THE FASTEST MAN
It was just before noon, and the athlete who is billed as the fastest man in the world was immersed in the commercial rituals that have become a way of life for sports celebrities. Standing on a staircase last week in the lobby of the Toshiba of Canada building, 25 km northeast of Toronto, Ben Johnson—the holder of four world track records, including his breathtaking 9.83-second run over 100 m in Rome last August-smiled at company officials while photographers recorded the scene. Then Johnson and Toshiba employees filed past a woman distributing tiny Canadian flags for another photo session in the company parking lot.
Johnson’s appearance was part of an endorsement contract that he has with the Japanese electronics firm. Still, the 26-year-old runner, who is now struggling to adjust to the high-pressure life of a superstar, clearly would rather have been somewhere else. “I am feeling pressured,” complained Johnson, whose sights are set on this fall’s Olympic Games. “I want to concentrate on my training, but there are so many other things to do.”
Stunning: This week, different pressures will prevail as Johnson competes at the three-day Canadian Track and Field Senior Championships in Ottawa. Those trials, beginning on Aug. 5, will determine which athletes will represent Canada at the Summer Games in Seoul from Sept. 17 to Oct. 2. The championships will also signal Johnson’s return to competitive running after a year in which his stunning triumph was followed by worrying setbacks. Propelled to international celebrity status by his performance in Rome, Johnson was forced to stop running last May when he injured a hamstring muscle in his left leg.
Canadian track officials and his fellow competitors alike wondered if Johnson could recover in time for Seoul—and their anxiety was compounded by the feuding that broke out between Johnson and his athletic and financial advisers.
That rift culminated in the sprinter’s threatening in June to break with his coach of more than 11 years, Charles Francis—a rash idea that he subsequently rejected.
Bitter: Johnson’s injury injected suspense into the lengthy and often-bitter competition between him and his U.S. archrival, Carl Lewis. When Johnson runs in the 100-m event at Ottawa’s Terry Fox Athletic Facility on Saturday before an anticipated crowd of more than 6,000, his strongest competitor will likely be the fleet-footed Desai Williams, a personal friend and a fellow member of Toronto’s Mazda Optimist
Track and Field Club. But even though Lewis will not be there, the shadow of the ebullient American will loom over the meet (page 34). Johnson, who has won his past five 100-m races against Lewis, was watching televised coverage last month when Lewis, in a controversial run at the U.S. Olympic trials in Indianapolis, covered 100 m in the amazing time of 9.78 seconds. But because Lewis was given an unfair advantage by strong winds, the time will not stand as a record. Indeed, Johnson claimed to be unimpressed by that feat—and he went on to belittle Lewis’s racing style. In Indianapolis, said Johnson, “his first 40 metres were badlike always.”
For his part, Francis told Maclean's that Johnson has already succeeded in
shaving three one-hundredths of a second off his record-setting pace in Rome. According to Francis, Johnson did that in a practice run three weeks ago. Still, Francis added that Johnson may still be below peak form in Ottawa—because his characteristic explosive start could have been slowed after almost three months without competition. But Francis predicted that Johnson will eventually shatter his own 100-m record. He declared, “Anything is possible.”
Gold: Although Johnson has yet to earn Olympic gold—he won two bronze medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics—his achievements have made him the first Canadian track and field competitor to achieve major international stardom. In an era in which even amateur athletes can grow rich through commercial endorsements, appearance payments and prize money—and still compete as Olympians— knowledgeable observers estimate that Johnson’s annual income exceeds $1 million. Much of that revenue comes from endorsements for companies, including the Italian sportswear firm Diadora, Mazda Motor Corp. and American Express Canada Inc. And if Johnson wins in Seoul, his income could soar to as much as $10 million over the next five years.
Certainly, Johnson’s celebrity and newfound affluence have led to an increasingly heavy agenda of publicity appearances, photo sessions, interviews and business discussions. Last week, as he trained for his appearance in Ottawa, Johnson grew irritable at the increasingly obtrusive presence of several nearby reporters. As he worked out at the York University track and field centre on the northern outskirts of Toronto, journalists, photographers and a crew from Japan’s NHK televison network— which is preparing a pre-Olympic feature on Johnson—prowled beside the track (page 38).
The following day, Johnson went to Toshiba to fulfil part of his one-year contract with the firm—a pact that his Toronto business agent, Glen Calkins, described as being “well into six figures.” Later that day, he met with his tax accountant, and only then was he free to continue his training. “I think the stress is not going to let up until I stop running,” said Johnson. “It’s been a very stressful year.”
