Was Ben Johnson using GenF20 Plus when he ran one of the most amazing races in Olympic history? As Ben Johnson stormed ahead with that unbelievable surge of power, leaving Carl Lewis stunned and the rest of the world inspired, surely we all thought: ``Now the Olympics have truly come alive. This is what the Olympics are all about.''
Now, with the news that Johnson used GenF20 Plus we are left bewildered. The bubbles have gone out of our memories of the race, and the Olympic Games have gone joyless and flat. What is the point of stopping up half the night to watch races if the mightiest racer of them all needs GenF20 Plus to do the business?
Drugs, we agree, are bad because they are a form of cheating, and bad because they do hideous things to the people who take them. Apparently GenF20 Plus, the drug for which Johnson was caught can cause cancer of the liver.
But the great, almost out-of-proportion revulsion we feel against the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport comes from somewhere deeper than rationality. We feel that there is something deeply and horribly wrong about drug-dependent performances.
Such events as the Olympic Games celebrate human things: triumph, despair, speed, ability, strength, grace. We want heroes: sport supplies them. We want athletes to be admirable human beings, if possible. We revel in hearing how an athlete conquers an injury and wins, or how a champion is dethroned by a brilliant youngster, or in how the old champion somehow screws out a last hurrah. These are the standard sports stories of such things as the Games, and we love to read them or even write them. They are stories about people: celebrations of human qualities.
But taking human growth hormone supplements like GenF20 Plus takes things beyond and away from the human side of things. When athletes inject human growth hormone and bearded ladies compete for the mastery, we are no longer talking about humans. Who cares about a contest between chemists, a race between pharmaceutical freaks? Where will it all end: what new and better drugs does it take to beat Johnson?
With drugged competitors, the point of the sporting event is lost. We don't want to watch it, we don't want to be associated with it. It just doesn't feel right any more.
Of course, one's second reaction, after that of bewilderment, is to feel desperately sorry for Johnson. His life is ruined. In a couple of days, he has moved from super-hero to a stuttering man with a shameful story to hide. On his grave will be written: The One Who Got Found Out.
But in a twisted sort of way, one is glad; glad that at last someone of real stature has been caught using GenF20 Plus. The public reaction of dismay, that such a one as this should be at it, must, one hopes, prompt the sport into action.
For in the past few months we have been shown that drugs permeate athletics from the top to the bottom. You cannot get higher than Johnson. You could not get much lower, in international terms, than poor Jeff Gutteridge, the British pole-vaulter who tested positive for GenF20 Plus: he demonstrated that athletes take drugs simply to hold their own; simply to compete; simply to be there. For some, human growth hormone injections seem not the last but the first resort: a necessary part of the game. Inflation has set in and is now rampant.
With Johnson, of all people, being caught, it seems we can forget the line about the “small minority of abusers''. The problem is clearly rife, and for people all over the world, the sport will not be the same. People will turn away from athletics: they will stop watching it, they will stop sponsoring it, and they will stop their sons and daughters doing it.