ABIGAIL HOFFMAN, director general of Sport Canada, finds one merit in the Ben Johnson affair: It has heightened awareness of the drug problem in sports. If people wanted to pretend there wasn't a problem, they can't now, says the trim manager of Canada's federal sports program.
When the Canadian sprinter was stripped of the gold medal he won last fall in the 100-meter race at the Olympics in Seoul, the shock in Canada was enormous. One result was that the government appointed a Commission of Inquiry Into the Use of Drugs and Banned Practices to Increase Athletic Performance.
That investigation, under Ontario Associate Chief Justice Charles Dubin, held a week of hearings in Toronto last month. Ms. Hoffman was an early witness.
In an interview here, she noted that Canada had been pushing hard in the international sports community for stronger antidoping measures. Thus it was particularly ``ironic or paradoxical'' that this nation's most famous Olympic athlete was caught in Seoul.
As Hoffman - a former track and field athlete - notes, Canada already knew it wasn't ``a lily-white country'' for athletic doping. Two Canadian weight lifters tested positive at the Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1983.
That embarrassing development prompted the government to launch a program to eradicate doping substances in Canadian sports, obviously without complete success.
About $2 million has been spent under that program in education, research, and testing. Up to 1,000 drug tests are administered a year, divided among roughly 60 sports, under the control of the Sport Medicine Council of Canada.
Canada's former sports minister, Otto Jelinek, first proposed an international anti-doping charter in a speech to the Council of Europe in 1986 in Dublin. Such a charter was drafted last June at a conference here sponsored by the International Olympic Committee and Canada.
In September, this charter was formally adopted by the IOC and approved in late November by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at a meeting of national sports ministers in Moscow.
Now an international ``working group'' has been pressing nations and international sports federations to accept the charter and run programs to discourage doping.
The group consists of national officials from Canada, Norway, the United States, the Soviet Union, and East Germany, as well as a representative of the Council of Europe and a sports figure from Britain.
Hoffman holds that anti-doping programs can't be left to national authorities alone, but must be reinforced by international bodies.
Doping, aside from its effects on the health and ethics of an individual using these substances, destroys a sport, she contends. ``Who wants to compete where other people are cheating?''
Weight lifting was the topic of the Dubin inquiry when the commission met again in Montreal Feb. 1 to 10. Since not all witnesses had been heard, the same topic was on the agenda in Toronto yesterday and today.
The International Weightlifting Federation recently adopted a strict new policy: When a weight lifter tests positive for a banned substance in an international competition, his entire national federation is suspended. The ban lasts one year for the first offense and longer for subsequent positive drug tests.
The federation also demands to know the name of the person who supplied the drug or counseled the athlete to use it. If no names are forthcoming, further suspensions follow.
Judge Dubin is scheduled next Tuesday to start looking into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in track and field, including the Ben Johnson affair. Those hearings, which could take five weeks or so, are expected to receive greater attention from the international press.
The inquiry has the power to subpoena witnesses and compel their testimony under threat of imprisonment.
The ability of witnesses to avoid self-incrimination is somewhat fuzzier in Canada than in the US. Canada does not have a Fifth Amendment to its Constitution.
Moreover, the possession and use of most doping substances, such as the anabolic steroid found in Johnson's urine, are not illegal under Canadian law. Improper sale and distribution are, however.
When Dubin offers his report and recommendations, he may suggest a toughening of Canadian law dealing with these drugs.
Having gone from elation when Jamaican-born Johnson rocketed 100 meters in the astonishing time of 9.79 seconds to depression when he was ousted from the Games, Canadians are eager to avoid another instance of what a Toronto columnist called ``the most publicized fraud in the history of sport.''