SPORTS

Return from exile

Ben Johnson prepares to compete again

JAMES DEACON January 14 1991
SPORTS

Return from exile

Ben Johnson prepares to compete again

JAMES DEACON January 14 1991

Return from exile

SPORTS

Ben Johnson prepares to compete again

For two lonely years, sprinter Ben Johnson has battled to make a comeback from humiliation. After tests detected the presence of steroids in his body at the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, the International Olympic Committee stripped the Canadian athlete of the gold medal he won by running the 100-m event in a record 9.79 seconds. The International Amateur Athletics Federation (IMF) also banned him from international competition for two years. Despite his exile from competition, Johnson resumed training in January, 1989, appearing

regularly at a track-and-field centre on the northern outskirts of Toronto where he doggedly sought to regain strength and speed without relying on performance-enhancing drugs. Barring any last-minute change of plan, Johnson will return to competition this Friday at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, where he and four competitors will race over 50 m. With the firing of the starter’s pistol, Johnson, 29, is expected to explode once again from his starting blocks and, in about six heart-pounding seconds, the world could learn whether Johnson might still be the fastest man alive.

The brief span of time will be of critical importance to Johnson, and to the sports promoters who hope to capitalize on his return to

competition. Track-and-field experts said that Johnson must perform well to impress potential sponsors and track promoters, who pay high appearance fees to attract international stars. Still, Johnson has already been signed for future appearances that include the Jan. 18 Sunkist Invitational track meet in Los Angeles, where he will reportedly receive $35,000. Alvin Franken, chairman of the Los Angeles meet, told Maclean ’s that Johnson’s fee “is the biggest money we have ever paid any athlete, but I think it is worth it.” On Feb. 11, Johnson is scheduled to run in a meet in Osaka, Japan,

where he may receive as much as $115,000.

Money is not the only issue. Johnson has declared that he is determined to some day beat his archrival, Carl Lewis. Lewis, a U.S. sprinter who will not be running in Hamilton on Jan. 11, was awarded the 100-m gold medal in Seoul after Johnson was disqualified. Beyond that goal, Johnson’s Toronto-based lawyer, Edward Futerman, said, his client is driven by a “desire to prove once again that he can be the best in the world.”

Still, Johnson’s planned re-entry into competition attracted worldwide interest, with reporters from more than 20 countries, including Canada, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, requesting accredi-

tation to the meet. As well, television companies from Japan, the U.S. and Canada, including The Sports Network and New York City-based NBC, arranged to cover the event. In Canada, the CTV network planned to provide live coverage of the meet, which is scheduled to begin at about 10 p.m. EDT. According to some reports, Johnson will receive $10,000 for his appearance in Hamilton. Meet chairman Donald Bowman declined to disclose Johnson’s fee. But he said that he was able to keep it within the meet’s budget because Johnson wanted to launch his comeback in Canada.

In the Hamilton race, Johnson, who has successfully passed six tests for steroids during the past 24 months, will face a stern test from an international field of top-ranked runners, including Andre Cason, 22, of Florida, the 1988 world junior champion over 100 m, and Mike Marsh, 23, who trains in California with Lewis and who was ranked number 1 in the world last year over 50 m. As well, some track-and-field experts said that the Jamaican-born Johnson may not be as fast as he used to be. They suggested that he may have passed his athletic prime and might never be as fast as when he

was using steroids. Others predicted that Johnson’s long absence from competition would count against him. Said Paul Gains, assistant director of the Hamilton meet: “I do not think he can be as sharp as he was, simply because he has not been competing.”

Despite such doubts, Johnson’s return to competitive running was an eagerly anticipated event in international track and field. His positive test in Seoul for stanozolol, an anabolic steroid that can provide enhanced muscle development, shamed the Canadian champion and cast doubt on the legitimacy of other athletes—and their world records. Johnson’s disgrace also led to the formation of a federally appointed commission of inquiry under Ontario Chief Justice Charles Dubin, which held hearings across Canada for nine months in 1989 to investigate illegal drug use by Canadian athletes.

In his 638-page report, released last June 26, Dubin blamed coaches, doctors, trainers and athletes for drug use by athletes and said that sports governing bodies had failed to deal

effectively with the problem. His report recommended that governments make anabolic steroids more difficult to obtain, and that the IMF establish more effective doping controls and stiffer penalties for drug use. Dubin’s report also recommended that Johnson, who had been banned for life from competing for Canada, be reinstated following his two-year international suspension. Both the IMF suspension and the Canadian Olympic Association (COA) lifetime ban were lifted last September.

Johnson’s disgrace also led to the breakup of his 11-year-old partnership with track coach Charlie Francis, who told the Dubin inquiry that he encouraged Johnson to use steroids because, according to Francis, the drugs are

widely used by international track-and-field stars. Futerman said that now, “Charlie Francis is not involved in Ben’s life in any way, shape or form.” Still, Francis, whose membership in the Ontario Track and Field Association was suspended following the Dubin inquiry, watched Johnson train, and told reporters that he expected Johnson to be nearly as fast as ever when he re-entered competition.

Under his new coach, Loren Seagrave, former coach of the women’s track team at Louisiana State University, Johnson has been training hard for a busy running schedule. Along with the Los Angeles and Osaka meets, Johnson is scheduled to compete in indoor events in Ottawa on Jan. 26, in Saskatoon, where the Canadian indoor championships will be held from Feb. 16 to 17, in Karlsruhe, Germany, on Feb. 24 and in Sindelfingen, Germany, on March 3. From March 8 to 10, he is scheduled to compete in the world indoor championships in Seville, Spain. Futerman said that Johnson has also signed for an outdoor race on Aug. 5 in Malmö, Sweden, a meet that already has agreements that could produce a confrontation among Johnson, Lewis and American Leroy Burrell, the current number 1 sprinter in the world. Johnson’s ultimate goal: the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, to be held in Barcelona.

With the prospects of a new track career opening up, commercial interest in Johnson, which evaporated after he tested positive for steroids, may be reviving. Futerman said that a former sponsor, the Italian sportswear firm Diadora, for one, has expressed interest in having Johnson wear its labels again. As well, Futerman said that Johnson has signed an agreement with SportRack, a Granby, Que.based manufacturer of automobile ski racks. But Futerman acknowledged that some companies interested in having Johnson endorse their products are holding back. “We recognize that the vast majority of them are waiting to see what Ben does on the track,” Futerman said. “I think that when it comes to commercial value, Ben still has to prove that he can run well.”

At the same time, there were signs that some athletes and officials were divided over the prospect of the once-disgraced athlete’s returning to competition. Gains said that some of the athletes he talked to were “disgusted that someone who had dragged the sport into disrepute is all of a sudden getting all the attention.” But Carol Anne Letheren, president of the COA—the official who reclaimed Johnson’s gold medal in Seoul—said that Johnson “has suffered enough.” She added, “The public humiliation heaped upon him was unprecedented.” As a result of that, when Johnson launches himself down the track in Hamilton, he will be seeking vindication of his determined struggle to make good again. And his performance will almost certainly provide evidence of whether he is still a powerful runner—and whether he can once again be a great one.

JAMES DEACON