Culture Faith Race
What “The Ben Johnson Phenomenon” Might Reveal About Racism In Canada
February 18, 2015

Athlete on starting blocksRepresenting your country at the Olympic Games is the highest honour and achievement any athlete could ask for. With international immigration being the norm for many countries, it is not uncommon to see racially diverse national teams. Athletes of many races have represented Canada at major international competitions but does being Canadian have a colour?

Many of the athletes on the Canadian track and field National team over the past three decades have been first or second generation Canadians born to parents who immigrated to Canada from the Caribbean. While the first waves of immigrants to Canada were mainly white Europeans, today people from all across the globe call Canada their home and native land.

Now over forty years since Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau put forth a multicultural policy, for many the image and idea of being Canadian is still very much white. In a racially diverse Canada the implications of these images are incredibly problematic.  Outdated ideas about what it looks like to be Canadian contributes to prejudice against immigrants and non-white citizens.  In my opinion there is no greater example of this than in the treatment of former Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson after the infamous drug scandal of 1988.

I first heard the term “the Ben Johnson phenomenon” from a Caribbean studies professor during my undergrad.  The phenomenon being that Ben Johnson was considered Canadian only until he messed up. Literally overnight Johnson went from being the pride and joy of Canada (that was at the time newly emerging as one of the great sprint nations) to being a shunned Caribbean immigrant. The news commentary surrounding him went from referring to him as the “Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson” to the “Jamaican born sprinter Ben Johnson” as a means of rejecting and dissociating him from the Canadian people. Why do we feel we have the option to reject citizens we are unhappy with when they are black, brown, or have a foreign accent? A citizen is a Canadian regardless of ethnicity or behaviour.

It is comparable to adopting a child and rejecting them at the first sign of difficulty and attributing the child’s unruly behaviour to the genes he inherited from his biological mother, or in the case of Ben Johnson mother country- Jamaica. That sort of treatment is plain cowardly and unjust. Just as in adoption when we accept people as citizens we vow to take the good with the bad.

This is especially interesting when you compare it to the way the Americans have diffused negative media attention from Carl Lewis and other prominent American athletes who have had positive drug tests. In the face of controversy, the American’s always move to protect the image of the nation and the athlete’s public persona. Canadian’s made no such efforts to protect Johnson. After being lavished with national pride and admiration he was so incredibly quickly left out to dry.

Don’t get me wrong, cheating should never be condoned but I think this example speaks to a lot of the issues we are still working out within our multicultural identity.

Now over 20 years later we still need to check and re-check our ideas of what it means to be Canadian. Canadian’s are not just white people.  Canadian’s are Black, Brown, Yellow and let’s not forget the original Red people. Canadian’s have blonde hair with blue eyes and Afros with skin the colour of midnight.  Canadian food is not just poutine and Tim Hortons, but it’s tandori chicken, Spanish rice, ackee and salt fish, feijoada…need I go on?  It is about time we fully embraced the beauty of the diversity we have been blessed with in this nation. So to speak on behalf of every citizen of colour, every citizen with a foreign accent, every citizen rejected because their ethnicity didn’t fit into someone’s preconceived image of what it means to be Canadian I will misquote a very popular beer add and say, “I too am Canadian”. Thoughts?







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