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Bruce Dowbiggin

Ben Johnson: Can You Railroad A Guilty Man?

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The Incredible Life Of Ben Johnson: World’s Fastest Man by Mary Ormsby, Sutherland House, 286 pages

It’s a short list of sports events that Canadians can remember where they were when the story broke. Paul Henderson’s 1972 goal in the USSR Summit Series. The Gretzky Trade. Ben Johnson tests positive after winning the 1988 Olympics 100 metre gold.

It’s long been established that Johnson was guilty on the positive steroid charge. But many questions have lingered for Canadians. Why was Johnson the only one singled out when five other runners in that race have drugging histories? Why did Canadian officials abandon Johnson to his fate in Seoul?

Our friend Mary Ormsby, longtime former reporter at the Toronto Star,  has wondered the same things for years. So when Johnson asked her to cooperate on a book, she decided to conduct a cold-case investigation into a story that has flummoxed Canadians for decades. We spoke about The Incredible Life of Ben Johnson: World’s Fastest Man

Why is Ben Johnson still relevant to Canadians 35 years later:? I think, he still strikes a nerve with the Canadian consciousness. He took everybody on that 100-yard run with him in 1988. And then, of course, this historic, disqualification during the Seoul Olympics for his doping offence. That was seared in the Canadian mindset at the time, and I found over the decades that Canadians have never really forgotten about that moment.

People are still curious about him, and I think over time, people have become very much more aware and educated about the prevalence of doping in sport. We were quite naïve as Canadians, at least back in 1988. And we’ve learned a lot more since including that five of the other guys in that 100 metre final, became linked to doping infractions in some way. So it’s a wiser population that thinks that Ben is interesting, and they want to know what happened to him in the interim.

How did you get Ben to agree to the book: Actually, Ben said, “do you think there’s a book in this?” He’s the one who asked me to write it? And I said no, for a long time. Then I said, well, why not look into it after I left the Toronto Star?

What did you discover: The crux of the book is how is it possible to railroad a guilty man? Was he denied or deprived of due process at his hearing in Seoul? A lot of the people I talked to for the book, they all seem to say that Ben got screwed in Seoul. Meaning he wasn’t the only one using something at the time or of that generation or later. Only he was singled out. Now, that’s not to say, Ben is blameless. We all know he broke a rule, he willingly took steroids and he lied about it. He made it bad for himself. But again, I think people have learned to understand sport in a way that is much more cynical and much more educated, through, all the anti-doping news that continues to this very day almost.

That’s one of the questions I really want to explore in the book. So all this is to say it, it came to be at one point.

Why should people read the book?: The way to engage people was to really focus on what I would call the cold case aspect of the Ben Johnson story. And that is how was he represented at that very critical hearing that Monday night in Seoul when it was all or nothing trying to hold on to his gold medal. As I said, Ben is not blameless. We all know what he did. He lied about it. It took a $4 million inquiry and testimony under oath to get the truth out of him. “Yes, I did know what I was doing and yes, I did take steroids.” Then I try to weave the idea that there is an injustice, surrounding the mystique of Ben Johnson that Canadian officials didn’t go to the wall for him, as they should have. It was pretty much an open-and-shut case very quickly. But following the paper trail, you can see where evidence wasn’t looked at, the Canadian officials didn’t even look at his drug test. They just assumed that everything was correct and all the paperwork was absolutely topnotch. Then the IOC Medical Commission members dropped a second test on him that showed he was a longtime anabolic steroid user.

It was an unofficial test, and also no one took exception to the many conflicts of interest of the IOC doping panel that was actually hearing his appeal. They had many conflicts in my opinion. They developed the testing, they ran the testing, they supervised the testing. They were the prosecutor and the judge and the jury. And they were the ones who could recommend whether he be disqualified or not. So, the trick— and I hope I did it properly— was to get people involved in this idea that there was an injustice that happened. You can support someone’s right to a fair hearing and he was entitled to a fair hearing. That doesn’t mean you support or endorse the behaviour. Those are two separate matters.

