BOOKS

Running on empty

VICTOR DWYER December 17 1990
BOOKS

Running on empty

VICTOR DWYER December 17 1990

Running on empty

A sprinter revisits the steroids scandal

RUNNING RISKS

By Angella Issajenko as told to Martin O’Malley and Karen O’Reilly (Macmillan, 235 pages, $24.95)

In her quest to become one of Canada's top athletes, Angella Issajenko devoted much of the 1980s to setting records. Now, the former sprinter, nicknamed "Cayenne Pep per" by her friends for her short temper and quick tongue, has directed her energy at set ting the record straight. For a decade, Issa jenko trained with Ben Johnson, who lost his gold medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, after officials found traces of steroids in his urine. Now, in Running Risks, Issajenko has written a frank and fiery account of Johnson's-and her own-self-destructive race to the heights of amateur sport.

Issajenko remained quiet in the first two weeks after Johnson’s disgrace at Seoul. But, she writes, she decided to break her silence after Johnson claimed on national television that he had “never knowingly” taken banned drugs. The implication, according to Issajenko, was that the Canadian team’s coach, Charlie Francis, had surreptitiously slipped his runners anabolic steroids. “I blew,” says Issajenko, who contends that she and several of Team Canada’s track-and-field athletes had been taking the drugs for years. Recalls Issajenko: “I decided the lying had to stop.” At first, she spoke to reporters. Then, she achieved notoriety for her blunt testimony at the 1989 Dubin Inquiry into the use of drugs in amateur sport.

In Running Risks, Issajenko makes those earlier revelations look like mere pregame warm-ups for an all-out assault both on Johnson and on several amateur sporting organizations. She describes Johnson as arrogant, lazy, selfish—and cunning. Still incensed by his feigned innocence, Issajenko angrily speculates that he “consciously decided to project himself as an idiot” in order to place the blame on others.

With equal ferocity, she lashes out at the regulatory Sport Medicine Council of Canada as a body determined to ignore the pervasiveness of steroids. And the candid Issajenko is just as harsh on herself. Citing the “enormous pressure” she felt to win, she refuses to apologize for her own—or any athlete’s—use of drugs. But neither does she pretend that her newfound honesty will make her a hero. The result is a provocative but never proselytizing account by an athlete coming clean.

VICTOR DWYER