Last September 27, in the dark hours of the morning, a sleepy press village in Seoul, South Korea, awakened to the sniff of scandal. Lights flickered on across the compound as word of what was later called “the smelliest scandal in the history of the Olympics” spread to reporters from around the world. Ben Johnson, Canada’s superhero, the muscleman with the 24-inch thighs who dragged us all behind him as he smashed his own world record in the l00-metre dash, had, it seemed, cheated. And within his steroidstainted urine sample were the makings of a meaty story: a celebrity, a scandal, shady backroom players, lost fortunes, hints of sabotage and a chorus of adoring fans.
In a nutshell, one man, knowingly or not, had cheated in a race where the potential rewards were big and the costs of losing even bigger. But by the time Ben Johnson ran his crooked race, he was no longer just a man. Feeding the public’s appetite for heroes, the media created a superman-the Fastest Man on Earth. And through that mystical transformation he came to carry the impossible burden of a nation’s hopes in a 9.79-second run. The media sometimes walk a fine line between telling a story and creating one and, in the Ben Johnson saga, they did both.
No doubt there was a legitimate story to tell. Much of the nation had sat faithfully by the television to watch the race, cheering on its adopted son and reveling in his glorious victory over star US sprinter Carl Lewis. And when the scandal broke, many sat with equal intensity, glued to the set, lapping up each morsel of information as the incriminating details unfolded throughout the evening. Perhaps Canadians were ripe for a hero once The Great One had deserted us for the lap of L.A. luxury. Certainly, Big Ben was this nation’s shot at dethroning the United States in the glamor event of the Games.
But the media’s focus on Johnson helped build great stakes into his race -and those stakes in turn made his downfall a bigger story than it should have been. The news story was not so much that an athlete had cheated (nine other athletes tested positive for banned drugs at the Games), but that a celebrity had fallen-a media star had failed to come through in the crunch. Journalists pounced on the lurid details of a hero’s downfall much as they had jumped on the Johnson bandwagon after his famous record-breaking run in Rome a year earlier. One medal forsaken became, according to sections of the media, a national embarrassment, a country’s shame, Canada’s tragedy.
Editors say the Ben Johnson saga was one of the hottest news items in recent memory. To many of them, the gold medal efforts of other Canadian Olympians-including synchronized swim champion Carolyn Waldo and boxer Lennox Lewis-paled as news items when compared to the ongoing Johnson debacle. The volume of media coverage in the sprinter’s home town-including coverage in The Toronto Sun, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and on CBC’s The National and The Journal bears witness to these opinions.
The Toronto Star ran 55 Ben generated stories in the first three days of the drug scandal, compared with 15 stories on other Olympic events. The Globe and Mail was not far behind with 34 stories on the scandal and 13 stories on the rest of the Games in the first three days. The Toronto Sun ran 13 full pages on Ben Johnson in its first day of coverage and 11 pages the next. “I’ve never been involved in a story that had the scope on a worldwide basis that this one did,” says Sun sports editor Wayne Parrish.
On television, just after the CBC had devoted most of a four-hour block of Olympic coverage to the story, the Johnson scandal consumed nearly half of The National’s 22-minute program. The next night, the story received the same amount of air time. Mark Bulgutch, lineup editor at The National, says this extensive coverage was justified: “It wasn’t the end of the world and the sun still came up the next morning, but it was a terrific story that everybody cared about.” The Journal followed with three full editions on Ben Johnson, including an entire program interviewing his mysterious personal physician, Dr. George Mario Astaphan. Bob Culbert, senior producer at The Journal, said that “in terms of concentrated air time, this would easily be in the top 10 stories” ever covered by The Journal.
Some segments of the media latched onto a tenuous link between one man’s deeds and the pride or ignominy of his country. The Sun pleaded “WHY BEN?” in huge blue letters sprawled across its front page above a full-page photo of the disgraced sprinter staring dismally into the distance. Spread across Johnson’s chest were the words “Canada’s Shame”-a catch phrase heading each page on the fiasco. An editorial entitled “Oh, Ben!” decried the steroids escapade as “a disaster for one Canadian. For all Canadians. And for the Olympics.”
Star sports columnist John Robertson launched a whopping invective on the day the drug scandal broke entitled “Don’t Cry for Ben; Cry for his Mother.” Robertson chastised Johnson for bringing his poor mother “a lifetime of grief and shame.” Not only had he humiliated his mother but, worse still, Big Ben had “disgraced himself, his family, his fellow athletes, his country, the host country, South Korea, and the entire Olympic movement..”
If these examples are the extremes, they are not the exception. All three newspapers ran similar stories: readers were told of a nation “shattered,” a country “plunged into embarrassment” and “a devastating blow to the frail ego of the Canadian populace.”
CBC news coverage also had its moments of melodrama. The National changed its traditional opening format for only the third time in seven years (the others being the death of Indira Gandhi and the Challenger space shuttle explosion) to reflect the full weight of the story. The host’s first words described a nation “in shock” at the “downfall of a Canadian hero.” Generally, though, the CBC was quieter in tone than much of the print media, consciously avoiding references to national shame. “Shame had nothing to do with this,” says Bulgutch. “That was overreacting. It’s the story of one man who represented something and let us down but it’s not a national embarrassment. We avoided it like the plague.”
