Steroid Stigma Sticks – Ben Johnson, 25 Years Later
The Ben Johnson steroid scandal at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea is still remembered 25 years later as one of the true blights to Olympic sports. With international media recognizing that anniversary this week, seeing where Ben Johnson is today gives an eerie parallel to where banned substances in sports have gone in the 25 years since. With far too many great athletes being busted for performance-enhancing drugs, and forgiveness of notables becoming more commonplace, Johnson’s trajectory since then is fascinating to examine.
For those who lost track of what Johnson did after that initial ban 25 years ago, there were numerous years where he desperately tried to keep himself relevant. After his widely publicized disqualification at the 1988 Olympics due to a failed steroid test, and his admission that he also cheated when breaking the world record a year earlier, the realities of athletes using banned substances started coming to the fore. In 1989, there was a widely televised inquiry into the matter by the Canadian governmen called The Dubin Inquiry. It painted a picture of a major problem in the international sports arena while subsequently putting Canada native Johnson’s career on hold.
But public forgiveness seemed to start after a few years, and Johnson attempted a comeback for the 1992 Olympics. A year after failing to make the cut there, some forget he – shockingly – failed a drug test yet again in 1993. This time, he was banned for life by the International Association of Athletics Federations.
What happened afterward, though, is a question of whether notoriety over performance-enhancing drugs is ultimately profitable rather than a true punishment.
Once a Cheetah, always a Cheetah
Despite Johnson having bizarrely coached Muammar Gaddafi’s son in 1999, the last five years haven’t been entirely cruel. While Johnson has had numerous bad luck stories over the years, the act of making profit from being notorious started when he did a commercial for an energy drink called Cheetah Power Surge. Many questioned the ethics of the commercial, especially when it glorified the process of cheating with the catchphrase, “Once a Cheetah, always a Cheetah.”
Since then, Johnson has been coaching in Canada and seemingly making an acceptable living. He even wrote an autobiography that he published on his own. In the book, he called out Carl Lewis as being a co-conspirator in his downfall at the 1988 Olympics.
With attention back on him now, it begs the question whether Johnson would have this kind of attention now had he never failed a drug test and instead won Olympic gold medals. We hardly hear about some of the top Olympians who won multiple gold medals. All that attention on Johnson likely brings some profit from all the publicity. And today’s athletes might weigh that into their mental calculations about the risks vs. benefits of steroid use.
So, is public forgiveness a lasting legacy of the era of athletes using performance-enhancing drugs? After the shock of so many legendary sports names being called out in just the last couple of years, the words “lifetime disgrace” is a yet unknown moniker to apply. What will we think of this year’s fallen heroes in, say, 25 years from now?
Drug testing will never wane, though, and will continue to evolve to catch ever more clever users. Here at Health Street, we offer comprehensive drug testing to individuals and companies throughout the United States and parts of Canada. And if you have a sports event that advertises itself as “drug-free” or “all natural”, we’re here for you to provide onsite testing.