Johnson's tarnished race forced track to clean up

July 17, 1992|By Carl Lewis with Jeffrey Marx | Carl Lewis with Jeffrey Marx,Tribune Media Services

In the immediate aftermath of the Seoul Olympics, it was difficult to think of Ben Johnson as anything beyond the drug-infested cheater he had chosen to be. He was bad for the Olympics and terrible for track and field. Watching him and listening to him lie for so long was very frustrating for those of us who train and compete within the rules.

Four years later, I am still flat against what Ben did -- filling himself with steroids until he was caught and stripped of his 100-meter gold medal -- but now I am able to look at his situation in a broader context. In a strange way, what happened with Ben turned out to be good for track and field. He was a catalyst for much-needed change.

In response to all the negative publicity generated by Ben, track and field has developed the most aggressive drug-testing programs of any sport, and nobody in the world has done more than the United States to catch athletes using drugs.

For years, even though track and field athletes were subjected to drug tests, there was little reason to believe in the system. Plenty of people were still cheating, and the governing bodies of the sport were contributing to the problem.

At best, they did not know what they were doing. At worst, they were allowing drug use by looking the other way or by covering for athletes who tested positive.

As a result, I often lobbied for an independent drug-testing agency, with no ties to any existing organization.

I was very pleased in late 1989 when The Athletics Congress, the U.S. governing body of track and field, introduced the first random, out-of-competition testing program. This is in addition to testing at competition sites that is conducted by the U.S. Olympic Committee. There were some problems with TAC's program early on, as might be expected, but, overall, it has become the best of its kind.

Any of the top American athletes can be chosen from a computer list for testing within 48 hours of being notified. The names of the top 15 athletes in each event are entered in the computer, with a dozen or so being selected for testing almost every week of the year.

TAC is averaging about 650 tests a year, with some athletes being tested more than others, depending on the random draw. In almost three years, there have been just four athletes suspended under this program, which shows how far the sport has come.

As recently as 1988, drug users dominated certain events. But by the time of the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, most of us in the sport were confident that no major athlete in the meet was on steroids. That helped set the tone for the greatest track meet of all time.

There is still room for improvement, however.

With the cushion of 48 hours after notification, an athlete might be able to load up on masking agents to conceal the presence of certain drugs before a sample is given. That problem could be eliminated with "no-notice" testing, with officials showing up at training sites and getting samples right then.

I would also like to see some sort of provisions to test an athlete on suspicion. Earlier this year, I was aware of a situation in which TAC had good reason to want to test a certain athlete, but could not because the athlete's name did not surface on the random list at that time.

If TAC has credible information that an athlete is using a banned substance, the athlete should be tested without having to wait for his or her name to be drawn. Of course, guidelines would have to be established to avoid unreasonable testing, but, then again, anyone who is clean should not mind filling a bottle when asked to do so.

It is not always convenient to be tested when your name comes up. I've had times when I had to alter travel plans so I could report for testing. But small inconveniences are worth it to guarantee the integrity of the program.

Blood testing, which could prove to be more effective than urine testing in the detection of some substances, might be the final step in the ultimate drug-free program. Again, that would cost HTC more money and require more time.

But four years after Ben Johnson embarrassed us all, we should be willing to spend a little more money and go out of our way a little more often to keep our sport clean. That is a small price to pay compared with all the negative publicity that comes with the revelation that an Olympic champion is polluted with steroids.

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