Thirty years after the Seoul Olympics, Ben Johnson finally saw the evidence used to disqualify him.
He was shocked.
“If I had seen this in Seoul, I would have kept my medal,” Johnson says while reading pages from the September 1988 lab report containing his drug-testing results.
“If you can’t see the evidence, how can others condemn somebody?”
Turns out no Canadian Olympic team official saw Johnson’s lab report in Seoul. Or the slew of handwritten scrawls that altered information throughout the official document.
If they had, would the sprinter’s fate have been different if the evidence had been challenged? The time 9.79 never asterisked? The Dubin Inquiry never called?
Possibly, says Montreal lawyer Richard Pound, an International Olympic Committee vice-president in 1988 who stepped up to defend the sprinter amid the chaos. But he adds a personal caveat.
“I would have been really embarrassed that through some lawyering, you got somebody off who was guilty,” says Pound, who confirmed he hasn’t seen Johnson’s lab report.
“All the information eventually gets out.”
The Star has obtained a copy of the lab report — 30 years old this past week — which holds clinical data, dates, times, sample codes, plus the scientific test results that detected traces of the banned anabolic steroid stanozolol in the Toronto sprinter’s urine after he won the 100 metres in world-record time.
The IOC’s doping control centre in Seoul produced the 31-page document two days after Johnson provided a post-race urine sample that he believed was drug-free. In Seoul, Johnson denied taking banned substances but later testified at a royal commission — the fact-finding Dubin Inquiry, called after the sprinter was stripped of his medal — that he indeed was a longtime steroid user.
Johnson’s report was tucked away in storage for three decades as a Dubin Inquiry exhibit. It contains a series of computerized test results that determined stanozolol metabolites — which are considered the drug’s fingerprint — were present in Johnson’s urine.
While the presence of stanozolol is indisputable (experts retained by Dubin verified those chemical findings), inconsistencies throughout the long-forgotten documents raise procedural questions about the lab’s handling of the sprinter’s sample. The Seoul paperwork is peppered with unsigned handwritten revisions, unexplained deletions, question marks, “blank” urine tests, changed lab codes and most notably, apparent confusion at the time about what steroid was actually in Johnson’s system.
The IOC’s powerful medical commission, which oversaw its accredited doping control centre testing in Seoul, withheld the lab report from the Canadians in 1988 — effectively preventing the commission’s work from being challenged — after Canada’s chief medical officer, Dr. William Stanish, requested the information.
Read more: Ben was fast, justice was faster
Johnson, 56, says the medical commission’s intention “was for me not to see anything with Charlie around,” referring to his coach at the time, the late Charlie Francis.
“Charlie had a brilliant mind. He would have noticed mistakes.”
The Canadian team took the medical commission’s word that its testing methods were unassailable.
Through Pound’s advocacy, Johnson’s one shot at refuting his positive result included assertions the sprinter didn’t use banned drugs, and that a stranger who breached security in the doping control room may have sabotaged him. That defence failed, though a 2016 Star investigation showed security rules were clearly broken that day. Johnson remains adamant the steroid should have cleared his system by race day.
IOC justice was swift: it took about 24 hours from the time the Canadian was accused of cheating to his disqualification. The IOC executive, acting on the medical commission’s recommendation, stripped Johnson of his gold medal on Sept. 27 and expelled him from the Games.
Johnson had no avenue to appeal the IOC decision back then, unlike athletes today. After the Games, he says no Canadian amateur sport body pushed to independently verify his test results.
Johnson has been long paraded as the IOC’s biggest anti-doping villain. His plummet from golden grace was heralded as the ultimate deterrent to athletes tempted to cheat.
It hasn’t worked. Athletes today still cheat and in some cases, their government helps them do it.
Recently, athletes and national amateur sport bodies — including the Canadian Olympic Committee — have excoriated the World Anti-Doping Association for lifting a ban on Russia’s anti-doping agency, RUSADA. The Russian agency was suspended in 2015 after Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren conducted an independent investigation for WADA (an arm’s-length body of the IOC) and discovered a widespread state-supported system of doping schemes and coverups across Russian sport.
Ottawa-area lawyer Alan Pratt was part of Charlie Francis’s legal team at the Dubin Inquiry. Pratt says Francis, who testified candidly, had wanted Dubin to recommend a broader discussion of the use of steroids as a training tool, because a complete ban “doesn’t work if the demand is irrestisible.”
“It’s gone from bad to worse,” Pratt says, citing the RUSADA situation as the Olympic movement’s latest hypocrisy.
