Back on track
Nearly 20 years ago, former OSU star Butch Reynolds was accused of doping. The winner of an Olympic gold medal and the holder of a world record spent more than $1 million to clear his name. Today, he's on another mission.
Reynolds, moments away from breaking the 400 meter world record in Zurich, Switzerland, in August 1988. Photo courtesy Butch Reynolds.
Chad Pinnell didn’t realize the stature of his friend Butch Reynolds until they attended the Ohio State-USC football game together in September. As the pair made their way through the concourse at Ohio Stadium, people called out Reynolds’s name from all directions. “It was like walking around with Elvis,” says Pinnell, a partner with Skilken Pinnell HealthCare Real Estate.
It was even more of a mob scene once Reynolds, a former Ohio State track star and world record-holder in the 400 meters, moved upstairs to get to his spot in C Deck. “There were people pushing to get out of their seats out into the aisles—this is about two minutes before kickoff—just to give him a hug,” Pinnell recalls.
Reynolds laughs when asked to recount the moment. “Once a Buckeye, always a Buckeye.”
True, but Pinnell noticed it was more than that as fans strained to shake Reynolds’s hand and ask for autographs. “The funny thing was it wasn’t, ‘Wow, you’re the superstar,’ ” Pinnell says. “ So many people came up and said, ‘Butch, thanks for the inspiration you gave me,’ or ‘Thank you for holding true to your values.’ He put everything on the line to prove he was not guilty. People really respect that he stood up for what he believed in.”
It is impossible to know whether the name Butch Reynolds would still resonate as it does more than two decades after he ran a flawless race in Switzerland if he hadn’t fought so hard to clear his name of subsequent drug allegations.
It will be 20 years ago in August that a random drug test after a race in Monte Carlo deemed that his urine sample contained traces of the banned substance nandrolone, an anabolic steroid. Three months later, he was suspended for two years from the time of the incident, making him ineligible for the 1992 Summer Olympics.
What followed was an exhaustive four-year battle that eventually would reach the U.S. Supreme Court. Along the way, Reynolds would receive an injunction to run in the 1992 Olympic trials, be banned from the Summer Games and receive millions in a defamation suit only to have the judgment vacated in 1994. In all, he endured 11 separate court cases at a cost of $1.2 million in fees. He estimates a loss of at least $5 million in endorsements.
The battle was public, elongated and expensive, but ultimately Reynolds regained his eligibility and good name. He continued racing until 2000. “I lost everything in the process,” he says, “but I’ve come out ahead. I have my health and a great family.”
Reynolds speaks softly while sitting in the living room of the modest two-story home in Hilliard that he shares with his wife of three years, Stephanie, and her children, William, 20, and J’Niah, 10. His two medals from the 1998 Olympic Games in Seoul are kept in a box and brought out only when asked to be seen by a visitor. His days of competitive running are long gone, but he still has goals not unlike those that drive an athlete.
Reynolds’s focus now is on the after-school program his foundation runs in his hometown of Akron, as well as a still-evolving plan with the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department and Columbus public schools on ways to encourage children to eat healthier. “We’ve touched a lot of kids’ lives in Akron, and we’re going to touch lives here,” he says.
His plans for the Butch Reynolds Gold Medal Health Program have yet to receive funding, but he hopes they can be implemented this year. “Everybody likes to win something,” he says. “It doesn’t count calories. It rewards you for how many vegetables you eat. It rewards you for how many fruits you eat a day and taking better care of yourself every day, stretching and doing the things that I know that will help bring better habits, like drinking more water.”
Reynolds also is talking with fellow Akron native and former Ohio State running back Chris “Beanie” Wells of the Arizona Cardinals about using the resources of their foundations to start an after-school program in Columbus. “He’s been a mentor, like a role model for me, someone who’s given back to the community,” Wells says. “He’s really done a lot for Akron.”
Reynolds’s Care for Kids Foundation, formed in 2001, offers after-school programs, summer activity camps and mentoring opportunities to students in the Akron school system. Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic in his February 2008 state of the city address cited Reynolds’s curriculum for helping reduce suspensions by 65 percent at one elementary school. “It’s challenging, but rewarding to touch people’s lives,” Reynolds says, “and get them on the right track and give hope to kids who didn’t have hope and help kids who had that hope achieve their goals.”
There is still a love affair between Akron and Reynolds. He was a torchbearer through the city for the Olympic flame on its way to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Conversely, Reynolds often lends his support in Akron to events, such as being the speaker at the National & Global Youth Service Day banquet or taking part in a Thanksgiving Day run/walk for the homeless.
