In less time than it takes to lace a pair of track shoes, his life changed forever. In 9.83 seconds, on the afternoon of Aug. 30, 1987, Benjamin Sinclair Johnson Jr., 26, ceased to be, in his own description, “just Ben.” From the moment that the Canadian broke the tape at the World Track and Field Championships in Rome—completing the 100m dash one-tenth of a second faster than any man had run the distance before—Ben Johnson was no longer just another athlete. He was not even simply Canada’s best hope for a gold medal at the Seoul Summer Olympics. Ben Johnson was the world’s fastest human.
On the track, he was the master of the clock. Away from it, time was no longer his own. An intensely private life was suddenly very public. As Johnson prepared for the Games, he re-
flected wryly on the past year. “I didn’t know what it was going to be like,” he said. “Now I’m successful and I’m paying for it.”
For Johnson, success is measured in tenths and hundredths of seconds—and in millions of dollars. The champion went on from his 100-m run in Rome to lower the record for the 50yard dash by 0.07 seconds in back-to-back races in Hamilton and Toronto in January, setting the new mark at 5.15 seconds. Before he set the record, his income was already $350,000 a year, earned endorsing Timex watches in Canada and Mazda automobiles in Japan. After Rome, his earnings approached the $2-million level, as companies—from Italy’s Diadora sportswear-maker to Finland’s Valió Dairy and Toshiba of Canada—lined up to link their names with his, and race sponsors paid him $25,000 to compete.
Johnson has paid for that success in hours of photo sessions, days of handshakes and forced smiles, and months of disturbing newspaper headlines. With wealth and fame have come public scrutiny of his every move and motive. Indeed, the run in Rome itself became embroiled in controversy when the man who came second, American Carl Lewis, hinted that Johnson’s speed was improved by drugs. Postrace tests disproved the allegation, but other problems were more difficult to dismiss. For months, an injured hamstring in his left thigh kept Johnson out of competition, but he was seldom out of the headlines.
When he bought a Ferrari, critics sniped at his spending. And when his coach and physician disagreed over treatment of the injury, their debate was chronicled in the media.
The low point came last June. Lying on the front lawn of his Scarborough, Ont., home on the last Friday afternoon of the I month, Johnson turned up the 5 volume of a portable radio to drown out the incessant ringing
of the telephone inside the house. The calls had been coming in all day from reporters wanting to know Johnson’s side of the disagreement with his coach of 11 years, Charlie Francis. Almost mournfully, Johnson said, “I didn’t want it to be this way.”
Little in Johnson’s background prepared him for the fame, the wealth and the notoriety his unique talent generates. Johnson was born on Dec. 30, 1961, in Falmouth, on the north coast of Jamaica, 29 km east of the resort town of Montego Bay—the fifth of Gloria and Benjamin Johnson Sr.’s six children. By local standards they lived well. Johnson Sr. had a steady job as a technician for the Jamaican telephone company. The family’s home, with its backyard vegetable garden, was one of the better ones in the town of about 9,000. The warm Caribbean was nearby, and Ben Jr. snuck away to the sea often, against his parent’s permission. “We’d take off all our clothes and swim naked all day,” he recalled. “We couldn’t get our clothes all wet up or everyone would know what we’d been doing.
Even in dry clothes, my parents could tell if I’d been swimming, because they could see the sea salt drying white against my black skin and I would get a beating.”
But even then, he loved to race. Said his mother,
Gloria: “He would never walk when he could run. I would turn my head for a moment, and he would be far in the distance.”
His heroes were sprinters Donald Quarrie of Jamaica and Hasely Crawford of Trinidad, but when neighbors organized street races for pocket change, Johnson—running barefootlost more often than he won. Three times he failed to make the local Trelawny track team.
