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In the ‘World’s Fastest Man,’ a Toronto Journalist Revisits Canadian Sprinter Ben Johnson’s Story

Former Toronto Star reporter Mary Ormsby examines new evidence, including Johnson's lab report, that support her suspicion Johnson didn’t receive due process / BY Ashante Infantry / April 19th, 2024

As another Summer Olympics looms, one thing is assured: gravity-defying Jamaican sprinters will be on the winners’ podium for track and field events. The incomparable medalists to date include island natives and descendants competing for other countries, such as Linford Christie (Great Britain) and Sanya Richards-Ross (U.S.). Of course, the most infamous and asterisked of all is Canada’s Ben Johnson, whose fastest-ever 9.79-second, 100-metre sprint at the 1988 Seoul Games was swiftly overturned when he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

In World’s Fastest Man:* The Incredible Life of Ben Johnson, veteran sports reporter Mary Ormsby carefully revisits the sensational saga that rocked Canadian amateur sport as well as the ascent of Johnson, whom federal officials banned from competing – costing him an estimated $25 million in sponsorships, endorsements and prize money.

Ormsby unearths key documents, such as the sprinter’s original drug test from Seoul and exhibits from the royal commission known as the Dubin Inquiry, which support her suspicion that Johnson didn’t receive due process: not from the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission; not from Canadian Olympic Association officials who never saw the supporting paperwork for the test result, or advise Johnson of his right to appeal it; and not from journalists like herself who didn’t dig deeper.

“Reading much of it for the first time was like seeing Johnson’s Olympic disqualification with new eyes,” she writes of the “series of revisions, deletions, question marks, switched lab codes, calculation doodles and, oddly the name of a different anabolic steroid” that characterized the 1988 lab results. “The information contained in the old documents was shocking. The actions described were troubling.… I couldn’t help but wonder if Johnson might have kept his gold medal if he’d had a fair hearing.” 


Mary Ormsby


Nine months after the Games, and despite his initial denials,  Johnson admitted at the Dubin Inquiry he had used banned substances since 1981. But, to this day, he insists someone tampered with his urine sample because he was nabbed for stanozolol, which he hadn’t used since switching to the purportedly undetectable furazabol three years earlier. 

“Plus, Johnson knew using steroids on or close to a race day would not boost his speed; they were for training periods,” Ormsby writes. And his team had perfected clearance times, so the medication would leave his system by the time he arrived at a meet.

From his sole meeting with the IOC Medical Commission, which rescinded his win, until today, Johnson has maintained lax security in the doping control centre allowed an interloper to slip stanozolol pills into beers he drank before he provided a urine sample. 

In the book, Ormsby begins by detailing the emergence of Benjamin Sinclair Johnson Jr.’s athletic prowess: from his nascent years in rural Jamaica; to the arrival of the shy, stuttering mama’s boy in Toronto at age 14; to his evolution into an elite sprinter. She illuminates the wit and swagger of the confident ladies’ man with a penchant for flashy cars, clothes and jewelry, and dissects his post-Olympics woes and exploits. She succeeds in her quest to depict Johnson “as a real, rich, full, complex, funny, hurting human being like the rest of us,” instead of a “two-dimensional cartoon character,” and posits he was as an athlete of his times, caught up in the “Wild West” era of rampant steroid use, enabled by complicit national and federations officials. His trusted coach and trainer, Charlie Francis, told him it was the only way to level the playing field, she writes. 

Ben Johnson
From left to right: Carl Lewis, Ben Johnson and Linford Christie on the podium at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Photo: Bongarts/Getty Images


In Seoul, Ormsby was covering her first Summer Games for the Toronto Star (where we were colleagues). The leading story was Johnson, the reigning world champion, who trounced defending U.S. Olympic champion Carl Lewis until, just as speedily, he went from the world’s fastest human to persona non grata. 

“Younger people today just don’t realize how cataclysmic this whole thing was, because there was no bigger celebrity for sports than Ben at the time,” the genial Ormsby said via Zoom from her Toronto home. The seismic revocation drew comparisons to public despair over the Kennedy assassinations and was cited for casting a pall over Canada’s upcoming political elections. 

It was possibly hyperbole, but the country hadn’t garnered 100-metre gold since Percy Williams won at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. When the medal was snatched back, jubilant national pride turned scornful, and in some cases, racist. An Ottawa Citizen headline called Johnson a bastard, while a Kingston Whig-Standard cartoon identified the sprinter as Canadian, then Jamaican-Canadian, then Jamaican over three identical images of him. 

And though Ormsby would go on to cover more Olympics, as well as World Cups, the NBA, the NHL and the CFL, along with investigations of concussion awareness, homelessness and clergy abuse, the story stayed with her. 

Three days after the Sept. 24 race, Ormsby, 28, was roused out of the Olympic Media Village by a 4:30 a.m. call from an editor with orders to find Johnson and get his reaction to being stripped of gold. But when she got to the Hilton hotel, he was already on a Korean Airlines flight home to face the music in Canada, where sports minister Jean Charest had already banned him for life from competing or receiving government funding. But, in the days and decades to come, the relentless scribe would keep close tabs on Johnson for the Star. The married mother of four developed a rapport with the disgraced athlete who was two years her junior, which culminated with his entreaties to write this book. 

“I said to him a couple of times, ‘Look, I’m a white girl from Scarborough [Ont.]. Don’t you think you should talk to or find a Jamaican author, or an author of colour, to better understand a lot of parts of your life that I couldn’t possibly?,” she said. 

Ben Johnson
Johnson at his Toronto home with his hardware in 1989. Photo: Eric BOUVET/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images


“One of the things that bothered me a lot was he was always painted as the doping villain. He was always held up as the trophy catch by the IOC as ‘this is the worst guy ever.’”

Later, five of the seven other runners in that Seoul 100-metre final – including Lewis – were linked directly or indirectly to steroid use, and it was dubbed “the dirtiest race in history.” That’s little solace for Johnson, who saw his world records and titles expunged, and sponsorships with the likes of Toshiba and Purolator dissipate, along with the US$40,000 appearance fees he could command after setting the 9.83-second record at the 1987 World Championship in Rome. 

It didn’t help that, after managing to get the competition ban overturned in 1990 and returning to the sport with mixed results, Johnson tested positive for prohibited substances in 1993 and 1999. He was permanently barred from racing by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, now called World Athletics, and Athletics Canada. 

Unable to coach young athletes who feared being contaminated by association, Johnson has found creative if controversial ways to stay solvent: he was a personal trainer to Argentine soccer player Diego Maradona as well as the son of a Libyan dictator, and plugged an energy drink called Cheetah. 


Johnson, 30 years after his disqualification at the Seoul Olympics, still maintains someone tampered with his urine sample in the doping centre. Photo: Randy Risling/Toronto Star via Getty Images


Never wed, and now a grandfather, he lives a quiet life with a small circle of friends and is still weighing his legal options against World Athletic for possible restraint-of-trade and due-process claims. He remains bitter that Canadian sports officials didn’t run interference for him, as American officials did for their athletes. “He has fought to get himself to a place where he’s in a good space financially and personally,” said Ormsby. 

“This ‘1988’ hangs over his head in a way that he wishes it could at least be dealt with in some forum. He’s still banned for life, unable to be a coach, and that hurts him very much.”


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