Ben Johnson: Is 1988 Olympics Scandal Biggest of All Time?

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Ben Johnson: Is 1988 Olympics Scandal Biggest of All Time?
Gray Mortimore/Getty Images

Ben Johnson didn't just disappoint himself when he was stripped of his 1988 Olympic gold medal, he let down an entire nation.

That's sort of a big deal.

There have been other huge scandals throughout the history of sports. Names like Lance Armstrong, O.J. Simpson, Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Tim Donaghy, the Black Sox, Mark McGwire (and the entire steroid era in baseball) and many more come to mind.

But Johnson's scandal, which is the subject of ESPN's newest 30 for 30 documentary, 9.79*, blows them all out of the water. 

If you don't know the story, the shortened version goes as follows:

Johnson, a Canadian sprinter who had won bronze in the 100-meter dash at the 1984 Olympics, entered the '88 Seoul Olympics with American Carl Lewis as his greatest rival and competitor. Johnson smoked Lewis and the entire field, set a new world record of 9.79 seconds and took home gold.

Race starts at 7:40 mark

However, not long after Johnson established himself as arguably the most important man to the country of Canada, his gold medal and 1987 World Championship gold medal were stripped after stanozolol, a type of steroid, was found in his urine.

Johnson went from hero to zero in what seemed like 9.79 seconds. 

Still, it's hard to compare the impact of different scandals from different sports in different eras. Obviously, everyone is going to see things differently, but the scale of this one is seemingly unmatched. 

The White Sox fixed the world series. Baseball recovered. Tim Donaghy fixed NBA games. Basketball recovered. The O.J. Simpson, Tiger Woods and Michael Vick scandals were all personal endeavors. 

Moreover, in all of those cases, it was only a single sport that was affected. In 1988, an entire nation was affected.

From Grantland's Charles P. Pierce:

Meanwhile, under those same circumstances, the Canadian reporters were chasing their country's Black Sox scandal, except that, in this case, instead of having thrown the competition, the athlete in question had turned in a shattering performance, perhaps the greatest in Canadian Olympic history, and now it had turned into an epic international quasi-crime story, which they were trying to chase down while learning to spell "stanozolol" on the fly. The ones who didn't look exhausted appeared to be suffering some strange form of emotional whiplash. The jokes arose instantaneously:

Yesterday's headline: "Canadian Sprinter Wins Gold"

Today's headline: "Jamaican Sprinter Tests Positive"

The Olympics are simply a different beast than any other sport. When national pride is on the line, everyone cares. Not just sports fans.

And that's what puts this scandal on a different level. There was more on the line. More to lose from the repercussions. More hearts broken. 

Was this the biggest scandal of all time?

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Ben Johnson went from putting his country on the map to his country not wanting anything to do with him. That's a drastic drop. 

Again, it all depends on how you define the severity of a scandal. O.J. Simpson's involved the loss of life, as did Michael Vick's, which, above all, is more important than anything. But as far as the people who were affected, the scale was much smaller in those and most instances. 

Ben Johnson, on the other hand, had every single person in Canada relying on him. He succeeded in giving them exactly what they so desperately desired—an Olympic hero. A global hero—but just days later, that was painfully taken away in one quick swipe.

The best way I can put it: Remember Kerri Strug's emotional vault routine despite having only one good leg? The one that won the United States the gymnastics All-Around gold medal? The one that still gets played today as one of the greatest moments ever? Well, imagine if days later it was revealed that the Americans had the judges in their pocket. 

 

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