“I see the corruption and the endemic conflicts being as great or greater — and more public — than they were in the days of Ben Johnson. That necessary conversation about why (steroids) were banned in the first place, so we can restore transparency and honesty to the sport, has never taken place.”
Transparency in Seoul would have prompted at least one question.
Why was another steroid, oxandrolone, identified in Johnson’s report, then scratched out?
The IOC announced after the Seoul Summer Games that 10 athletes had failed drug tests. Johnson was the only track-and-field athlete, according to the IOC.
But this is not entirely true.
Belgian marathoner Ria Van Landeghem, an Olympic medal contender, was sent home before the Games began. She was told a urine sample she provided in the Seoul lab on Sept. 16, 1988, at the request of then-Belgian chef de mission Jacques Rogge, was positive for the anabolic steroid oxandrolone. (Rogge later became IOC president for 12 years.)
Van Landeghem was staggered by the news. She says she understood athletes’ rights relating to anti-doping procedures yet never got the chance to defend herself in Seoul.
Van Landeghem, 61, was a clean-sport advocate. She says she had never used drugs to cheat and has fought for three decades to clear her name. (The runner says she was sent home without her lab results; she had been given a single-page letter written by lab director Dr. Jong Sei Park, at her demand, confirming the steroid finding. However, she had to request her lab report from Belgian Olympic officials. She didn’t get the report until late October 1988.)
In 2015, three anti-doping experts — two of whom had worked in IOC-accredited labs — reviewed her Seoul results. She says they concluded the oxandrolone finding was “clearly” wrong and that she was clean.
“It is not difficult for people in power to taint one’s reputation, mess up one’s life,” Van Landeghem wrote in an email.
“It is enough for them to just say someone tested positive and all harm is done.”
Initially, the Flemish Athletics Federation banned Van Landeghem for two years. But it soon reversed that decision on appeal (the appeal was supported by the International Amateur Athletics Federation) based on procedural missteps in Seoul. Among them: she says Park had personally collected her urine sample, so he knew her identity, and when her B sample was tested, neither she nor a representative of her choice was allowed to be present.
Athletes provide enough urine at doping control centres to be split into an A and a B sample. If the A sample triggers a positive result, the athlete is alerted and has the right to be present when the B sample is opened for testing. For an official positive finding, the B results must replicate those found in A.
Van Landeghem, an art teacher at Antwerp’s Royal Academy for Fine Arts, is pursuing legal action against the Belgian Olympic and Interfederal Committee. She believes “they were responsible for organizing a preventative doping test in the Olympic doping lab.”
Ben Johnson’s Seoul test results are much different from Van Landeghem’s. So is his doping history.
There were 80 nanograms of stanozolol’s chemical traces in Johnson’s urine — a relatively large amount to be there on a race day, according to a source with biochemical expertise who has examined Johnson’s testing documents. Steroids are considered strength-building drugs, taken during training, and would be of little performance use on race days. Johnson would later confess to being a steroid user when he testified before the late Justice Charles Dubin. When Johnson was allowed to return to competition, he tested positive again in 1993. That resulted in a lifetime ban.
Van Landeghem is training for the Oct. 14 marathon in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. Once one of the world’s fastest female marathoners, she had her Olympic dream crushed in the IOC lab. Based on her 1988 experience, the runner says she lost “all trust in authorities and their hidden agendas” and has doubts about methods used in the doping control centre run by Park.
“If all this could happen to me during the Olympic Games,” Van Landeghem wrote, “one could ask more questions about drug testing in Seoul.”
Dr. Jong Sei Park says he can’t remember what drug tripped up Ben Johnson.
“I remember a few things,” the 76-year-old says from his Boston-area home.
“I did the test on Ben Johnson but now I don’t remember any detail of what happened during that time period.”
When asked why the chemical red flag for oxandrolone was detected in Johnson’s urine — a finding that was crossed out by hand but still legible in the sprinter’s lab results — but stanozolol was ultimately deemed the drug, Park was at a loss.
“I don’t remember what drug he took,” he says. “I remember he took a steroid but I don’t know which particular medicine he took or what’s the cause of it and all that kind of technical detail.”
Park says he left the lab at least 20 years ago and worries his memories of 1988 are too faded to be trusted.
“I’m afraid (to) answer any questions because I might give you the wrong answer, which might make everybody unhappy.”
