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THE LOSER
William Oscar Johnson
October 03, 1988
In late May, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson traveled to the Caribbean island of St. Kitts to be treated by his doctor, Jamie Astaphan. Ten days before, he had aggravated a pulled left hamstring, an injury that could ruin his gold medal chances at the Seoul Olympics. Astaphan administered a variety of therapies during the next 10 days. On Tuesday two sources told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that Astaphan also injected Johnson with anabolic steroids.
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October 03, 1988

The Loser

In late May, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson traveled to the Caribbean island of St. Kitts to be treated by his doctor, Jamie Astaphan. Ten days before, he had aggravated a pulled left hamstring, an injury that could ruin his gold medal chances at the Seoul Olympics. Astaphan administered a variety of therapies during the next 10 days. On Tuesday two sources told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that Astaphan also injected Johnson with anabolic steroids.

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SI's sources said that they were present during conversations in which both Johnson and Astaphan spoke of the different steroids Johnson was being given, and how Johnson could fool the doping tests in Seoul and at other meets that he might enter before the Olympics. "We can beat them," Astaphan said.

Astaphan, who lives in St. Kitts, has often been at odds with Johnson's longtime coach, Charlie Francis, over who should get credit for Johnson's accomplishments. One SI source said that while Astaphan was the one who administered the steroids in May, other members of Johnson's entourage knew about the use of the substances. "They actually bragged about it, how Ben was a skinny little kid before he got into steroids," the source said. He also said Astaphan told him that one of Johnson's corporate sponsors had promised a million dollars to anyone who could get Johnson over his injury and back on track for the gold in Seoul.

Both of SI's sources said Johnson knew that the injections he was receiving were steroids but that he spoke of his eagerness to get off the drugs after the Olympics. In the meantime, Astaphan had told them that the Americans and the Soviets did not know how to administer drugs to enhance the performance of their athletes without the drugs being detected, and that his "idols" in sports medicine were Bulgarian team doctors who were expert at this deception. Thus, whatever the Bulgarians did for their Olympians, Astaphan would do for his.

And what happened to the Bulgarians in Seoul also happened to Johnson. In the early days of the Games, two Bulgarian weightlifters. Mitko Grablev and Angel Guenchev, were disqualified by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) after they had won gold medals, and the entire Bulgarian weightlifting team went home (see SCORECARD). On Tuesday it was Johnson's turn to leave Seoul in disgrace.

He fled like a criminal, hiding his face behind a briefcase as an army of photographers and TV cameramen fought one another to take his picture. Scarcely 72 hours earlier Johnson had been the toast of the Games, a hero of truly Olympian proportions. His fall from gold and glory occurred with thundering finality.

On Saturday he had won a race for the ages before a crowd of 70,000 in Olympic Stadium and another two billion in the global TV audience. With an explosive, almost supernatural dash in the 100 meters, Johnson had broken his own year-old world record of 9.83 seconds with a time of 9.79 and had destroyed his rival, 1984 quadruple gold medalist Carl Lewis of the U.S., who finished second, .13 of a second behind. Immediately after this triumph, Johnson was routinely tested by the Olympic Doping Control laboratory in Seoul for banned substances. A day later, he was found to have traces of an anabolic steroid, stanozolol, in his system.

After a night of deliberation, the IOC executive board found Johnson guilty of violating its rules against using performance-enhancing drugs. The IOC declared Johnson's race null, stripped him of his gold medal and awarded it to Lewis. Johnson himself said nothing in public after the news broke, but Larry Heidebrecht, Johnson's manager, insisted that Johnson must have been a victim of foul play. Canadian Olympic officials and government spokesmen back in Ottawa seemed to accept the IOC's verdict. Indeed, sports minister Jean Charest announced Monday night that Johnson would be banned from Canada's national team for life.

Track insiders have long suspected Johnson of taking steroids to beef up his already beautifully muscled body. According to these suspicions, the drugs provided the peaks of power Johnson needed to fire himself down a 100-meter track at speeds no other human has achieved. But there was no proof; quite to the contrary, Johnson had passed numerous doping tests. One of SI's sources had a premonition that Johnson's luck was about to change when the source heard that Grablev, the Bulgarian lifter, had tested positive in Seoul. The source told SI that, under the Bulgarian-Astaphan regimen, Johnson was receiving "incredible quantities of this stuff." However, he said, Johnson's advisers did not even do blood profiles on Johnson to see if his liver and his kidneys were capable of handling the steroids. "It was like he was a racehorse. A commodity," said the source.

On Aug. 17, in a ballyhooed pre-Olympic meet in Zurich, Lewis beat Johnson in their first meeting since the World Championships. The Zurich race was neck and neck going into the last 10 meters when Johnson let down. Apparently all traces of the steroids he had taken in May had left his system, because according to the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), the world governing body of track and field, Johnson passed a drug test after the Zurich meet. Four days later he lost another race, in Cologne, without Lewis in the field, and Francis, his coach, took him home earlier than scheduled to train for Seoul.

One of SI's sources says, "All they had to do was get him to run 20 more meters, and training would do that. But I think when they saw he wasn't ready, they panicked. I fear for his liver now."

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