NEW YORK — Ben Johnson can explain exactly why athletes take performance-enhancing drugs. And he suspects most runners are still doing it a quarter-century after he was caught.
“The money is great. The pressure is great,” Johnson said Wednesday. “People want to make money, buy a car, big houses, dress good, travel, do everything to win. This is the world that we live in.”
He’s trying to make an even more compelling argument against it. The 51-year-old former sprinter is now promoting an anti-doping campaign.
Whenever an athlete tests positive, Johnson’s name inevitably comes up. The Canadian won the Olympic 100-meter gold medal in world-record time at the 1988 Seoul Games, then had it stripped.
Johnson acknowledges that part of why he joined the Pure Sport campaign, which is sponsored by a sportswear company, is so perhaps he’ll be remembered for more than a failed drug test.
His case to young athletes today who face the same choice he did two decades ago: With modern training techniques, legal supplements and nutrition, you can compete clean and run just as fast as the cheats.
“If you believe in that, you eat properly, train properly, get enough rest, don’t drink,” he said, “you can achieve your goal and not use performance-enhancing drugs. It can be done.”
Johnson’s own experience reminds why it can be so tough to keep that faith. He was encouraged to use steroids by a coach he idolized, swept up in the mindset that everyone was doing it and he needed to keep up.
Pure Sport is pushing for the creation of an independent council that can advise athletes who are tempted to dope. Johnson insists that maybe everything would have been different had there been someone to confide in.
Sitting next to Jose Canseco under the artificial lights of a hotel conference room, Johnson spoke on a panel Wednesday about how to rid sports of PEDs. One moment he would sound at peace about his past, the next bitter. He takes full responsibility for breaking the rules but also feels singled out in an era of rampant doping.
The positive tests keep coming today. The past several months alone, the big names in sprinting included Tyson Gay and Veronica Campbell-Brown. In an interview after the panel, Johnson said, “There’s nothing new.”
“The excuses have all run out,” he added.
And even if he understands why athletes still make the same choices he did, he has a simple reasoning for why they shouldn’t.
“This is the temptation that we face every day in life,” Johnson said, noting that people are able to resist those other urges to cheat.