On Wanting Something To Be True
In 1988, at the Seoul Olympics, Canada’s greatest hope was the reigning world champion in the 100-metre dash, Ben Johnson. A soft-spoken, stuttering, mild-mannered Jamaican immigrant, Johnson represented every secret wish of the Canadian soul: to be recognized as the best in the world for once, and not in a marginal or regional event, but in the marquee event on the biggest stage; to beat — to humiliate — our smug, swaggering, noisy American neighbor, in this case ideally embodied by 1984 Olympic champion Carl Lewis, on the world stage for all to see; and above all, to show that humility, decency, and hard work, the virtues that Canadians love to imagine they see in themselves, can win in the end over bluster and material advantage. It was a tortoise and the hare moment, and our Canadian tortoise just happened to be the fastest sprinter of all time.
One of the undercurrents of the year-long drama leading up to this climactic confrontation between Johnson and Lewis was accusations of steroid use, with the Lewis camp alleging this against Johnson, and the Johnson camp replying in kind. Canadians, by and large, instinctively felt that Lewis was a prime candidate for performance-enhancing drug use — a repeat champion who had not faded with age as sprinters typically do, a multi-event gold medalist with the unlikeable boastfulness and self-importance of the classic “ugly American” — whereas we all “knew” that the quiet and unflamboyant Johnson was a model athlete and Canadian, who was competing honestly simply because it would be wrong to do otherwise.
Watching the 100-metre final on television that fateful evening in Canada was without a doubt one of the most crystallizing and exhilarating moments in the national consciousness of millions of men and women, many of them only casual sports fans. So many of us had been irresistibly swept up in the excitement and anxiety of the preliminary heats, particularly when Johnson held back a little too much in one early round, thus forcing us all to wait in agony to find out if he had qualified for the semi-finals. But he had, and the brief sigh of relief we experienced at this news only added to the painful thrill of anticipation leading to the mesmerizing moments before the gold medal race.
Johnson committed a false start in the semi-final, which clearly upset him, therefore adding to the absurd level of tension before the final, as we feared that this worry might hamper our short-legged champion, who depended on his powerful start to get an early advantage over the longer-legged, more natural runner Lewis. In an amazing display of composure and chutzpah, however, Johnson shrugged off all previous concerns and got his usual brilliant start in the final. And then, to the shock and awe of everyone watching, Lewis included, the pack never began to reel Johnson back in over the second fifty metres, as we had all expected would happen. Lewis, who himself ran a time that would have been the new world record in a world without Ben Johnson, was nevertheless left far behind, as Johnson merely expanded his early lead throughout the short race, finally raising his hand in victory over the final five metres, thereby considerably slowing himself down before the finish line — and yet somehow still beating his own previous world record time anyway.
It was bristling television, and in the early days of video cassette recorders, many of us — this writer included, as a very young man — watched the race again many times, just to relive the overwhelming and world-disintegrating thrill of those five unbearably exciting minutes, beginning with the runners slowly lining up at the start, and culminating in the glorious 9.79-second race itself.
Two days later, the balloon of national elation was summarily punctured with the news that Johnson had tested positive for an anabolic steroid after the race. For the first few days, as Johnson and his coach vehemently denied the doping charges, and accused the Lewis camp of somehow tainting Johnson’s post-race urine sample, I, like millions of Canadians, tried to hold out hope. I knew in my rational mind that the positive test was real, and immediately Johnson’s extraordinary performance and rippling muscles, viewed repeatedly in my living room over the past forty-eight hours, were recast in my thought as tell-tale signs rather than causes for awe. But emotionally, having derived so much joy and hope from his inspirational story, a small part of me, along with millions of my fellow Canadians, clung temporarily to the possibility that just maybe…well, maybe the conspiracy accusations against the Lewis camp would turn out to be true. After all, Johnson had never tested positive before, so why would his coaches and doctors, if they were really professional drug cheaters, have been so careless as to push his doping schedule too close to the Olympics, thereby leaving him susceptible to a positive test at the biggest event of his life? (The answer, of course, was right there in the question, but when one is clutching at straws, the obvious answers are the easiest to overlook.)
Over the next several months, a Canadian government commission, popularly known as the Dubin inquiry, painstakingly and publicly investigated the case, calling witnesses — including the despicable Lewis, who of course drove Canadians to fury by calmly, oh so innocently repeating his long-held suspicions about Johnson’s camp, and preaching (with forked tongue) about the importance of clean sport — and gradually breaking down the key players on the witness stand, as Johnson’s coach Charlie Francis, other athletes, and “sports medicine” doctors, tried to save themselves from their culpability with excuses and rationalizations. Johnson himself, in the end, was shown to be an inarticulate and ignorant man who had been protected and prodded by handlers from childhood, a lost lamb in a new country, hardened into pitiable intransigence only by the singlemindedness of the self-preservation instinct, a young immigrant who had no other plausible path to achievement but through running, and no other path to running success than through the well-organized, well-connected team of coaches and doctors who managed every step of his rise to glory. They elevated him from raw talent to greatness, but only at the price of his self-respect, and with the most publicly humiliating and isolating fallout. Johnson was just a naïve kid with dreams of fame and glory. Francis and his team of trainers and doctors were the real villains here, for they knew exactly what they were doing, and why they were doing it.
The interesting thing, however, from a social psychology point of view, was how long so many Canadians held out against the obvious and inescapable truth of the case. The Dubin inquiry dragged on for months, and was only completed almost a year after the Seoul Olympics, and yet this prolonged wallow through the mire of sport was perhaps necessary to help many Canadians slowly break down the walls of indignation and willful blindness in their souls. They had invested so much of their own personal and national pride and hope in the fate of Ben Johnson — we all had — that accepting the truth that we had all been duped and abused was simply too much for some to digest. The reflected shame of feeling fooled, and the public overturning of one’s passionate belief, are too painful for many a soul. For many, perhaps millions, it took a year to overcome the folly of clinging to unfounded and ultimately irrelevant conspiracy theories about tainted urine samples or spiked drinks, and to come to grips with the hard reality that those theories were nothing but accusations without an iota of evidence or common sense to support them — they were supported only by the collective will of the innocently duped, who were unable to accept the short-term ego bruising required to realign their emotional needs with the reality revealed by reason, namely that their hero had been a fake, that he was guilty as charged, and that none of his contradictory theories could explain away the revealed truth of his long-time steroid use.
I think of the Ben Johnson scandal these days, and of the smug, self-promoting rationalizations of his pseudo-straight-talking coach Charlie Francis, as I watch millions of Americans who believed in a dream called Donald Trump, and invested their souls in that dream far too personally, and who are now unable to admit to themselves, let alone to their neighbors, how thoroughly they were played for fools, and their enthusiasm abused, by the most blatant and brazen of political opportunists and fakes. It hurts to let go of a dream that felt so good while it lasted. But it wasn’t real. And just as I had to admit to myself in the summer of 1988, and then frustratingly watch others admit to themselves too slowly over the subsequent months, so I say now to those clinging too long to the fantasy that Trump was a great American who won the 2020 election, only to have it stolen from him by the political equivalent of a tainted steroid test conspiracy: To cling to the shattered dream is to live your life on false and fraudulent terms. It is past time to let it go.