Others disagree, saying national embarrassment was a legitimate focus. Although The Journal downplayed the angle, Culbert argues Johnson’s possible drug use was a gripping personal tragedy which contained an element of national disgrace because of the international attention it attracted. The story, he says, developed from the natural tension between two great athletes in a high-profile sport billed as the premier event of the 24th Olympiad.
Indeed, Olympic organizers and a cooperative media had built up the 100metre dash into a melodramatic catharsis of the rivalry between the media darlings of the Games. As Parrish says, the Olympics had become essentially a track-and-field meet revolving around a single event.
The media hype surrounding Johnson was never more clear than at the Canadian Olympic track-and-field trials in August. On the comeback trail from an injury, Johnson completed a preliminary heat in an unspectacular time but was crushed at the finish line by 120 dogged members of the press. Star sports columnist Jim Proudfoot described Johnson as “the centre of a perambulating mob. Always the talk is of the Olympics and his thoughts about Lewis.”
Star sports reporter Al Sokol added, “Big Ben’s heat was treated with the same intense attention by the media here as when Johnson set his world record. No one else mattered.” Sokol described how Jack Lynch, technical director for the Canadian Olympic Association, pleaded with the media to temper their obsession with gold. “The only thing I dread is the attitude that being [number one] is everything,” said Lynch. “I hope people don’t reach the conclusion, fed by the media, that it is incumbent upon Ben to win.”
Still, Sokol’s article began: “The stage is set for Toronto sprinter Ben Johnson to win the l00-metre gold medal at the Seoul Olympics next month. If he doesn’t, he’ll be considered a failure.” He concluded, “Whether Big Ben is remembered as a winner or a loser will depend on the color of his medal.. Who said life was fair?”
The media succeeded in hunting down the essential facts in the first days of the story, delivering them with speed and accuracy despite trying conditions and fierce international competition. In the week following the announcement of Johnson’s steroid use, journalists scrutinized the Canadian sports establishment, the federal government, Johnson’s entourage and, of course, the Fastest Man on Earth himself. The Johnson camp’s accusations of sabotage were closely examined. Weeding out rumors and false charges, they pursued legitimate angles across the spectrum of an increasingly confusing story.
But the media’s never-ending obsession with tiny details of an aging story overshadowed the only three gold medals we managed to keep. The Sun ran a full front-page photo of Carolyn Waldo’s gold-medal synchronized swimming victory, but all three papers relegated stories to the sports pages. Boxer Lennox Lewis’s gold-medal bout got a similar response. “If you’ve got something that’s gone wrong, then somebody who gets a gold medal tends to be eclipsed,” says the Globe’s news editor, Arthur Rowson. “That’s the nature of the news.”
Bul’gutch of The National says that Canadians didn’t want more coverage of a synchronized swim medal. “We led with it because we thought, ‘Let’s be fair.’ But I think a lot of Canadians didn’t care about what happened in Seoul after Ben Johnson. It was a nice moment but it’s not our business to make the country feel good.”
The National opened with a 15second announcement of Waldo’s win. It then jumped to two longer reports on the aftermath of the Johnson saga before giving the details of the synchronized swimming event. Bulgutch says the emphasis on the Johnson debacle was warranted because The National had an exclusive interview with track coach Gary Lubin, the first person willing to make a direct accusation against Johnson’s physician.
But there are indications that the public did want more news on other competitors. Letters to Toronto newspapers reveal a ground swell of anger, often arguing that the media had overreacted to the scandal at the expense of other Canadian performances. All three newspapers printed letters like this one, which appeared in The Globe and Mail: “The bad judgment exercised by Ben Johnson in using anabolic steroids is as nothing to that of the Canadian press…in their [sic] hysterical over reaction to the issue. We would like to see and to hear as much as possible about all the Canadian competitors.
Will you and your colleagues please stop talking about Ben Johnson and concentrate on the good aspects of the Olympic Games, to which Canada has sent its second-largest team of more that [sic] 350 persons?”
Other responses suggest that the media were too quick to jump on Big Ben, too willing to attack instead of empathize. A Sun poll printed on September 29 found that respondents supported Johnson by a ratio of more than 20 to one. Patricia Whittaker, letters editor at the Star, says many of the hundreds of letters that flooded the mailroom about Ben Johnson were angry at sections of the media that spoke out against him: “They were all very emotional-it was an emotional subject.”
Both Arthur Rowson and Star managing editor Ian Urquhart say it is not unusual for readers to react against what they perceive to be overly harsh media coverage, adding that the media cannot cater to the whims of their readers. According to Rick Salutin, an editor at This Magazine, the readers’ criticism shows that the press misjudged how the public would respond to the Ben Johnson fiasco. “What it really indicates is the gap between the press and the people,” says Salutin. “The press almost always guesses wrong.”
