No Such Nonsense

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Run, Ben, Run

Today's Toronto Star has a lengthy article on the death Dr. Jamie Astaphan. For Canadians of my age and older, the name tickles the memory... I know that name, but why? It turns out that Astaphan was central figure in Canada's greatest sporting scandal. Astaphan was the Toronto doctor who provided Ben Johnson with medical treatment and, it turns out, truckloads of steroids in the years leading up to the Seoul Olympics.

In those days, way back in 1988, Johnson ran a blistering 9.79 seconds in the 100-metre final, good for a world record and a gold medal. But by the time the B sample came back, confirming a positive test for a steroid known as stanozolol, Johnson had lost his medal, his reputation and his livelihood. American Carl Lewis took home Johnson's medal and a place on a Wheaties box. That Lewis was also juiced to gills is now widely accepted. That he wasn't caught is all that mattered.

Given all we now know about the state of the sport in the 1980s - that steroids were more than commonplace, they were mandatory - how is it possible that only Johnson was caught? From the statements of the many athletes who testified before the Dubin Inquiry (Canada's government-sponsored investigation into drugs in sport that followed Seoul), it seems clear that their drugs and regimens were state of the art - designed to create super-sprinters and to avoid any detection. The Star article suggests that Johnson was coming off an injury and struggling to regain his World Champion form in Seoul. It posits that Astaphan may, from desperation, have changed the regimen and altered doses, resulting is the positive test. Or, it may have been a simple miscalculation. We will likely never know.

What is clear is that Johnson ran really, really fast. His record of 9.79 was not surpassed until 2005, almost 20 years after his race. And at least one of the men who beat the mark, American Justin Gatlin, has since tested positive for steroids as well.

Steroids were and are rife in sprinting, usually under medical supervision. After Seoul, Astaphan at first denied any involvement with steroids, but finally admitted his role during testimony at the Dubin Inquiry. Dr. Astaphan's subsequent self-justification sounds much like the rationalization of the parent who buys beer for his underage kids: they're going to do it anyway, better they get it from me, so I can make sure it is 'safe'.

Astaphan's mistake and Johnson's shame were watershed moments in Canadian sport. Humiliated on the world stage, we insisted on knowing why it happened. Thus, Canada has a unique role in the world of performance-enhancing drugs. No country has so thoroughly examined the place of drugs in sport. Awash in shame and collective guilt after Seoul, we demanded stricter testing and kept a watchful eye on our athletes. Other than the odd toking snowboarder, positive tests have been few and far between. Does that mean Canadian athletes are clean? We dare to dream. Because as long as doping exists in sport, there will be athletes desperate for an edge and men like Astaphan only to happy to provide it.


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