COVER

THE STEROID SCANDAL

TESTIMONY ABOUT BEN JOHNSON’S USE OF BANNED DRUGS STUNNED THE SPORTS WORLD

RIC DOLPHIN March 13 1989
COVER

THE STEROID SCANDAL

TESTIMONY ABOUT BEN JOHNSON’S USE OF BANNED DRUGS STUNNED THE SPORTS WORLD

RIC DOLPHIN March 13 1989

The central figure in the drama that unfolded in a Toronto hearing room last week was a man who was not even present—Ben Johnson, the Canadian track star who was disqualified at last September’s Olympic Games after traces of banned anabolic steroids were found in his urine. Testifying for three days before a federally appointed inquiry, track-and-field coach Charlie Francis said that he first encouraged Johnson to use steroids in 1981 and that, as far as he knew, Johnson had regularly used them up to the time of last summer’s Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. As well, Francis said that 12 other leading Canadian runners who trained under him used the synthetic hormones. Then, he went on to paint a stunning picture of widespread—and steadily increasing—drug abuse by athletes around the world.

Francis claimed that in using steroids, the Canadian athletes were merely following the example of many top-ranking international track-and-field stars. He declared that as many as 80 per cent of the world’s leading athletes may be using steroids to improve their athletic performance. “There are people who stand up there and claim, ‘Oh, I did it clean, I just worked hard,’ ” declared Francis. “It just isn’t true.”

Shock: Francis’s testimony before the inquiry under Mr. Justice Charles Dubin of the Ontario Supreme Court sent shock waves through the Canadian and international athletic communities and triggered intense debate about whether his estimate of the extent of steroid use among athletes was wildly exaggerated—or chillingly accurate. At the same time, his statements before the commission contradicted Johnson’s own insistence after the Olympics that he never “knowingly” used steroids. Johnson, who refused to comment on Francis’s statements last week, is expected to testify later this month. At the same time, Francis’s meticulously detailed account of how and why his athletes turned to steroids aroused serious concerns about the role that the Canadian Track and Field Association (CTFA) and Sport Canada—the federal department that funds Canadian athletes—may have had in tacitly accepting the use of steroids.

The 12 hours of testimony by the 40-year-old Francis amounted to a far-ranging indictment of the Canadian and international sporting establishment. While his fiancée, Angela Coon, a 21-year-old university student and hurdler, watched, Francis told the inquiry that American and European athletic teams had been systematically using steroids since the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. He also claimed that a program of voluntary steroid testing set up by the U.S. Olympic Committee in late 1983 was actually designed to help American athletes escape detection by drug tests at international competitions. As well, Francis said that the Soviets provide a similar checking system for their athletes. He established his own credentials as an expert on steroids by admitting that he used them himself in 1973—he was a top Canadian sprinter during the 1960s and 1970s—and again as a coach in 1986 to study any side effects.

Sex: Francis also revealed that a roster of leading Canadian track stars who trained under him at Toronto’s Mazda Optimist Track Club at various times used anabolic steroids—a family of male sex hormones that encourage muscle growth but that are suspected of having dangerous side effects (page 40). Among the athletes he named were Johnson’s fellow sprinters Angella Issajenko, Desai Williams and Tony Sharpe, and hurdler Mark McKoy. As well, Francis—without saying so specifically—appeared to accuse American track star Florence Griffith-Joyner of steroid use. He implied that “Flo-Jo”—who announced her retirement from sports three days before he took the stand—could not have set a world record in the 100-m women’s event at Seoul without steroids. His allegation sparked a sharp denial in Los Angeles by Griffith-Joyner’s agent, Gordon Baskin, who insisted that she “has never and will never use steroids.”

Francis’s accusations before a packed hearing room in a downtown Toronto office building also drew a strong response from the international athletic community. Some athletes and officials said that Francis had exposed a reality that had been concealed for too long. In Lausanne, Switzerland, Michele Verbier, an official with the International Olympic Committee, said that she was relieved that the conspiracy of silence had been broken. She added, “These revelations make it obvious we must tighten the screws ever harder against abuses.” Said Sir Arthur Gold, chairman of the British Olympic Association, about Francis’s revelations: “I may be shocked and saddened. But surprised? No. It tends to confirm what we all suspect.”

Jail: Others reacted angrily and suggested that Francis was attempting to excuse his decision to encourage the use of steroids by accusing others of doing the same thing. In the United States, track coach and former Olympic athlete Pat Connolly said that “it has always been the case that those using drugs have said that everybody else is doing it.” For her part, U.S. Olympic sprinter Evelyn Ashford said that she hoped Francis’s revelations would lead to a campaign against steroids in the sports world. “It’s like a purge,” Ashford said. “Charlie and his group, and people who think like him, are a cancer. Charlie Francis should be sent to jail.” The sensational testimony emerged in the third month of the Dubin inquiry, which federal Sports Minister Jean Charest commissioned last October to investigate the use of drugs by Canadian athletes. It grew out of Johnson’s disgrace in Seoul where, after he set a world record by running 100 m in 9.79 seconds, he was forced to relinquish his gold medal after traces of anabolic steroid were found in his urine. Because his amazing performance had enthralled millions of sports fans around the world, those same fans reacted to his humiliation only 62 hours later with a profound and personal sense of shock and disappointment.