Erupted: It was also an eventful one. In Rome, Johnson erupted from the starting block and raced across a distance of 100 m in just 9.83 seconds, subtracting fully 0.10 seconds from the old record, set in Colorado Springs, Colo., by American runner Calvin Smith in 1983. But last February, Johnson experienced a sharp pain in his left leg while running at an indoor meet in Sindelfingen, West Germany. And three months later, he was forced to drop out of a 100-m race in Tokyo when pain surged through his leg again. Francis then decreed that Johnson would not run until August—to give his leg the best possible chance of recovering in time for the Seoul Games.
As Johnson recuperated, Toronto newspaper articles appeared in early May speculating about the state of Johnson’s finances. Those articles also drew attention to the fact that his Williamsburg, Va.-based U.S. business agent, Larry Heidebrecht, had resigned in 1984 as track coach at the University of Texas at El Paso after college officials discovered that he had set up an improper slush fund for his athletes. And Johnson’s increasingly opulent style of living has generated concern among fans and fellow athletes that he might endanger his status as an amateur athlete. For one thing, Johnson is currently having a $750,000, six-bedroom house built north of Toronto. And he is also awaiting delivery of a Ferrari Testarossa sports car later this year— an automobile that costs about $245,000. Indeed, on one occasion last spring, Johnson left a Toronto reception when reporters began asking him about reports that he has not filed a 1987 tax return and that his financial affairs were not in order.
Happy: Those allegations led Johnson’s advisers to hire a firm of tax accountants—the 1987 tax return has since been filed—to help handle his affairs. Under Canadian Track and Field Association rules, amateur athletes have to deposit their earnings in a special fund that they can draw on to cover normal expenses. Insisted Calkins: “Johnson is allowed to draw from the fund to meet his living expenses, and I think he should be entitled to decide how he wants to live. I think the association generally supports that view.” Said Steven Findlay, athletes’ services co-ordinator for the association: “I am quite happy with Ben’s standard of living. I wish we had more athletes who could live the way Ben does.”
Meanwhile, a disagreement in June between Johnson and Francis over which treatment would best help the runner’s injured hamstring boiled into a highly publicized dispute. At one point, Johnson flew to the Caribbean island of St. Kitts for about two weeks to confer with his physician, Mario Astaphan. Reports circulated that Johnson planned to dismiss Francis and Heidebrecht, who he felt were exploiting him. After two weeks of contradictory statements, the runner and his handlers met. Johnson said that he had decided to stay with Francis. The issue, said Calkins, “was really that Ben wanted to have more say in how things were being done— and now he has.”
Strenuous: Still, the eruptions in Johnson’s professional life dwindle to insignificance beside the spectacle of the athlete in action. In street clothes, Johnson—who is five feet, 10 inches tall and weighs 175 lb.—appears unimpressive, even pudgy. But in training for the Ottawa meet, he displayed a body that was heavily muscled from strenuous weightlifting routines. In motion during one practice sprint, Johnson launched his body along the track, driving forward with his arms and legs pumping, his hands cleaving the air.
Part of the key to Johnson’s success is his remarkable speed off the starting block. Electronic sensors have measured Johnson’s reaction time off the block at 0.129 seconds—0.057 seconds faster than Carl Lewis’s. “His legs move faster than other athletes’,” said George Van Zeyl, a Toronto track coach. Added Van Zeyl: “And his feet are on the ground a shorter time. The key to his strength is his nervous system, which allows him to fire his muscles as rapidly as he does.”
The man who was to become the world’s fastest runner began his life amid the easygoing rhythms of rural Jamaica. Born in Falmouth, 29 km east of the resort town of Montego Bay, on Dec. 30,1961, he was the third of six children born to Gloria and Ben Johnson Sr., a technician for the Jamaican telephone company. Now, his fellow Jamaicans remember young Ben as an enthusiastic swimmer and runner who was frequently punished by his protective mother for venturing away from home without
proper supervision. “He would always do what he wanted to do, and we’d beat him for it,” recalled Gloria Johnson, who lives with her son and two of her daughters in Scarborough, Ont., east of Toronto. “He didn’t mind, because he was so determined.” The young Johnson sometimes competed in informal street races in Falmouth for modest cash prizes—and, when he won, he spent the money at the town’s only movie house.
He might never have turned to track and field if his family had not immigrated to Canada. The driving force behind that decision was Gloria Johnson: she wanted her children to get a better education than Falmouth’s combined el-
ementary and junior high school could provide. Leaving the rest of the family behind, she travelled to Toronto in 1972 and found work in a hotel kitchen. Three years later, Ben and three of the other younger children—Edward, Jean and Marcia—arrived to join their mother in a two-bedroom apartment in the Toronto suburb of North York. The two older sisters, Dezreine and Claire, followed later that year. Ben Johnson Sr., also came to Toronto for about six months, but returned alone to Jamaica.
