Last Friday, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson stood at the pinnacle of international athletics after winning the 100-meter dash at the Olympics in world-record time.
Today, he is at the depths after failing a drug test and getting stripped of his gold medal. Seldom, if ever, before has such a prominent athlete been caught for drug use. So far, six other athletes at the summer games in South Korea also have been found using banned substances, namely anabolic steroids.This dark hour for Johnson and the others, however, could eventually turn out to be one of the Olympics' finest moments if the tough action against them discourages other athletes from engaging in this form of cheating.
Though the International Olympic Committee is testing more athletes for drug use this year than ever before, the precautions still don't go far enough. In addition to tests following competition, the IOC should also undertake unannounced random testing of athletes during training to deter scandals after the Olympics get underway. Some also are calling for a lifetime ban from competition for those failing the tests.
Since the problem seems to be concentrated in track and field, weightlifting, and cycling, any stiffer action should start with those sports. Moreover, let's get tough not just with the athletes, but also with any coaches involved in the use of steroids.
In any case, the tougher the tests and the penalties, the more they would accomplish by way of protecting not only the reputation of the Olympics and athletics in general, but also the health and well-being of the athletes themselves. While the use of steroids can give athletes more bulk, strength, and power, the drugs can also damage the liver and heart and produce cancer.
Then there's the moral damage caused when young people conclude that it's all right to use dangerous drugs, even though it involves cheating, just because an athlete or some other role model does so.
Meanwhile, the message from the Ben Johnson case should be unmistakably clear: Any athlete desperate enough to use drugs in order to win runs a big risk of getting caught. How can any medal or trophy be worth the shame and the sacrifice of personal integrity?