He also is involved in Central Ohio. In November, he addressed an assembly at Norwich Elementary in Hilliard and encouraged students and parents to continue supporting its Walk to School program. Reynolds and Pinnell have participated in fundraising walks for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. “He gives more than I’ve ever seen anybody give,” Pinnell says. “Most people give and expect to reap rewards for themselves. He truly gives blindly. There’s never any strings attached. It’s a unique quality that few people possess. He has this really deep burning to help children.”
Having lost a grandmother and an uncle to diabetes, Reynolds is driven to combat the disease at an early age. “I said when I retired from the sport of track and field in 2000, one of my initiatives then was to fight childhood obesity,” he says. “In doing so, you really have to tackle what they eat, educate them and make sure they’re knowledgeable about what can happen when they eat.”
The cynic might say he’s out to polish his reputation, which was tainted by the drug charges in August 2000—two years after winning silver in the 400 and running on the gold medal 4 x 400 relay team at the Seoul Olympics. Reynolds says those battles already have been fought and won years ago.
“When your grandfather looks at you and tells you to clear his name, then it becomes like I was going to die trying,” Reynolds says. “When I got that mindset I didn’t care, I was in a whole different zone going through those four years.”
Samuel Reynolds grew up in Alabama and suffered the indignities and prejudices of a black man in the South while trying to provide for his family. His grandfather was “very inspirational,” Butch Reynolds says. “I was also lucky I had lots of uncles, aunts, too, who supported me. I didn’t understand how important the name was until later. Clearing the family name, they were even prouder than me setting a world record or winning a gold medal.”
Harry Lee “Butch” Reynolds was unknown in 1984. Although he reached the semifinals of the Olympic trials that year, nearly 20 countrymen had run faster than his time of 45.47 seconds in the 400 meters that won the national championship while at Butler Community College in Kansas.
Reynolds entered Ohio State the next year under the tutelage of track coach Frank Zubovich and steadily improved until he got the attention of the running world in May 1987 by blazing to a 44.10 at the Jesse Owens Classic in Ohio Stadium. No one had come closer to breaking the 44-second barrier since Lee Evans set the world mark of 43.86 in high altitude during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Some experts figure running in thin air offers less resistance—the equivalent of cutting three-tenths of a second off the 400, meaning the conversion of Reynolds’s race in low-lying Columbus would have put him at a record 43.80.
All of this was heady stuff for Reynolds, a neophyte at big-time competition. He remembers the first time he competed internationally and made the platform as one of the top three finishers. He stood on the second step as the national anthem of the gold medalist was played, then remained at attention when it was over. “I waited for ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ I thought they played the national anthem for all of us,” Reynolds says.
His turn was coming. Running before an enthusiastic crowd in Zurich, Switzerland, in August 1988, Reynolds smashed Evans’s record with a 43.29 showing. The 0.57 second gap between old and new was astonishing—akin to kicking a 75-yard field goal in the NFL. “Did I think I would break the world record? No,” says Reynolds, whose own record was broken by Michael Johnson 11 years later (43.18). “I remember the day before I ran they had a press conference. The meet promoter asked if there were any questions for Butch Reynolds. No one had any for me. I was new on the scene. He said, ‘I’ll tell you what. When he’s through with the race, all of you will have questions then.’ We went to the press conference after the race and there were a lot of questions.”
Reynolds says he was humbled by the experience, just as he would be by unpleasant experiences in the future. “The race itself was one of the best feelings. I was very blessed to have the ability to go through that and I said the same thing about the accusations,” he says. “I’m better as a man, period, because of those different avenues.”
A month after setting the world record, Reynolds was the favorite in the Olympic 400, but he let American teenager Steve Lewis get away from him; he could not make up ground and finished second at 43.93 to Lewis’s 43.87.
As perhaps a bit of foreshadowing, during the Olympics, 10 athletes, including Canadian 100-meter champion Ben Johnson, were disqualified for their use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. Reynolds was not among them.
Nearly two years later, following a race in Monte Carlo in which he finished third (44.91), he was one of 10 athletes in the meet chosen randomly for testing. The sports’ governing body—the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF)—announced that Reynolds’s results were positive and banned him without a hearing. Reynolds vehemently denied the allegations and gained support when his lawyers presented documents that they claimed showed the process was tainted.
To ensure anonymity, each of the 10 samples was labeled H1 to H10 and put into containers marked A and B with the latter being used only if A was positive. Reynolds’s containers were assigned H5A and H5B and sent to Paris along with the rest for testing. Reynolds’s backers produced documents showing that only H6 A and B had been circled as positive.
