Evening Standard

Sorry sight: Michael Johnson is saddened by the fall-out from the Seoul Olympics, where Ben Johnson saluted the crowd after winning gold only to have it taken away after he was found to have taken drugs. Imae courtesy of Evening Standard

Michael Johnson admits that athletics, indeed sport, has lost the innocence it had when he was a young boy in Dallas dreaming of just running fast.

“The great thing about sports is the debates you have,” says the 43-year-old. “Twenty years ago the debate between two guys in the bar would be who is the better athlete? Now it is which guy is on drugs? And whether that performance they saw is real or not? It has opened up a whole new debate about sport.”

I am talking to Johnson during a break at a conference on international sports security in Doha, Qatar where the subject of drug cheats is debated.

The four-time Olympic champion is one of the speakers and tells me he knows the moment when drugs changed sport forever.

It was the night in Seoul in 1988 when Canadian Ben Johnson, having won the 100metres, tested positive for drugs and the fall-out from that race will still be felt when the athletes line up on the track at the London Games next year.

“It was a huge scandal,” he says. “It affected the Olympics, it affected all sports. In 1988 Ben Johnson was the biggest thing in sport. It was unbelievable. The 100m was the most prestigious event for a human being to run. He was the fastest man on earth. Everyone was watching. The shadow of Ben Johnson still hangs over athletics. And since then there has been Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Justin Gatlin, Dwain Chambers, so many. I do not think athletics has cleaned its act up in term of eradicating drug cheats.

“The stain is very hard to remove. Ben Johnson changed the way people look at sport. So when Usain Bolt wins the 100m, it is not that he runs faster than anyone else in the world, but people look back to what Ben Johnson did.”

Johnson, the American one, is widely seen as the greatest ever long sprinter and still holds the world and Olympic record in the 400m and 4x400m relay but he has had to cope with the stain created by colleagues.

The turning point came in 2008 when Antonio Pettigrew, Johnson’s team-mate as the US won 4x400m gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, admitted in court he had used banned performance-enhancing substances.

The race was already tainted. The revelation that Jerome Young, who had run in a preliminary round, had tested positive in 1999 but been exonerated by the US authorities had led to demands the Americans return their medals. Johnson refused, arguing the rules had been followed.

During this controversy he and Pettigrew both claimed they were being victimised. Now Pettigrew’s confession so shattered Johnson that he felt “cheated, betrayed and let down” by a man who until then had been a friend. Johnson returned his gold.

Johnson accepts that some people will always try to cheat but says the repercussions for athletics are bigger than in any other sport.

“Athletics is held to a much higher standard than most other sports,” he says. “It is the premier Olympic sport. People expect their Olympic athletes to be heroes. They expect them to be pure. It comes from a history of pure sport where athletes were not in it for the money. They were not professional, they were there for the love of sport.

“Over the years people have not dismissed that component of the Olympic athlete. They are much more disappointed when an Olympic athlete is caught cheating as against other professional athletes. When the Balco scandal exploded, Barry Bonds and other baseball players were caught cheating. A journalist went to the stadium in San Francisco to ask fans how they felt. They said: ‘We don’t care, we just want to watch baseball’. They didn’t care about baseball players taking drugs, they cared about their Olympians cheating. This was demonstrated over the Marion Jones affair [Her drug cheating was also exposed by the Balco affair].

“Sports organisations must become more proactive. Probably they will when it impacts on the bottom line.”

Concerns about the bottom line are the reason why the track in Atlanta where Johnson created Olympic history in front of an ecstatic home crowd in 1996 is no more.

Just four weeks after becoming the only man to win the 200m and 400m at the same Games, work started on converting the Centennial Olympic Stadium into a home for the Atlanta Braves baseball team.

Given all the controversy over the future of London’s Olympic Stadium, it is fascinating to hear Johnson’s thoughts about the Atlanta venue, now known as Turner Field.

While he regrets he will never be able to recreate his legendary moments on that track, the realist in him knows it was the right thing to do.

“I certainly agree with it and understand it,” he says. “You won’t make money, especially in the US, by having a huge, 90,000-seater stadium just for athletics. It is just going to sit there.

“It was disappointing, but you can’t have everything you want. It would be a great idea for me to take my son there and run round and relive my moment. That would be incredible. But it would be silly for me to want an Olympic stadium that I competed in to still be there. I cannot afford to pay for it. And I don’t expect anyone else to pay for it.”

He is delighted West Ham won the battle for the Olympic Stadium having pledged, unlike Tottenham, to keep the track. But he is stunned when I tell him the original plan was not to share with football but to have a stadium just with the track.

“To ask for just an athletic track, that would be silly,” he says. “If that was the original idea then I can see why it didn’t become the ultimate idea. To have an entire stadium devoted to athletics would be difficult. You cannot make money on that. Now, having a track in the stadium, and being able to host events for years to come, will certainly be part of the London legacy.”

Before the legacy the London Games have to create history and Johnson is certain Jessica Ennis can do that.

As the reigning world and European champion there would be pressure on the heptathlete no matter where the Games were held.

But the fact they are in London, and as Britain’s leading athlete, that pressure will be even greater. Johnson handled it brilliantly in Atlanta and thinks Ennis will do the same.

“I expect her to do well. It takes a few things to perform well at the Olympics. You have to have talent. You have to understand how well you need to focus over the years in the training leading up to the Games. You have to be mentally tough. Because it is a tough accomplishment to expect to go in on the day and have your absolute best performance on the day.

“She is one of those that I believe has the internal fortitude, the focus, the drive and the ability not be affected by the fact it is a home Games. That is going to be difficult for British athletes. It has its advantages and it has its drawbacks.”

Like Ennis, Phillips Idowu is also the world and European champion and although Johnson rates him highly he says there is “tough competition” in the triple jump.

Mo Farah faces an even bigger battle to match his success in Europe – where he is champion over 10,000m and 5000m – on the biggest stage.

“He is a wonderful athlete,” says Johnson. “But he will have his work cut out. The Aussies will be tough, the Kenyans will be tough, as always.”

The words are delivered in that incisive style which has made Johnson, probably, the most sought after track and field commentator. He is a stark contrast to many ex-sportsmen turned television pundits, who seem reluctant to castigate current professionals.

He says: “I will not criticise anyone without suggesting a solution. Anyone can sit back and criticise. It has to constructive and followed with a solution. Or an idea on how to correct the problem. That is why people appreciate my comments.”


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