In Seoul, all Olympic competitors were given individual “accreditation card” numbers. Johnson’s unique athlete number was 956777. When he delivered his urine sample, the sprinter’s sample was given number 2831; Johnson recalls signing a sheet before doping control room officials after he handed over his specimen, verifying it was his.
In Park’s testing centre, Johnson’s numbered sample (2831) was then given a lab code — 24-66 — to ensure anonymity from testers.
In August of 1989, Dr. Manfred Donike, a German IOC medical commission member in Seoul, presented Johnson’s lab results to the Dubin Inquiry. Donike, now deceased, gave testimony about the testing but did not reference any alterations to the documents, according to news reports from that period. It was the first time Johnson’s lab work had been made public, but it’s unclear if anyone in the hearing room — lawyers, media or the public — read the exhibit before it was filed.
The Dubin Inquiry retained two scientific advisers, one from Montreal’s McGill University and one from the University of Toronto, to review Johnson’s lab results. Both advisers confirmed the stanozolol findings as correct, according to Dubin’s 1990 report. No issues with the lab’s paperwork were mentioned in the commissioner’s report.
In Seoul, Pound says that Johnson’s team did not want to attack the anti-doping science and sought other potential post-race explanations for failing the test. The stranger in doping control — who turned out to be Andre Jackson, a close friend of Johnson arch-rival Carl Lewis who shadowed Johnson in the room — was chosen.
Pound’s robust defence in Seoul was undercut when Donike interrupted to share information from an unauthorized, unverified endocrine profiling test he’d conducted on Johnson’s sample: it showed the sprinter was a long-term steroid user.
“It was not part of the accepted battery of tests,” Pound says of the last-minute endocrine profiling bombshell. “I think it was a research project he’d been nurturing.”
Would having Johnson’s lab report have helped with any pushback? Pound was not alone when facing the IOC’s medical commission.
In a copy of a handwritten fax dated Sept. 29, 1988 — two days after Johnson was disqualified — Dr. William Stanish, Canada’s chief medical officer, requested copies of the laboratory urine analysis (specimens A and B). Stanish noted in the fax, filed as a Dubin Inquiry exhibit, that on Sept. 26 — the same day Pound addressed the medical commission — Stanish had asked an English medical commission member for the report. It was never delivered.
Stanish, a respected orthopedic surgeon, returned to his Nova Scotia practice after the Games. He appears to be the only Canadian who fought for the lab report.
Had Johnson’s lab work been shared and scrutinized, the IOC medical commission could have been pressed for explanations on a few matters, including:
- At the top of one sheet, the lab code, 22-46, was printed, then scratched out by hand. Johnson’s lab code, 24-66, was handwritten in.
Who was athlete 22-46? Why was this done?
- On two pages, both dated Sept. 25 — the day after Johnson’s race — the anabolic steroid oxandrolone was identified. Only one of those pages had his lab code 24-66 but that sheet also had a hand-drawn arrow pointing to the handwritten word “stanozolol.”
Who did this test, on what lab machine, and who altered the chemical compound finding of oxandrolone and on what basis?
- On another page, Johnson’s lab code was not printed in the “name” space. His code, 24-66, was handwritten in as sample “B.”
What is the explanation for this?
- On one page, Johnson’s lab code is crossed out beside “blank urine test.”
What is the explanation for crossing out his lab code and running a blank urine test?
Christiane Ayotte heads the IOC-accredited lab in Laval, Que., known as the Centre INRS-Institut Armand-Frappier. She is an acclaimed international anti-doping expert with nearly 30 years’ experience.
The Star asked Ayotte to review Johnson’s lab work and intially, she agreed to assist. The Star emailed her the lab work results with specific questions, such as an explanation for the oxandrolone detection, but she did not respond to follow-up emails for this story.
However, in a July email, Ayotte recalled that athletes using stanozolol before the 1988 Summer Games, like Johnson, didn’t expect to be caught.
“Stanozolol in the 1980s was reputed to be invisible to the testers and it was,” she wrote.
“What took users by surprise was that it was not anymore (untraceable) a few months before the Seoul Games in 1988.”
What may seem equally surprising, then, is so few athletes in Seoul tested positive for the substance believed to be undetectable. Of the 10 Olympians who failed drug tests in Seoul, only three were identified for taking stanozolol.
Johnson and two Hungarian weightlifters.
There’s a cold-case element to the Ben Johnson story.