How did Canadian officials drop the ball?: Ben made it trickier, because he, said yes, please have IOC VP Richard Pound represent me when that option was presented to him that night. Everybody was in total shock. Richard Pound, he stood to lose something too. He was one of the golden boys of the IOC movement. He was hoping to be in the running for next IOC president. From talking to IOC Medical Commission member Arne Ljundqvist after the fact, the panel weren’t very pleased to see him there running the show when, in their opinion, it should have been Canada’s chef de mission Caroline Anne Letheren. I asked Pound, why did you not look at his drug test? Why, did you not look at the supporting paperwork? And he said, you know, I didn’t want to be someone who got somebody off on a technicality. Perhaps, but if you’re fighting for your life, I would like my representatives to go to the wall for me whenever possible.

How was his late coach Charlie Francis responsible for this?:  He really did influence Ben and convince him— based on Charlie’s own research and knowledge and beliefs— that everybody at the highest level is using performance enhancing drugs. You know, that famous line, you don’t have to use, but you’re always going to be a metre behind. Ben thought about it for a week or two and said, yeah, let’s do it. Charlie was a huge influence on Ben moving forward. So much so that Ben would claim, when he got caught lying, that he lied to protect Charlie Francis. He didn’t want Charlie to be caught up in the big disaster. To this day he, he talks about Charlie with, with great love and affection. So that was a very strong bond. And Charlie Francis did take advantage of that. Ben was the one who was able to help fill Charlie’s ambition as a coach.

Why wasn’t Ben caught when he set the world record at the Rome 1987 World Track & Field Championships?: Amazingly, he said he wasn’t tested in Rome. In fact, he was in the doping control room, and Primo Nebbiolo’s bodyguard went in to get him (Nebbiolo was president of the World Track & Field Federation). He says, “The boss wants to see you at this horse track”. So he spirited Ben out of the doping control room. Ben went in a limousine to this horse-racing track where he met Primo’s friends and horse racing friends and some championship horse, and then he was eventually taken back to Rome to his hotel. Nobody ever bothered him about providing a urine sample after he set the world record. (Nebbiolo later erased Ben’s 1987 world record for embarrassing him with the incident.)

How Is Ben today?: I think Ben has been broken many times in his life about this, and he tried really hard to fight through it. It’s been a lonely fight. At different times, he surrounded himself with people who didn’t always have his best interests at heart (Muammar Ghaddafi) and he retains a bitterness about Seoul and what happened to him and why he was the only one. But there’s also a resilience there that I’m pretty impressed with, because in all that time he’s had to scramble to make a living. He is still hoping with this book and maybe with more time, he will be able to clear his name. He sees that at the end of the day. I don’t know. But what we do see, even just walking down the street in Toronto or down in Jamaica, people will still call out to him. “Hey, world’s fastest man” and give him the thumbs up. You know, what a great guy.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. His new book Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL And Changed hockey is now available on Amazon. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his previous book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via brucedowbigginbooks.ca.

BRUCE DOWBIGGIN Award-winning Author and Broadcaster Bruce Dowbiggin's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience . He is currently the editor and publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster website and is also a contributor to SiriusXM Canada Talks. His new book Cap In Hand was released in the fall of 2018. Bruce's career has included successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster for his work with CBC-TV, Mr. Dowbiggin is also the best-selling author of "Money Players" (finalist for the 2004 National Business Book Award) and two new books-- Ice Storm: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Vancouver Canucks Team Ever for Greystone Press and Grant Fuhr: Portrait of a Champion for Random House. His ground-breaking investigations into the life and times of Alan Eagleson led to his selection as the winner of the Gemini for Canada's top sportscaster in 1993 and again in 1996. This work earned him the reputation as one of Canada's top investigative journalists in any field. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013) where his incisive style and wit on sports media and business won him many readers.

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Bruce Dowbiggin

How Betting Could Save Over-Expanded Leagues With Competition Problems

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It’s not often that we get new traditions every day in the NHL playoffs. We’re used to octopus on the ice. Plastic rats, too. Ron Maclean using obscure Blue Rodeo lyrics to explain the icing rule. But now there is a new tradition, unlike another.

Bitching about betting ads during the broadcasts of games. Get any group of plus-50s fans together to talk about the playoffs and you’re guaranteed to hear a volley of complaints about the incursion of gambling commercials now peppering the HNIC playlist. Or, for that matter, the TBS hockey playlist in the U.S.