In his testimony, Francis defended the decision to have Johnson use steroids. He said that in 1981, the sprinter was “on the threshold of breaking into international prominence.” He added that “it’s pretty clear that steroids are worth approximately a metre at the highest levels of sport.” Johnson, said Francis, had to decide in effect whether to start one metre behind his competitors—“an unacceptable situation for a top-level athlete.”

In his three days on the stand, Francis told what would have been an inspiring story of struggle and achievement, except for the steroid use. With his weight lifter’s body draped in well-cut suits, he appeared at ease as he told how he turned a ragtag band of West Indian-born youngsters—including Issajenko, Williams and Johnson—into an elite group of Olympic medallists. Francis described the transformation of skinny, 15-year-old Ben Johnson—who began training with him in 1977—into the powerfully muscled, 175-lb. athlete who established the present world record of 9.83 seconds—his Olympic time was disallowed—in the 100-m event at Rome in August, 1987.

Francis began coaching in 1976 on a part-time basis. Unsalaried until 1981, he said that when he quit his job as an insurance underwriter in 1978 to coach full time, he had to move into his parents’ home and sell his Aston Martin sports car as economy measures. In the early days, his team of about 30 athletes practised on high-school tracks. But by the early 1980s, with 11 of his runners officially recognized, or “carded,” by the CTFA, they moved to the new track-and-field centre at Toronto’s York University. It was around then, he said, that he introduced several of his top athletes to anabolic steroids.

Decision: Francis provided an explanation of the reasons behind his decision. It was partly based on his own experience with steroids. In preparation for the 1973 CTFA Championships in Sherbrooke, Que., he said, he took the anabolic steroid Dianabol. Francis said that it built up his muscles, buoyed his confidence and improved his performance (he won the 100-m event). “Physically,” he testified, “I felt much better leading into that championship.”

Francis also told the inquiry that during his days as a runner, other athletes told him that up to 80 per cent of the top track stars used steroids. He also claimed that before the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, the U.S. Olympic Committee held a training camp at which the use of steroids was encouraged. Later, as a coach talking to other national coaches who gave their runners steroids, he said that he concluded that steroids were largely responsible for significant improvements in world track-and-field records. “I couldn’t find a single case where it appeared that performance-enhancing drugs were not being used,” he said.

At one point, Francis displayed a graph of the women’s 100-m world records between 1948 and 1988 and pointed to the world record of 10.49 seconds set last year by Griffith-Joyner—more than one-quarter of a second faster than the record 10.76 seconds in 1984. Without naming her, Francis questioned how, without the help of steroids, there could have been such dramatic improvement after decades of more gradual gains. “This girl would have beaten the great Jesse Owens by four feet,” said Francis—a reference to the American sprinter of the 1930s.

Dose: Francis told the inquiry that any medical concerns he had about allowing his athletes to use steroids were largely allayed by Douglas Clement, then CTFA medical director. He said that in 1979, Clement told a meeting of Canadian coaches that although he was ethically opposed to the use of steroids, he could not object to their use on medical grounds. “He emphasized,” Francis recalled, “that small, regulated doses would in fact be less dangerous than corticosteroids, cortisones and other things that are in fact legal and are used routinely in the treatment of injuries.”

Claiming that Canadian athletes were already handicapped by insufficient funding and a lack of adequate training facilities, Francis said that he decided in 1979 to recommend the drug to his athletes. Issajenko (then Angella Taylor) was the first of his athletes to use steroids, he testified, followed in 1981 by Williams, Sharpe and Johnson. He also named sprinters Molly Killingbeck, Mike Sokolowski and Cheryl Thibedeau, long-jumper Tracy Smith and hurdler Mark McKoy as using steroids at various times during the 1980s. Francis said that in 1986, he resumed using steroids himself to see if there were any ill effects. He said that there were not, and that his weight-lifting abilities improved dramatically.

When Johnson first began using steroids, said Francis, he was 20 and “a very promising young sprinter” but lacked strength and endurance—and the coach concluded that steroids would help. Questioned by commission counsel Robert Armstrong about Johnson’s knowledge of anabolic steroids, Francis said that “he knew they were banned and they were performance-enhancing substances that would promote muscle growth.”

Medals: The effects of the Canadians’ steroid use may have first been evident at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, where Johnson placed third in the 100-m event behind his first-place American rival, Carl Lewis. Issajenko, Killingbeck, Williams and Sharpe also won medals. Francis said that the athletes received Dianabol from former Canadian shot-put champion Bishop Dolegiewicz, a longtime friend of Francis’s. Later, the team changed to the injectable steroid Furazabol, which Francis said was recommended and supplied by Toronto doctor George Mario (Jamie) Astaphan. Astaphan, who now lives on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, has denied that he supplied athletes with steroids.

