Documentary on doping revives ’88 controversyThe victory by Canadian Ben Johnson over U.S. track star Carl Lewis in the 100-meter run on Sept. 27, 1988, became the hottest story of the Seoul Olympics. Two days later came even more shocking news: Johnson was stripped of his gold medal after banned drugs were detected in his blood.
In the wake of this incident, a 61-year-old Korean chemist entered the media spotlight. Park Jong-sei was in charge of the Olympics’ Doping Control Center at the time. The night after the race, Mr. Park got word that a banned substance was found in an athlete’s blood. After retesting the runner, Park informed the International Olympic Committee of the positive results.
At first, Johnson denied he knowingly ingested banned drugs, saying that someone must have secretly slipped drugs in his drink just before the event. It took six months for him to admit to using steroids.
Sixteen years later, Johnson has resurfaced as part of a new documentary, “Ben Johnson, Drugs & the Quest for Gold,” which aired on Canada’s CTV in July. In it, the former star athlete argues that every athlete who competed in the Seoul Olympics used drugs and that he got caught because his country didn’t protect him.
Mr. Park, who is now an executive with the biotech startup Lab Frontier, took umbrage with Johnson’s opinion. “There was a time when Ben Johnson’s incident was viewed as a conspiracy engineered by Americans, but that is not true,” he said. “I think it is true, however, that the athletes who came to Seoul to participate in the games underestimated Korea’s dope-testing abilities. There have been three Olympics since that time, but the number of doping prosecutions was highest during the Seoul Games.”
Mr. Park says that other than Ben Johnson, he also remembers Britain’s track runner, Linford Christie, who tested positive but stayed clear of charges. Christie argued that he took a ginseng tablet; the investigation showed that a small amount of stimulant existed in such ginseng pills.
“At the hearing, Christie was considered innocent because he had not known beforehand that ginseng pills contained stimulants. Nowadays, however, if athletes test positive for prohibited drugs, it is considered their responsibility. So we check beforehand whether the tonics that competitors take consist of any drugs from the 170 banned substances.”
Mr. Park, who was a professor in Maryland before joining the Olympic team, went from scholar and bureaucrat to found the Korea Food and Drug Administration. He withdrew from the agency in January 1999 amid charges of bribery, but was judged not guilty by the Seoul District Court and Seoul High Court. The Supreme Court, however, stated that his case should be reviewed.
The second time around, the Seoul High Court found him guilty. Mr. Park has taken his case to the Constitutional Court of Korea, which has not yet settled the case. Meanwhile, Lab Frontier, a company founded with 100 million won ($86,500) in seed money four years ago, earned 5.1 billion won last year.
by Park Tae-kyun