Johnson disqualification spotlights drug problem
Seoul — Based on the general statistical data available, it would have been unrealistic to expect a drug-free Olympics. Even so, the news of Ben Johnson's disqualification hit like a ton of bricks during the 11th day of the Seoul Games. It is one thing when an obscure weight lifter is caught with his hand in the doping cookie jar, which has happened here several times. It is quite another, however, when ``the world's fastest human'' is found taking what is perceived as a performance-enhancing substance.
The integrity of the Games themselves seemed shaken by the knowledge that the Canadian sprinter had tested positive for a banned drug and been stripped of his gold medal.
Johnson had outraced Carl Lewis only three days before in the most heralded race of these Olympics - the men's 100 meters. He had convincingly broken his own world record, and stood to be one of the biggest heroes of this 159-nation sports gathering.
Instead, he quickly fled the city, leaving behind his medal and a cloud of suspicion over the athletic community.
The reaction of Ricardo Taitino, a marathoner from Guam, was typical. ``I think it's really sad. They're never going to forget this,'' he said of a world grown troubled by the connection between sports and drugs.
Before the Games began, International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch warned of the insidious threat drugs present to the human spirit and intellect. Illegal doping, he said, points to an ``unwillingness to be satisfied with oneself or transcend one's limits.''
The drug Johnson's post-race tests detected was an anabolic steroid, the most frequently used category of substances banned at Olympic competition. Steroids are usually taken in an effort to increase muscle development or aggressiveness.
Johnson, a powerfully built athlete, has no prior record of drug involvement. Canadian officials said he had been tested eight times over the past year and a half at various meets, but not at the meet used to select the Olympic team, where two of the top three finishers in each event were tested via a random draw.
At these Olympics, it was known that all medal winners would be tested, which is a reason the Johnson revelation is so shocking. Why would he risk so much? Had he naively or even unknowingly taken drugs, or had someone assured him that a masking agent would give him a pharmaceutical edge?
The answers were not forthcoming and may never be.
In the wake of this incident, the IOC Athletes Commission issued a statement calling for random testing of athletes in training and competition.
``Any other solution is not going to work,'' says American hurdler Edwin Moses, a member of the commission. ``The individuals who might take drugs know how to get around all this testing. You have to take them by surprise.''
Another necessary measure, the commission feels, is to expose not just the athletes who cheat, but those guilty of aiding and abetting the transgressor.
``It's time that not just the athletes are left out to dry, but everyone associated with the problem,'' Moses said, meaning coaches and administrators, too.
One challenge is that of jurisdiction, since the IOC's mandate is limited to the Olympic Games.
``The real responsibility for day-to-day administration of sport is done through the national sports [governing] federations and international federations,'' points out Ken Read, a former Canadian skier and commision member.
In the United States and other countries, privacy laws can be a fly in the testing ointment, however. A Stanford University athlete, for example, recently mounted a successful challenge to testing at the national championship level.
American Anita DeFrantz, another commission member, recognizes the difficulties. ``The athlete has the right of legal assistance or can appeal practically anything,'' she says. ``If, however, an athlete agrees to be part of a team process and agrees to certain measures, then I think there are grounds for an athlete to be held off the team.''
Obviously there is no easy path for the drug busters. But the Johnson case has provided a new, strong impetus to press the offensive.
``It's been a roller coaster ride in dealing with the drug issue,'' Moses says. ``I think we're over the top of the crest and barreling downhill at full steam.''