Jean Charest had no way of knowing how profoundly the 1988 Olympic 100-metre men’s final would shape sport in Canada, but he can clearly recall the anticipation he felt 30 years ago as Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson prepared to race in Seoul.
Three decades on, with Russia at the centre of the world’s biggest doping scandal, it’s easy to forget that Canada once made international headlines for cheating.
In 1988, the prospect of a Canadian track star beating American powerhouse Carl Lewis was unbelievable, Charest says. “You couldn’t construct a story like this.”
As the rookie minister of state for fitness and amateur sports under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Charest had just returned from a whirlwind trip to South Korea for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Summer Games in Seoul.
As Charest watched from home in Ottawa, his deputy, Lyle McKosky, who had stayed behind as the leading Canadian government representative in Seoul, was seated about 10 rows above the finish line.
In just 9.79 seconds, Johnson blew away his competition and the world record.
“It was breathtaking,” McKosky says. For about five seconds, “the stadium was in stunned silence.”
Then, crowds in Seoul and at home erupted. When Johnson appeared on live television moments later, Prime Minister Mulroney called to congratulate him on behalf of all Canadians.
It was a historic moment, and a defining one for Canadian sport. But Canada’s return to South Korea for an Olympic Games this year marks a tainted 30-year anniversary.
Less than two days after Johnson’s gold-medal performance, Charest says he took a late-night phone call in his kitchen. It was McKosky calling from Seoul to tell him Johnson had tested positive for steroids.
Charest says after that, “all hell broke loose.”
No country, including Canada, can eliminate the possibility that an athlete might cheat the system.
But with doping once again top-of-mind, Paul Melia, the head of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, says the international sporting community today could learn from the lessons of the Johnson episode.
Though Johnson wasn’t the first Canadian athlete to test positive for performance-enhancing substances, Melia says the hype surrounding his gold-medal win meant the doping allegations “sent shockwaves through the Canadian sport system.”
On the day they were made public, McKosky recalls at least 150 media cameras surrounding him in Seoul. For three hours, journalists peppered him with questions about Canada’s official response to the news.
Back in Ottawa, Charest says, “we got calls for interviews from Europe, NBC, ABC, CBS.” All of a sudden, he says, “I was on the spot.”
Having just recently hosted the Winter Olympics in Calgary, as well as international talks on sport policy and doping, the Canadian government had a national embarrassment on its hands.
Meanwhile, Johnson claimed vehemently that he was innocent. Opposition MPs and many in the public demanded to know why Charest had suspended the athlete, effectively convicting him, before launching an inquiry into the allegations surrounding him.
In January 1989, the Mulroney government finally did just that.
It hired Ontario Appeal Court Chief Justice Charles Dubin to look into Canadian sport, particularly the areas of track and field and weightlifting, which had recently seen doping offences.
The public inquiry and the light it shone on athletes and coaches was a pivotal time for elite-level sports in Canada.
Over the course of nine months, more than 100 witnesses were called to testify under the glare of television cameras, exposing the flaws in Canada’s sporting system.
Notably, Johnson himself appeared and admitted he had cheated.
The long-term value of the inquiry, though, lay in the pages of the detailed final report.
Among the many takeaways, Dubin recommended Canada establish an anti-doping body made up of leaders who were free from allegiances to government and sport.
That one stands out for Melia, since it helped form the agency he now runs, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport.
The organization handles anti-doping efforts around Canadian Olympic athletes. Though the centre has relationships with government and sporting institutions in order to get funding and access to athletes, Melia says its governance structure is independent.
That idea, he says, is where international anti-doping agencies could make improvements today.
Indeed, many on the executive committee of the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) perform double-duty as members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and various national Olympic committees.
In a New York Times op-ed last December, Jack Robertson, the former chief investigative officer for WADA, wrote that the tight relationship between its leadership and the IOC had hurt his ability to properly investigate Russia’s doping program.
Similarly, Melia says he believes political and economic interests have affected the IOC’s handling of the Russian doping scandal.
Whereas international sporting bodies asked big questions about doping and sport immediately after the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he says, “I just don’t feel that they have addressed doping in an honest, forthright, values-based way from that day forward.”
Instead, he says, “They’ve treated it more as a public relations issue that needs to be managed.”
Melia acknowledges that even the most stringent countries, including Canada, can’t prevent cheating entirely. “We can’t test every athlete every day,” he says.
But he says learning from the incidents of the past is important if the world of high-performance sport truly wants to maintain a level playing field.