Johnson was 11 in 1972 when his mother emigrated to Canada in search of a better future for the family. In Toronto, Gloria Johnson spent two anxious years alone, working in a hotel cafeteria before her husband joined her. The reunion was brief—Johnson Sr. soon returned to the children and his telephone company job in Jamaica. It was two more years before young Ben arrived in Toronto, but in time to watch Quarrie and Crawford on television at the Montreal Summer Olympics.
In Toronto, his brother Edward joined the Optimist Track Club where Charlie Francis—a former Canadian Olympic
sprinter—coached. The following summer, thinking that track would be a good way to occupy his little brother during the school break, Edward brought Ben to the club in north Toronto. On his first day, Johnson—then 15 and weighing just 93 lb.—stopped to rest after running halfway around the track. He told Francis: “Gotta rest mon, legs too weak.”
Ten years later, Francis’s regimen had turned his legs into pistons 24 inches around at the thigh and 17 inches at the calf. He weighed 175 lb. when he settled into the starting blocks in Rome. His mind and remarkable body were exquisitely tuned to the moment. But he was not ready for what was to follow.
The first controversy arose within mo-
ments of the record-breaking run. Johnson had finished a full metre ahead of second-place Carl Lewis—winner of four gold medals at the 1984 Games, including the 100 m in which Johnson won the bronze. The result left Lewis visibly shaken. After the race, he approached Johnson and shook his hand. But he also accused the winner of jumping the gun. In fact, the official timing device recorded that Johnson started 0.129 seconds after the starter’s gun fired—barely nine one-thousandths of a second more than the legal limit of 0.120 seconds. Johnson’s oft-measured response has forced medical researchers to rethink theories about how fast nerves transmit brain signals. Said Dr. Douglas Clement of the University of British Columbia sport medicine clinic: “Johnson is reacting faster than we think humans can react. He is almost superhuman.”
Just days after their encounter in
Rome, Lewis renewed his attack—suggesting that Johnson’s performance was indeed superhuman. Lewis charged that a number of gold medallists at the Rome world championships were using drugs, principally steroids. The synthetic male hormones enable users to build muscles more quickly by shortening the recovery time required between workouts. But side effects—including kidney damage, bouts of paranoia and violent impulses— have led to their being banned in the Olympics and amateur sports competitions around the world. Johnson—who according to Optimist Track Club founder Ross Earl, “is probably the most tested athlete in the history of the sport” and has never shown any evi-
dence of drug use—interpreted Lewis’s remarks as a reference to himself.
The increasingly charged rivalry flared again two weeks later. At a meet in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sept. 15, Johnson chose not to run in events involving Lewis. Johnson explained that his training program had been geared to have him peak in Rome. But Lewis charged that Johnson was avoiding him.
And Johnson could not avoid public scrutiny. Last October, on his return from a track meet in Tokyo, Johnson was stopped at customs at the Vancouver International Airport and billed $1,900 in import duties on undeclared items, including a pair of Japanese samurai swords. The incident was immediately reported, and it fuelled rumors that Johnson’s spending bordered on the extravagant. Canadian Track and Field Association rules require that nominally amateur athletes deposit their earnings
in a trust fund, withdrawing money to cover living expenses. In Johnson’s case, however, those expenses have included construction of a $750,000 six-bedroom home north of Toronto and an order for a $245,000 Ferrari Testarossa sports car. But, said Steven Findlay, athletes’ sévices co-ordinator for the Canadian Track and Field Association: “I am quite happy with Ben’s standard of living. I wish we had more athletes who could live the way Ben does.”
Not even his newfound wealth, however, could ease the agony of Johnson’s next setback. On Feb. 5, in Sindelfingen, West Germany, Johnson erupted from the blocks in what he expected would be an easy 60-m run. But halfway through the race, he felt a pain in his left leg and stopped. An examination revealed a strained tendon. On May 13 in Tokyo, he pulled up again.
Johnson’s injuries triggered more unfavorable publicity as Johnson, his Virginia-based business agent Larry Heidebrecht, coach Francis and personal physician Dr.