Yet, the lab director said in an arbitration hearing in May 1992 that he remembered nearly two years earlier a technician telling him that the positive samples were in the H5 containers. According to a Sports Illustrated article (June 8, 1992), when asked of the discrepancy, the lab director replied, “I am unlucky with circles that day.” Despite the evidence, the IAAF ruled against Reynolds, who had won in arbitration 11 months earlier with the United States Olympic Committee.
Several injunctions from a Columbus federal district court later, and after the IAAF refused to rescind its suspension, Reynolds’s case went to the Supreme Court on June 20, 1992. He asked for the chance to compete in the Olympic trials. The 400-meter heats were postponed four days until a verdict was rendered.
Justice John Paul Stevens ruled that Reynolds had been denied due process and could run, and the full court affirmed the decision. Reynolds finished fifth in the trials and did not make the 400 team, but his placing did qualify him as an alternate on the 4 x 400 relay. However, the IAAF upheld its two-year suspension from 1990, and Reynolds was not allowed to compete in the Olympics.
In December 1993, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Kinneary in Columbus ordered the IAAF to pay Reynolds $27.3 million in damages because it “purposefully avoided the truth” in responding to Reynolds’s charges.
The London-based IAAF argued the case had no merit outside Ohio, and in 1994 won an appeal to nullify the judgment and Reynolds received nothing from the organization. However, Reynolds did get satisfaction at the 1993 world championships when he helped the U.S. to victory in the 4 x 400 relay. He received a gold medal from IAAF president Primo Nebiolo, who personally fought Reynolds’s reinstatement. He also got something else—a kiss on both cheeks.
Reynolds was touched by the gesture. “I didn’t have to run after 1992,” he says. “I chose to run to make them apologize, make them award me my medal. I have a picture to prove that. To me, that was very important. It closed that chapter.” (He made the 1996 Olympic team by finishing second in the 400 trials, but hurt his hamstring in a semifinal race at the Atlanta Games and did not finish.)
Reynolds says he feels vindicated because of the botched handling of the samples and plans to retell his side soon in a book, which he hopes will help make up for a small fraction of the income lost over the years. “I will get really detailed in the whole case, and people can make their own conclusion how I was railroaded,” he says.
While his charitable activities are Reynolds’s passion these days, those pursuits don’t pay the bills. To earn an income, he runs the World Class Speed Program at the SuperKick training facility in Delaware County, putting his international track experience to use. “My foundation is nonprofit,” he says. “This is my profit.”
He also teams with ex-OSU and 11-year NFL safety William White to teach speed and agility through the Traq 3D fitness and development center of Powell. “Our programs are a perfect match,” Reynolds says. “It’s for everyone from elementary school all the way to the NFL, NBA. We’re developing a foundation for the athletes.” He adds, “I think speed can be taught if you know exactly the technique, form and breathing and taking care of your body.”
It is the latest stop for Reynolds, who was the full-time assistant strength and condition coach for Ohio State from 2005 until resigning in early 2008 because of time commitments. Prior to that, Reynolds taught speed training and fitness to high school athletes, such as Wells, in the Akron area.
Reynolds says he is optimistic he will return soon to Ohio State, where he earned an education degree in 1991, to assist athletes in all sports. “Butch did a wonderful job working with our guys on increasing their speed in the time he was here,” Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel says. “I’m sure he enjoyed doing it, but he had some other things going on as well.”
Reynolds moved from Akron to Columbus when he joined OSU, but still devoted many hours to his foundation back home. “It was hard leaving coach Tressel’s staff,” he says. “I knew there were other things that I could embark on. It takes time to get things going, but I’m moving in that direction.”
After Ohio State, he joined the D1 Sports Training Center on St. Rt. 23 north of I-270 as the strength and speed coach. Reynolds left shortly after the opening last year to become a personal trainer at SuperKick, where he says the more relaxed atmosphere was a better fit for him.
Today, Reynolds says he is in a good place. He had to sell his cars and mortgage his mother’s house to fund his legal fight years ago, but he says now, “I’m ahead. I’m on solid ground.” At 46, a decade since he hung up his cleats, Reynolds is still trim and fit (and contemplating trying a half marathon this fall). And, most importantly, he’s not bitter. “Sometimes my wife doesn’t understand where that contentment comes from,” he says. “It’s being secure in knowing who you are.”
Craig Merz is a freelance writer.