That gap may account for comments from the American media in the aftermath of Johnson’s demise. Responding perhaps to the reaction of the Canadian press, American coverage hinted that Canadians were being a trifle harsh on their adopted son. Newsweek reported: “Johnson was on his way to supplanting Hollywood-bound hockey star Wayne Gretzky as the national idol. Johnson went from hero to bum almost as fast as he covered the 100 meters in Seoul.” Time magazine noted that Johnson had “muscled himself up to a point where he could hoist an entire country onto the gold-medal platform. His 100-meter dash was a sensation. Then, when he let Canada down, it disowned him entirely.”
Not all of the media disowned Bt Johnson. In all three Toronto newspapers and on the CBC, calm words provided balance to a rowdier chorus of criticism. Notable among these were Trent Frayne’s’ reasoned insights in front-page column in The Globe an Mail. Frayne, while acknowledging national disappointment, considered this “intense pressure he labored under, the pressure on a poor boy with a speech stammer moving north from the Caribbean with his mother and achieving fame as the world’s fastest human.” Both the Globe and the Star ran editorials urging Canadians to remember the human being at the centre of this great scandal and to avoid turning Johnson into a scapegoat.
Gary Lautens, editor emeritus and veteran columnist at the Star, says the Ben Johnson debacle is a prime example of one of the media’s great faults: “We portray things as better or worse than they are. It’s like a cartoonist’s panel where Brian Mulroney’s jaw is not quite as large as the cartoonist will make it. I think there is a sense of caricature about journalism generally.” Lautens wrote a column soon after the story broke chiding those who turned a crooked foot race into a national tragedy. When Johnson returned home from Seoul, media coverage may have generated more public sympathy for our hero-gone-wrong. Television screens overflowed with images of a hunted man surrounded at every step by hungry reporters. The Globe’s Andre Picard was one of the first to address the media spectacle as an event in itself. Picard wrote that Johnson had “plowed his way through a horde of screaming reporters at Pearson International Airport” surrounded by 20 burly police officers who barely kept him from being trampled. “I thought it was a very sad reflection on our profession,” says Picard. “I really thought it was just sick.”
The Star reported that 40 media members, neighbors and fans had staked out Johnson’s home, where he was “reduced to being a virtual prisoner.” Many journalists maintained 24hour vigils, tramping across his lawn and driveway with cameras and tape recorders. Asked if there were limits on how far reporters could go without invading privacy, Rowson suggested that if Johnson didn’t like it, he could have called the police.
Editors agree they had no choice but to keep hounding Johnson until he spoke. “I think he owed the Canadian public an explanation,” says Urquhart. “The media were the vehicle for that explanation.” Culbert admits he felt sympathy for Johnson: “But when somebody won’t talk, that’s what reporters do. I don’t think the media were hard on Ben Johnson. We just wanted to ask questions.”
And so they did. But in this case, they probably didn’t expect any answers. Salutin argues that the chase had a ritualistic more than a probing air about it. He says reporters and editors knew Johnson wouldn’t speak from his doorstep, but they went through the motions because everyone else was doing it.
When Johnson finally did speak, it was through an exclusive interview with the Sun. Suddenly, the hero-turned-villain became a superstar again-all through the magic of the printed page. On the first five pages, huge photographs were splashed above tiny stories which offered few new facts on the beleaguered champ. A three page pullout section entitled “BEN SPEAKS” catalogued the Sun’s exclusive interview, again spiced with huge color photos. A two-page photo spread showed Johnson washing his fabled black Ferrari under the headline “Ben’s Black Beauty” with cutlines that read: “Ben soaps her up…rinses her down…polishes off…and hits the road.” An animated commentary describes Big Ben’s affection for speed -be it in motor cars or on foot-but not a whiff of drugs or scandal. Soon after, Johnson finally appeared at a press conference to protest his innocence and plead for a little privacy for himself and his family.
It’s a sad irony that, when Johnson first started breaking records in 1985, he was bitter that the Canadian media were ignoring his accomplishments. When he finally received his first taste of the limelight after his record breaking run in Rome in 1987, Johnson was asked how his catapult into the land of the famous would affect him. The newly crowned Fastest Man on Earth replied: “I’m not going to change. I don’t know who else to be. I just want to get better as an athlete.” But inevitably Johnson’s life did change, to the point where, just before the Olympics, as rumors of infighting and injuries swirled around the Johnson camp and the phone rang nonstop with eager reporters seeking out The Word, Johnson sat on his front lawn and told a Maclean’s reporter, “I didn’t know what it was going to be like. Now I’m successful and I’m paying for it.”
After the results of the world’s most famous urine test came in, Johnson started paying an even greater price for the media’s fickle attention. Lautens offers some indirect advice which Johnson and any other potential “heroes” caught in the media spotlight would do well to heed: “When you read in the paper that you’re the greatest in the world, you shouldn’t take that too seriously. And when they tell you that you’ve disgraced the nation, you shouldn’t take that seriously either.”