James Astaphan publically, and heatedly, debated how the injury should be treated. When Johnson, unable to compete, used the time to fulfil his contracts with sponsors, Francis expressed his concern that Johnson was not giving enough attention to rehabilitating his leg.
Relations between the two men appeared to worsen in May when Johnson travelled to the Caribbean island of St.
Kitts to receive treatment for his injury from Astaphan. In Spain with the Canadian track team, Francis told reporters that he thought Johnson should join the team and receive treatment from physiotherapist Waldemar Matuszewski. Johnson disagreed: “It didn’t make sense to me to be running all over Europe living out of a suitcase. I needed a break. I was actually happy to get hurt.”
By the end of May, Francis was in Malaga, Spain, demanding that his star athlete follow his program for recovery. Agent Heidebrecht was also in Spain, in Seville, negotiating with meet promoters to keep some dates open should Johnson recover quickly. And in St. Kitts, Astaphan told reporters, “It would be track suicide for Ben to compete in June.”
Johnson, meanwhile, was complaining that Francis had shown little interest in his rehabilitation. Said Johnson: “As long as I was running and making money, those guys were fine. Since I got hurt, no one cared. No one called from Europe to even ask how I was doing.” Then, on June 24, The Toronto Sun reported that Johnson would no longer work with Francis. The report proved to be premature. A reconciliation orchestrated by Ross Earl, a longtime friend of both Johnson and Francis, appears to
have succeeded. But Johnson has made it plain to his entourage that he wants no more public bickering. Said Johnson’s Toronto-based business agent, Glen Calkins: “He basically just said, ‘Enough.’ Everybody got a little bit of a shakeup. I don’t think there will be any lasting damage to Ben.” Added Calkins: “Ben sent out a signal to the people who work for him to say, T don’t just want to be carted off, fly 10 hours here and 15 hours there. I want to have more say about what’s going on.’ ”
Despite the new harmony in the Johnson camp, the winter’s injuries, compounded by the loss of training time, have cast doubt over Ben’s ability to live up to his title of the world’s fastest hu-
man in Seoul. No one would be happier to see that title fall than Lewis. Indeed, his joy was obvious when he defeated Johnson—for the first time since 1986in a lucrative pre-Games race in Zurich in August. The antagonism between the two runs deep. When Lewis continued to claim to be the faster man after Johnson beat him in Switzerland in 1985, Johnson made no secret of his resentment. At the 1986 Moscow Goodwill Games, Lewis promised Johnson he would “kick his ass.” But Johnson eloquently responded with the fastest 100-m ever run at sea level, 9.95 seconds. Then in 1987, in Seville, they ran to a photo finish that Lewis was sure he had won. While he acknowledged the crowd’s applause, Johnson was declared the winner and the pair almost came to blows.
And this summer’s events did little to ease the pre-Games tension. Indeed, when Lewis ran the 100-m in 9.78 seconds—0.05 seconds faster than Johnson’s recordat the U.S. trials in July, Johnson was unimpressed. Lewis’s time was not a record because of a 5.2 m-per-second following wind, well above the allowable limit of 2.1 m per second. Johnson dismissed Lewis’s time as “slow. With a legal wind, Carl would have run a 10.05. It was a typical race.” But their race in Zurich was not. Johnson, after being charged with a false start, did not have his customary explosive start. Unlike the race in Rome where he burst— and stayed —ahead of Lewis, in Zurich he was barely in front after the gun, and Lewis, gaining steadily, beat him by 0.07 seconds. Johnson hopes for a better start in Seoul.
And he is keenly aware that however fast he ran in Rome, and however quickly he runs in Seoul, someone will some day break his record. Olympic gold, on the other hand, endures. “The gold medal is something people remember,” Johnson said. “It is something no one can ever take away from you.” His days of being “just Ben” may be over, and his status as the world’s fastest man may be fleeting, but in less than 10 seconds in Seoul, Johnson hopes to secure a place in sports history that neither Carl Lewis nor the clock can ever eclipse.
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