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Johnson scandal stunted sport's commercial growth

Sprinter Ben Johnson of Canada holds a cast of his footprint made after running on the track at the Seoul Olympic Stadium in Seoul September
Sprinter Ben Johnson of Canada holds a cast of his footprint made after running on the track at the Seoul Olympic Stadium in Seoul September

By Keith Weir

LONDON (Reuters) - Marketing experts fondly recall Seoul 1988 as the Games when the Olympic movement put behind it political boycotts and started to develop its true commercial potential.

However, the sensational Ben Johnson drugs bust in Seoul and subsequent failure to stamp out doping has meant that athletics - the centerpiece of the Games - has been left behind by other sports in the wider battle for sponsor dollars.

"It tends to be a struggle to get big brands to support athletics," said sports marketing expert Patrick Nally, contrasting the situation with the 1980s when the sport launched its world championships and enjoyed a higher profile.

"If Usain Bolt didn't exist and wasn't there signing his books and being the superstar, they wouldn't have anything," he added, referring to the charismatic Jamaican sprint champion.

Nally, one of the pioneers of modern sports marketing, argues that athletics in the late 1980s was torn between the need to promote itself by setting world records and a desire to tackle the doping culture that tarnished these achievements.

Those conflicting pressures culminated in the downfall of Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who tested positive for a banned steroid after beating American Carl Lewis in a world-record 9.79 seconds over 100 meters at the 1988 Games.

Johnson, now 51, returned to Seoul this week to speak out against drugs in sport.

Sports marketing was in its infancy 25 years ago. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had just set up a new program granting top corporate sponsors exclusive rights to sell products around the world on the back of the Games.

The swift justice meted out to Johnson, stripped of his medal and sent packing from Seoul, helped to protect the Olympic brand, said former IOC marketing chief Michael Payne.

"Samaranch said that on the one hand it was a dark day but on the other hand it was an opportunity for the IOC to show how it was fighting the drugs issue," he said, referring to then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch.

"The media saw the IOC was taking the drugs issue seriously, there was no collateral damage to the sponsor."

SPONSORSHIP DEALS

The Olympic movement came away from Seoul in good shape after boycotts of the two previous Games had threatened its very existence, according to Payne.

"Ben Johnson notwithstanding, they were successful Games, the Olympics were back. They had solved the political problem."

The Olympics have since gone from strength to strength, regaining their undisputed status as the world's top sports event. Sponsorship has also taken off, with 10 leading companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's paying around $1 billion for four-year global partnership deals.

The drugs issue in sport has not gone away, with cyclist Lance Armstrong cast in the role of modern-day villain after being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for doping.

Sponsors have remained unsophisticated in their response to doping crises, according to Simon Chadwick, professor of sports business at Coventry University in central England.

"When a doping scandal breaks, rather than take the moral high ground, they wait to see what happens," said Chadwick, saying sponsors often acted only when they felt pressure from public opinion.

Chadwick praised the pro-active approach adopted by sportswear group Skins, a cycling sponsor which has been campaigning for the sport to rid itself of doping and clean up its governance.

Skins has adopted an unlikely new ambassador in its latest anti-doping drive - Johnson himself.

"Ben personified the modern era of doping but after 25 years he's now in the best position to publicize this campaign," said Skins chairman Jaimie Fuller, stressing that Johnson was not getting paid for his role.

(Editing by Clare Fallon)

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