The grievances range from the interference in the play (“I just want to watch a game, not a pitch for the over/ under on Stu Skinner goals-against”) to corruption of youth (“We are teaching a generation of young people that gambling is okay”). Some are annoyed by the presence of Connor McDavid who has morphed from a punchline in Wayne Gretzky’s gambling resumé to a serious dude warning kids about responsible gambling.

The reliance on advertising from casinos and gambling sites is a swift jolt for sports broadcasters who clearly see a golden goose and are not going to let it get away. As we’ve said before, we have yet to have a signature funny commercial for gambling that takes it mainstream. Right now, in Canada particularly, the quality of ads is lame.

But. Let’s discuss the “corrupting youth” argument that seems to be the loudest voice from non-gamblers. As we discussed in the Shohei Ohtani case, gambling— in the form of betting, fantasy sports, office pools, pick-a-square etc.— has been a vast underground source of gambling that the abolitionists ignored for decades. Legalizing it has removed much of this action from the grip of organized crime. As Ohtani’s case showed, the sunlight of public betting allows for (mostly) better monitoring.

As well, the leagues don’t share in the betting revenues, removing any question about the integrity off the outcome. They do promote betting sites and casinos where betting takes place. But the earnings from that belongs to others, not the leagues.

Second, the generations of pecksniffs deploring these ads have watched ads for alcohol on sports broadcasts for decades. In case you’ve been on Mars, alcohol is highly addictive and a drain on society’s healthcare resources. Yet none of them made a puritanical peep about protecting youth from ads for beer that financed HNIC for 50 years. Consistency in this griping would be nice.

Third, there is a fundamental misunderstanding about gambling that most of the opponents miss. Yes, the money is staggering. It has brought to pro sports league revenues so they can pay NFL QBs $50 million a year. With the threat of regional cable broadcasting— and its revenues— collapsing in North America, a new source of profits is imperative.

It also favours the house. Winning 57-58 percent of your bets is considered excellent. But here’s something no one talks about. Recreational gambling is an answer to the problems created by bloated leagues of 30-plus teams. The chances of your favourite team winning the Stanley Cup or Super Bowl have shrunk to microscopic in most cases. As we pointed out in our 2021 book Cap In Hand, the pressure of salary caps has led organizations to adopt either a “we’ll go for it” stance for a “tank for a top pick” approach.

What used to be a healthy middle class in leagues— fifteenth place—is now a ghost town as teams either rise our fall accord to their title hopes. Trading deadlines midway through a season allow teams to dump big contracts or gather depth for a playoff run. By the end of the season the standings are a sandwich with no filling.

So how are broadcasters to maintain interest in lame squads losing at a prodigious rate? What do you say to keep fans coming back even when they know the inevitable result? Enter recreational gambling. The NFL has floated its boat on the power of pools, fantasy and illegal wagering for years. It knows its TV numbers would plummet without people tuning in to see how their fantasy teams, props bets and parlays are doing.

Allegiances to your bets are the coming thing in sports viewership. Not for nothing does ESPN— an NFL, NBA and NHL rights holder— feature a “Bad Beats” section on its sports desk coverage every night. It highlights the outcomes where winning and losing defies imagination. Canadian networks are still treating their betting tips as stand-alone segments, not incorporating a betting win/ loss segment. But with the Blue Jays and Raptors floundering they’ll need alternatives to recognizing the inevitable. Enter betting.

As well, the playoffs—usually a windfall for teams/ leagues—leave considerable inventory unrealized. Quick series make for diminished handles and lost ticket sales. For instance, in this year’s NHL playoffs, the losing team in the 14 series so far has averaged just 1.78 wins per series. The NBA is far worse. Losing teams in this year’s postseason are averaging just 1.2 wins per series.

It’s anticlimactic and predictable and expensive for leagues. So if you’re paying the kind of money the stars now command you have to get the secondary sources of revenue cranked up. That spells betting. Like it or not.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. His new book Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL And Changed hockey is now available on Amazon. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his previous book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via brucedowbigginbooks.ca.

 

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Bruce Dowbiggin

The Debt Pipeline: Canada Is Drowning In Debt

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“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”— The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, 1926

For those outside Calgary, the rupture of the major water-carrying pipe is a local annoyance, divorced from their lives. The fact that it now appears it will take 3-5 weeks to restore normal water delivery in the city— original estimates from the mayor said 3-5 days— is tough luck for inhabitants of Canada’s energy city.