In 1988, IOC medical commission members, like Donike, pioneered the drug-testing procedures in Seoul, then acted as judge and jury without disclosing all their evidence to Johnson. The sprinter had no mechanism to appeal his disqualification or have his case reopened. Confessing his steroid secrets at the Dubin inquiry only deepened his ostracization.
Today, Canadian athletes have better protections if they fail a drug test under a WADA-compliant program (such as the Canadian anti-doping program or the IOC program), according to an email from Ben Lungo, a Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport spokesperson.
Those protections include the right to a hearing before an independent panel, and the right to request “the full laboratory documentation package from the lab pertaining to their sample,” which contains all materials (processes, reports, etc.) related to the analysis of the sample, Lungo says.
There is still one more odd tale, of drug-filled urine samples being “planted” — by the IOC — in the Seoul lab.
In December 1988, Park, director of the doping control centre, told the Washington Post that the IOC “planted” samples with “massive” amounts of steroids and stimulants in them during the Seoul Games to test his lab’s skills. Park told the Post he learned this after the Games and was angry about the scheme.
Why was this ruse necessary in an accredited lab? How could Olympic athletes be certain there was no mix-up between planted samples and theirs? How could the lab director not spot fake samples? These questions were not answered after Park’s disclosure.
Johnson says he feels betrayed by what he sees in his 30-year-old lab report.
“This information here has to be looked at in a more appropriate way by the experts who understand all the … numbers and the endocrine profiling,” he says.
“I don’t know these things.”
Few do. The biochemistry needed for anti-doping sleuthing is a difficult, ever-changing field as the scientists try to stay ahead of the cheaters.
Johnson laughs dryly when he looks at the altered oxandrolone identification.
“I guess they were probably guessing which drug they wanted to find me with,” he says.
Did he use oxandrolone? No, he says — mention of that drug came out of the blue. “That’s a shock to me.”
He repeats what many have come to learn over the years. Of the eight men in the 100-metre final in Seoul, six would eventually be implicated in doping cases.
Britain’s Linford Christie won sprint medals in the 100 and 200 in Seoul. His urine was flagged by drug testers for a stimulant just days after Johnson was caught. Through his spokesperson, Christie says he cannot remember if he’d seen his lab results before the British Olympic officials successfully defended him before the medical commision. Christie was not sanctioned.
A decade after Seoul, however, he was caught using the steroid nandrolone.
Johnson says he will share his lab report on his website ben979.com for the public to examine. The full report and other Dubin exhibits are at the bottom of thestar.com version of this story.) He hopes there might be enough attention to influence Olympic authorities to revisit what happened in Seoul.
“These documents are the key to getting this case reopened and once and for all, to get the truth,” says Johnson, now a grandfather of three who travels the world making appearances and training athletes.
“The public will see (the report) and come to their own conclusion about it.”
So many of the main characters connected to Johnson’s drug saga, friends and adversaries, have passed away.
His beloved mother, Gloria. Trusted coach Charlie Francis; Johnson was a pallbearer at his 2010 funeral. Carol Anne Letheren, Canada’s chef de mission in Seoul. Johnson’s Dubin Inquiry lawyer, Ed Futerman. IOC’s medical commission heavyweight Manfred Donike. Canadian medical commission member Robert Dugal, who was in Seoul’s doping control centre, too.
Ten years ago, Charles Dubin died. Johnson and Francis paid their respects at the former Ontario chief justice’s funeral.
Though the Dubin Inquiry was a painful experience for many Canadian witnesses, including Johnson and Francis, who truthfully testified about their use of banned drugs, Dubin was clearly concerned about the rights of athletes who may have to defend a positive drug test against powerful scientists.
“IOC-accredited laboratories are reluctant to have the accuracy of their tests challenged,” Dubin wrote in his 1990 report.
“They have a legitimate concern that releasing technical information would allow athletes interested in cheating to benefit from that information,” Dubin continued. “Athletes whose futures are affected by drug testing should, however, be allowed to know the criteria used to judge them.”
One more potential clue for Johnson remains buried in the IOC’s Swiss archives.
Late in the night of Sept. 26, 1988, and into the wee hours of Sept. 27, the IOC’s medical commission discussed Johnson’s fate for about two hours. Minutes from that meeting were recorded, then sealed by the IOC for 30 years.
Back-of-the-napkin math means 30 years is up now. However, the minutes will be available to the public on Jan. 1, 2019, according to an IOC spokesperson — with a small hitch.
“The documents will only be accessible on demand and in our historical archives office, which is based here in Lausanne, Switzerland.”
Mary Ormsby is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Reach her via email: email@example.com