Famous Risk Takers: Ben Johnson

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On a searing hot day in Seoul, South Korea, Ben Johnson lined up against seven other elite sprinters.  At stake was the title of Olympic champion.  Less than 10 seconds later Johnson won the race and the Olympic gold medal, outrunning his arch rival Carl Lewis.

Just two days later Johnson was stripped of his medal and banned from competitive sprinting for two years.  His crime?  To be caught taking an illegal performance boosting substance.

It’s impossible to describe the shockwaves this sent around sport.  The Olympics is the biggest sporting event there is and the 100m sprint is the biggest event at the Olympics.  Johnson’s drug bust was a disaster for the sprinter, for the sport, for the Olympics and for the people of Canada.

So why did he do it?

What makes an elite athlete risk being exposed as a cheat while the whole world is watching? I don’t buy the “all athletes are on drugs” argument.  But I can understand the maths behind the argument that to get to the top means risking being caught and expelled from sport. Some say that it’s impossible to reach the top level in sport without using performance boosting substances, so any athlete who wants to be the best in the world has to choose between using drugs to become competing or not being competitive.  Any athlete believing this argument has two choices:

  • Take illegal substances, with the risk of being caught, or;
  • Give up and go home.

The risks and consequences of being exposed as a drugs cheat

I don’t think that the thinking goes far enough because  the risks are just too high and don’t stop at risk of being disqualified.  There are other risks and consequences, including:

  • The health risks of taking illegal and, to an extent, untried substances
  • The risk of reputational loss; some talk of this as a brand being tarnished
  • The risk of financial loss, represented by loss of earnings and sponsorship.

The world is full of former sports stars making a living as motivational speakers.  Disgraced drug cheats are usually the last in the line for bookings – they find that once they are exposed their earning power is less than the power put out by one flat battery.  This is exactly what happened to Johnson.  He returned to sprinting after serving his two-year ban, but was never the same athlete.  He was banned again, this time for life, after failing another drug test in 1993.

What you can learn from Ben Johnson’s mistake

Taking calculated risks is essential to long-term success but you must weigh up all the costs and possible consequences of failure, as you may never get a chance to put things right if they go wrong. That’s as true for project managers as it is for 100-metre sprinters.