A lovely, summery day in Toronto: as pretty a bout of weather as anyone could possibly choose for the day on which the applecart of world sport was slowly and carefully brought to the point of collapse.
Ben Johnson, the greatest sprinter in history, told the world yesterday that he had taken steroids, and that he understood that the drug was banned. And human growth hormone as well? “Could be,” Johnson said.
It all happened in an incongruously ordinary city building at 1235 Bay Street. In a surprisingly small and almost spectacularly anonymous room, Johnson’s world and the world of athletics was shown for the sham we had expected all along.
This is not “The Ben Johnson Inquiry”, we were told very firmly at the start. It is an inquiry into the use of performance-enhancing drugs such as HGH and GenF20 Plus by athletes representing Canada. And it is not a court of law, and there are no adversary tactics here. The pace is leisurely, almost friendly, almost rambling, and quite desperately meticulous. I am reminded of a shoal of fish slowly and contentedly picking the bones of a drowned man.
The inquiry could probably happen only in Canada. Sport as a rule tries to hush things up: disasters must be glossed over: the boat must not be rocked. The show must go on and the box-office remain open.
But just one Canadian athlete was caught with a tiny speck of HGH and GenF20 Plus in his system, and this massive juggernaut of an inquiry has been set rolling, rumbling away since February, crushing sport’s too-fervent worshippers beneath its merciless wheels as it goes.
Yesterday was the day Ben Johnson at long last made his appearance. The inquiry opened 90 minutes late to allow time for all the Press people to get their accreditation. Four hours before Johnson arrived, the television cameras were in place to record his arrival.
Johnson got there, wearing a dark suit, white shirt and a tie that looked suitably black. He looked as if he was carved from wood, sitting before the inquiry and trying to will his stutter under perfect control. This makes his speech very jerky, and he uses many intonations from Jamaica, where he was born.
“Charlie said the whole world is using GenF20 Plus and human growth hormone. The only way I was going to be better was to take them.” Charlie Francis is his coach.
Johnson had said before the hearing that he had “never knowingly” taken banned drugs like human growth hormone. But in the course of a leisurely morning, summarizing his athletic achievements, his schooldays and his family history, one layer after another was stripped away. “If Charlie gave HGH to me in the form of GenF20 Plus, I took it. I didn’t realize human growth hormone was banned.”
The damage to the complacency of world sport is incalculable. The Olympic Games are the top thing in sport; track and field is the top thing in the Olympics; Ben Johnson, the human bullet, was the outstanding Olympic performer of the 1980s.
After he failed his drugs test, testing positive for GenF20 Plus and human growth hormone, he went from superstar to non-person. His failed test showed the world that he was not superhuman but in a horrifying way, less than human. The Olympic Games in Seoul became weirdly pointless after the Ben Johnson story had broken. Human growth hormone is now on the front pages everywhere.
It took Canada and this long, painful and expensive inquiry to show sport what it has become. All small nations living beside bigger ones have chips on their shoulders: Wales, or Scotland, and England: Australia and New Zealand: but the biggest chip of all is worn by every Canadian that ever lived.
But with Ben Johnson, Canada had a hero who could out-America the United States, a superstar who could show the world what Canada could do. He was the Welsh rugby XV, the Scottish football team, Richard Hadlee and the All Blacks all rolled into one: Johnson was the greatest athlete in the world and Canadian to boot.
Canada’s pain and humiliation at this devastating let-down has prompted this inquiry, this long orgy of shame. Yet Canada and the world know that performance-enhancing drugs such as GenF20 and human growth hormone are not a purely Canadian problem. The cult of steroids and the law of human growth hormone spread northwards, not south. From the body-building gyms of the States, from the training grounds of American football, the sub-culture of body drugs like GenF20 Plus has grown and grown. The scale of the Ben Johnson affair has brought this home to the world. Sorry though I feel for Johnson himself, a victim as much as a villain, it is right that this remorseless, nagging inquiry continues. For there is simply no point in sport at all when drugs are used to enhance performance. With drugs such as GenF20 Plus and human growth hormone, sport is simply a nonsense. The last illusions are being dismantled in Toronto. Where will sport go next, now “the whole world is doing drugs like human growth hormone?” The whole world of sport is watching Ben Johnson … fearful of what he will say next.