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Original Issue


Let Ben Johnson's '87 mark stand and don 7 ban him for life

The Testimony of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson in Toronto last week before Canada's Inquiry into the Use of Drugs and Banned Practices produced no big surprises. Johnson admitted that he had knowingly taken anabolic steroids since 1981. He had used them before the 1987 World Championships in Rome, where he ran 100 meters in 9.83, which, at least for now, stands as the world record. He had used them before the Seoul Olympics, where he ran a 9.79, which would have been another world record had Johnson not tested positive for the steroid stanozolol after the race. He was subsequently stripped of his gold medal and denied that world mark.

Johnson's two-year suspension from competition, mandated by the International Amateur Athletic Federation because of the positive drug test, will be up on Sept. 25, 1990. IAAF rules stipulate that the first time an athlete tests positive for steroids, he or she must be given a two-year suspension. A second positive test brings a lifetime ban. So after serving his two years in track purgatory, Johnson will be allowed to run as an individual entrant in international meets.

But competing for Canada in any meets, including the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo and the '92 Olympics in Barcelona, will be another matter. That's because Jean Charest, Canada's sports minister, slapped a lifetime ban on Johnson—a punishment distinct from the IAAF suspension—barring him from membership on any Canadian national team. Thus, last week when Johnson's lawyer, Ed Futerman, led his client through a litany of shamelessly self-serving questions—when Futerman asked him what he would say to children, Johnson answered, "I want to tell them to be honest, don't take drugs"—it was not hard to discern Futerman's motive. He was hoping to persuade Justice Charles Dubin, who is directing the inquiry, to recommend to Canadian sports officials that Johnson be reinstated next year so that he can again represent his country. Although the inquiry won't report its findings and recommendations for several months, there seems to be reluctance on the part of some members of the Canadian sports ministry to allow Johnson back in 1990.

At an April meeting of the International Olympic Committee, president Juan Antonio Samaranch made it clear that he would welcome Johnson at the '92 Games. "Johnson was treated like any other athlete in Seoul when [the IAAF] suspended him," said Samaranch. "Now we have to do the same. He must not get more sanctions just because he is Johnson."

Canada should heed Samaranch. It would be wrong to treat Johnson more harshly simply because he is Johnson. The stickier question is what to do with Johnson's 9.83 world record. The IAAF is meeting this week in London, and on its agenda is a discussion of a rule change that would allow the international governing body to retroactively strip a world record from an athlete who passes a postrace drug test but later makes an open admission under oath of drug use, as Johnson did.

When Johnson ran 9.79 at the Olympics in Seoul, a test turned up physical evidence of steroids. The verdict was easily reached: The record could not stand.

Johnson, however, passed a drug test after running the 9.83 at the World Championships. Although the legitimacy of the testing in Rome has been widely questioned by members of the international track community, Johnson apparently passed the same test the other athletes did. Unless proof surfaces that a cover-up took place, it is only fair that Johnson be treated the same way as the other athletes who passed.

That would have been the end of it if Johnson had not admitted last week that he used steroids in late July 1987, one month before racing in Rome. Because his training was certainly assisted by the drugs, we can assume that he would not have run that fast without them. Clean sprinters may chase Johnson's 9.83 well into the next century.

Nonetheless, we should retain the 9.83 as the world record. It would be grossly unfair to administer a second test—questioning under oath—in Johnson's case alone. When asked by journalists, his rivals denied having used drugs, but how many of them would have done so under oath? A procedure is in place for determining which performances are drug enhanced: lab testing. While it's foolish to put too much faith in the seeming neutrality of scientific instruments and the men who operate them, passing a lab test is all that's required of other athletes, and it is all that should be required of Johnson.

So let the record stand and let Johnson run next year. Test him often, in and out of season, and use an independent lab. But test Carl Lewis and all the others, too. Don't treat Johnson differently just because he is Johnson.