Francis also said that athletes attempted to defeat drug tests by only using steroids for six-week periods at the start of their training cycles. He said that the aim was to ensure that all traces of the drug would disappear from their bodies by the time the athletes competed. “By using drugs further away from competition,” said Francis, “there was less likelihood the athletes would test positive.” The strategy apparently worked most of the time. No traces of steroids were discovered when Johnson was tested following his record-shattering victory at the 1987 World Track and Field Championships in Rome.

Test: But Francis’s testimony did not explain Johnson’s failure to pass the all-important drug test in Seoul last September. He said that as far as he knew, Johnson, during the months leading up to the Seoul Olympics, had used the steroid Furazabol—not stanazolol, the steroid that testers detected in his urine. Still, Francis also told the inquiry that although Johnson normally used Furazabol, he often carried a bottle of stanazolol with him, despite an earlier experience with the drug that resulted in a stiffening of his muscles. A clearer explanation may emerge in the weeks ahead, as Johnson and an estimated 30 more track-and-field athletes, coaches and officials from athletic organizations appear before the inquiry. After that, Dubin, an avid tennis player and sports fan, will begin writing a final report that will recommend steps to eliminate drug use among Canadian athletes.

Meanwhile, Francis’s testimony led to demands for new and tougher tests to detect steroids and other banned substances used to enhance athletic performances. For his part, Glenn Di Georgio, a Nanaimo, B.C., school principal who is a Canadian national javelin, discus and shot-put coach, argued that “there is going to have to be worldwide random spot testing and the acceptance of performances only from meets where wide-spectrum urinalysis is conducted.” Even so, Di Georgio expressed concern that steroid use will never be completely eliminated. “All you can do is police it more effectively,” he said.

Still, many observers have said that North American athletic bodies might usefully follow the example of Soviet sports officials, who say that they are trying to counter steroid use by means of educational programs. In Moscow, Vitaly Seminov, director of the antidoping centre for the Soviet Union’s Central Research Institute of Sport Medicine, claimed that only a small percentage of Soviet athletes use steroids and that the government is attempting to discourage those who do. He said that his organization conducts a drug-education program that emphasizes the possible long-term effects of steroid use, including infertility and liver damage. Seminov also denied a claim by Francis that ships equipped with drug-testing equipment accompanied Soviet athletes to major competitions to help them avoid being caught by steroid tests. According to Seminov, Soviet drug-testing facilities were used for the opposite purpose—to ensure that Soviet athletes going into competition had not been using steroids. He added, “No athlete could leave for Seoul if he tested positive.”

Francis’s revelations raised the possibility that the process by which Canadian athletes are selected and subsidized during training may actually encourage steroid use. Under the carding system, only those Canadian athletes who attain international ranking in their sport can expect to be named to Canadian national teams and receive a monthly stipend (averaging about $650) from Sport Canada.

Top: John Bole, president of the Alberta Track and Field Association, said that the system encourages athletes to use steroids in order to compete internationally. He said that many dedicated athletes who refuse to use steroids or other chemicals probably “will never make the top 20 in the world. They do not use steroids and they likely will never be carded for government funding.” Added Di Georgio: “Our problem is that we are measured against the rest of the world. We know that they are dirty, but there is nothing we can do about it. In a roundabout way, Sport Canada is condoning the practice [of steroid use] because they say you either measure up or we’re not going to give you assistance.”

For his part, Andrzej Kulesza, the Montreal-based coach of the Canadian national weight-lifting team, said that the whole philosophy of sports in Canada must change. “It’s a matter of approach,” he said. “We are very ambitious people in Canada. We want to catch up to the rest of the world and we are taking shortcuts”—in the form of steroids. He added that Francis’s estimate of steroid use in international athletics is probably exaggerated. In Eastern Europe, he said, sports have a much higher profile than in Canada. “They have more trainers who are better educated, and a much different structure. Sure, drugs can still play a role there, but they don’t need to play as much of a role, because of the other factors that are in place.” He declared: “If we want to be good, we have to start in the schools—and sports programs are relatively weak there. More attention should be given to young, talented students who want to go on.”

Ethics: To others, last week’s testimony underlined a basic flaw in the world of international sports that encourages adulation and financial rewards for a few stars, such as Ben Johnson, while obscuring the traditional motives of amateur sport. Said Ron Bowker, the Victoria, B.C., coach of Canada’s Olympic women’s distance runners: “I abhor the thought that you have to play the game dirty to have a chance at a medal. What is coming out of this inquiry is a look at the values that we have all attached to sport—that winning is everything. We’ve got to rewrite the ethic of why we’re in sport and what we want to achieve with it.” For his part, Dubin said that “in the end, our objective is to protect and advance the interests of our Canadian athletes” and enable them to “compete in the future both nationally and internationally.”

But for now, Charlie Francis’s rivetting testimony and wide-ranging allegations have ripped the curtains away from a dark scandal that the international sports community will now have to come to grips with.