Even that estimate is being treated skeptically by a public who were manipulated and abused by the political structure during the recent Covid years. Testing shows that this same pipe— it’s large enough to drive a car through— has five more “hot spots” that could lead to further trouble. In short, repairing and maintaining the infrastructure in Calgary is going to be a huge investment. Married to the city’s debt crisis, a new transit line and the need for other infrastructure projects it’s daunting.

But it’s not a localized problem. Toronto’s new crosstown subway project is years over budget even as the city punts on repairing / replacing its vital Gardiner Expressway. Montreal’s bridges are a construction meltdown. Vancouver, Edmonton, Halifax— name the city. They’re all faced with crushing repairs while looking down the barrel of the debt gun.

How bad is the debt bomb? The voice on the other end of the line was grave. This retired financial executive says Canada is effectively bankrupt. He’s seen this coming after his almost 50 years in the Canadian industry. A decade of profligate government spending, Canada’s massive debts and electing activist politicians have brought Canada to a nasty place.

The weak spot in Canada’s wall is government debt, he says, and when the inflection point arrives it will happen in a hurry. As Mike Campbell said in The Sun Also Rises about what brought on his bankruptcy,  “Friends. I had a lot of friends. False friends. Then I had creditors, too. Probably had more creditors than anybody in England.”

Canada has friends. Allegedly. Successive Liberal governments have allowed “friendly” China to acquire Canadian debt during a period of accelerated buying in the past decade. Meanwhile, China still owes Canada $371 million in loans it incurred decades ago, and it is not expected to repay them in full until 2045.

But recently it’s been revealed that “friendly” China has also been actively interfering in Canada’s elections. It placed spies in Canada’s top-secret biolabs in Winnipeg. It is buying up farmland in PEI and other Canadian provinces.

That has left Canada’s PM, the one who said he admired China’s ability to get things done outside democracy, stammering and obfuscating. He knows that in his current predicament he can’t afford to rile the Chinese, who blithely let Canadians die of Covid-19, a virus they spread to the world.

Already, Canada pays C$46 B a year to service its debt, more than Ottawa expects to spend on childcare benefits ($31.2 billion) and almost as much as the cost of the Canada Health Transfer ($49.4 billion). Hard to believe Canada’s GDP per capita was actually higher than the US. Now, there is a $30.5k USD gap.

Should China decide to push the go button and pull back its bond paper in Canada, the result, says this executive, will be seismic. To rescue a credit-choked economy interest rates could jump back as high as the 18 percent rates of the 1980s. To say nothing of boosting personal tax rates. In case you’re part of the Denial Squad, here’s the take governments exact at the moment. Think they can take more?

NL – 54.8%

NS – 54%

ON – 53.53%

BC – 53.50%

QC – 53.31%

NB – 52.50%

PEI- 51.37%

MB – 50.4%

AB – 48%

YT – 48%

SK – 47.5%

NT – 47.05%

Not good. Canadians who think the warning signs will give them time to adjust are badly mistaken. Paraphrasing the words of Mike Campbell, the long debt descent will happen “suddenly”. Within 48 hours of China (or any other Canadian bondholder) employing the poison pill much of Canadians’ savings will be wiped out. The real estate market— which is the default savings account for millions— will implode.

You won’t hear any this from finance minister Chrystia Freeland who claims her debt-financed spending (based on international comparisons) shows Canada with the lowest level of debt in the G7. But the Fraser Institute points out, “By using net debt as a share of the economy (GDP), Canada ranks 11th lowest of 29 countries and lowest amongst the G7. By using gross debt as a share of the economy, Canada falls to 25th of 29 countries and 4th in the G7”.

If you don’t like statistics you can always just pop down to the grocery store to check out how $4.99 blueberries cost $7.99 now. The debt crisis should lead the newscasts each night. It will when reality strikes suddenly. But for now, Trudeau’s purchased media are more interested in Pierre Poilievre fear stories and TikTok videos of cats.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. His new book Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL And Changed hockey is now available on Amazon. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his previous book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via brucedowbigginbooks.ca.

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