Battered: The turning point in his famous son’s life took place in 1977 when 18-year-old Edward Johnson decided to join the Scarborough Optimist Track Club. Ben, a skinny 14-year-old who idolized his older brother, tagged along to watch—and to run a little himself. That casual emulation brought Johnson to the attention of Francis, a Torontoborn insurance-underwriter-turnedtrack-coach whose protégés include Canadian sprinting stars Desai Williams,
Mark McKoy, Angella Issajenko, Molly Killingbeck and Jillian Richardson. A runner himself—he was Canadian national sprint champion from 1970 to 1973—Francis watched as Johnson made his first few circuits of the track in battered running shoes—and then sat down and complained that he was tired. Recalled Francis: “He was small for his age and so skinny that I thought he was 12, not 14.”
Muscle: Still, Francis saw promise in the undersized runner. And after training with his new coach for only six months, Johnson entered the 1978 Canadian National Indoor Track and Field Championships in Montreal. There, he
placed fourth in the 50-m dash, equalling the Canadian record in his age group. An early proponent of the nowaccepted theory that a runner gains impetus and speed from his arm movements, Francis encouraged Johnson to lift weights. He did so, and two years later the fast-developing Johnson—who had packed on nearly 40 lb. of muscle— came second in the 100-m event in the Canadian men’s championships.
In 1980, Johnson also encountered Lewis for the first time, as both runners competed in the 100-m final at the PanAmerican junior championships in Sudbury, Ont. Lewis easily won that first competition, finishing first, comfortably ahead of Johnson, who came in sixth. But Johnson was determined to match Lewis’s speed—even when his rival was not in a nearby lane. In 1982, running in the 100-m event, he finished second at the 1982 Commonwealth Games. In 1983, he ran 100 m in 10.19 seconds, his fastest time to date. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he won two bronze medals: one for his performance in the 100-m event and another as a member of the 400-m relay team. But Lewis, who collected four gold medals, was still far out in front.
Angered: In 1985, however, Johnson burst from Lewis’s shadow, defeating the U.S. runner in 100-m during a meet in Zurich and again at the world championships in Canberra, Australia. In the following year, Johnson set a world record of 6.50 seconds in a 60-m sprint at Osaka, Japan. Despite that growing list of accomplishments, the authoritative U.S. monthly magazine Track and Field News still listed Lewis as the world’s number 1 sprinter early in 1986. Declared an angered Francis: “If Ben Johnson was American and Carl Lewis wasn’t, who do you think would be number 1?”
Johnson’s performances during the next two years confirmed his claim to first place in a fast field. Setting a torrid pace, the Canadian ran the 100-m at Moscow’s 1986 Goodwill Games in 9.95 seconds— the fastest time ever recorded at sea level—before going on to set a world indoor record in Osaka. Last year, he swept to even greater heights: four indoor
world records and his dazzling victory at Rome’s Olympic Stadium. As he flashed across the finish line in that race, Lewis was a full metre behind the new champion. Johnson told Maclean's, “My body felt good, my knees were coming up at a 60-degree angle, and everything just fell into place.”
But Johnson’s recent injury wrecked a series of eagerly awaited—and potentially lucrative—match races between the two antagonists. Meanwhile, stung
by criticism in the press and bruised by their own well-publicized internal feuding, Johnson and his handlers are trying to put the athlete’s affairs on a more orderly basis. According to Calkins, the increase in Johnson’s earning power after his record-smashing Rome performance was so sudden that “there has been a little bit of delay in getting all of his affairs in order.” In May, he hired the New York-based international accountancy firm of Ernst & Whinney to oversee his financial affairs and, said Calkins, “to look at the best way of handling things for tax-planning purposes.” Added Calkins: “This whole amateur business is not an accurate description of what Ben does. He works as hard at being an athlete as any professional baseball or hockey player.”
Private: The man who is rapidly becoming a remarkable money-generating property remains, above all, a somewhat withdrawn and intensely private person. He has largely overcome the minor speech impediment that he acquired as a boy from imitating his brother Edward’s stutter. But he is at ease only with his closest advisers and friends, including his current girlfriend, Angela Santos, a 22-year-old Torontonian. Although Johnson is acutely shy with strangers, his face lights up when he talks to children. And the fastest man in the world also likes cars that can move quickly. In recent years, he has owned or used two Mazda sports cars and a Chevrolet Corvette and—while he awaits delivery of his Ferrari—he is driving a black Porsche 928 sports car. “I like cars,” said Johnson, who has been known to occasionally exceed speed limits.
Complex: Exceeding speed limits is Johnson’s specialty—and he is taking aim at his own record in the 100m event. With the Seoul Olympics less than two months away, Johnson says that he can move even more swiftly. “How much, I don’t know,” said Johnson. “But I can go faster.” As another confrontation with Lewis approaches, Johnson faces a complex challenge: demonstrating that his powerfully ^ muscled legs can bear 5 the demands of suc3 cess—and propel him z to even greater feats.