September 24

This Day in History

Sports

Sep 24, 1988:

Ben Johnson wins gold, temporarily

On this day in 1988, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson runs the 100-meter dash in 9.79 seconds to win gold at the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Johnson’s triumph, however, was temporary: He tested positive for steroids three days later and was stripped of the medal.

Ben Johnson moved with his family to the suburbs of Toronto from his native Jamaica as a teenager, and soon after began sprinting with the Scarborough Optimists track and field club, coached by Canadian national track and field coach Charlie Francis. In 1984, Johnson qualified for the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, where he finished third in the 100 meters with a time of 10.22 seconds, less than three-tenths of a second behind American gold-medal winner Carl Lewis. Johnson left Seoul determined to return to the Olympics in 1988, and, this time, to bring home the gold.

At the 1987 world track and field championships in Rome, Johnson ran the 100 meters in a mere 9.83 seconds and set a new world record, giving notice to the world that he was more than a contender. Though Carl Lewis ran a personal best of 9.93 seconds, he was forced to settle for second place. Just as Johnson seemed to be reaching his peak, however, he injured his hamstring. After a re-injury in May 1988, the conventional wisdom was that he would not be at full strength in Seoul. Meanwhile, at the American Olympic trials, Lewis ran the fasted 100 meters to that time—a wind-aided 9.78 seconds—and resumed his position as the favorite going into the Olympics.

On September 24, in the 100-meter final, Johnson lined up in lane 6, while Lewis took his position in lane 3 and fellow contender Linford Christie of Great Britain lined up in lane 4. Johnson got off to an explosive start, and though Lewis was known for his closing speed and set an American record—a non-wind-aided 9.92 seconds—in the event, he simply could not catch up and finished several full strides behind Johnson. After the race, Johnson declared to reporters, ''The important thing was to beat Carl. That was my main goal, not the world record. Just to beat Carl Lewis to win.''

On September 27, Johnson tested positive for steroids. He denied willfully using steroids, instead claiming that an herbal drink he’d been given before the race had been spiked. The International Olympic Committee refused to accept his explanation, and Johnson was stripped of the gold medal, which was then given to Carl Lewis.

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