it bad history, but I don’t see it that way,” said Johnson.

Hated rival Carl Lewis
First out of the blocks in the final, Johnson destroyed a field that included his hated rival Carl Lewis and stormed to victory in a world record time of 9.79 seconds. Three days later he was stripped of his medal, his time and ultimately his career after it was announced that he had tested positive for stanozolol, a banned anabolic steroid.

Six of the eight finalists would eventually be implicated in doping scandals, including Lewis, who it was later revealed had tested positive for stimulants at the US Olympic trials. Johnson (51) has admitted to years of steroid use, but still feels he was unfairly picked out for vilification at a time of widespread drug use in athletics. “I was nailed on a cross, and 25 years later I’m still being punished.

Ben Johnson
September 24, 1988: Canada’s Ben Johnson (left) celebrates after sprinting to victory in the 100m final ahead of USA’s Carl Lewis (right) at the Seoul Olympics. Pic/AFP

Rapists and murderers get sent to prison, but even they get out eventually. I know what I did was wrong. Rules are rules. But the rules should be the same for all. But politics always plays in sports,” he said. Johnson’s return to Seoul was the final leg of a global tour as standard bearer of the  ChooseTheRightTrack campaign, which calls for new strategies to combat drug use in athletics.

Yesterday, at precisely 1:30 pm, Johnson stood at the starting point on Lane 6 — his lane in the final — and strolled down the track he burned up in
1988. As he walked, two volunteers unrolled in his path a 100-meter long petition with 3,700 signatures the campaign has collected over the past month. At the finish line, he recreated the famous finger-raised pose he struck at the moment of victory 25 years ago.

“Of course I feel remorse, regret, but it’s not the biggest issue in my life anymore. I’ve accepted it and I’ve moved forward,” he said. The sport has recently been rocked by a string of doping cases, including high-profile athletes such as Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell and Veronica Campbell-Brown. Seven athletes, including one finalist, tested positive for doping at August's World Athletics Championships in Moscow.

Sympathy for Lance
Johnson voiced some sympathy for Lance Armstrong, saying the disgraced American cyclist was being singled out, much as he was, in a sport where doping is prevalent. “I hope he can get through this. It’s going to be tough and he has a long fight ahead of him,” Johnson said.

Asked what he would change if he could go back 25 years, Johnson said there was no point trying to live in the past. “But I still believe I could have won the Olympic Games without any drugs back then,” he added. 

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