SPORTS

Back on track

A disgraced champion returns to racing

MARK NICHOLS January 21 1991
SPORTS

Back on track

A disgraced champion returns to racing

MARK NICHOLS January 21 1991

Back on track

SPORTS

A disgraced champion returns to racing

Wearing a canary-yellow-and-black uniform with a gold chain around his neck, sprinter Ben Johnson looked fit—and slimmer than when he last competed 27 months earlier at the Summer Olympic Games in Seoul. With his proud mother watching from the stands, he also appeared remarkably composed as he prepared to compete for the first time since the International Amateur Athletic Federation imposed a two-year suspension after officials found traces of anabolic steroids in his urine following his gold-medal victory in the 100-m race in Seoul. Last week, as he waited to run 50 m at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Johnson faced a tough field of four other runners, including two of the United States’ top sprinters, Mike Marsh and Andre Cason. But when the starter’s pistol finally sent the runners down the track, the winner was a late entry, Daron Council, also an American. Johnson, after an uncharacteristically slow start, surged powerfully past Cason to finish just two onehundredths of a second behind Council in second place. Said Council, a deputy sheriff from Gainesville, Fla., of Johnson’s competitive prospects: “I can’t tell you if he is going to be number 1 again, but he is definitely going to be a factor.”

Council’s assessment was shared by other track-and-field experts. Said Paul Gains, the assistant meet director in Hamilton: “Johnson was being tested against a tough field, and he passed with flying colors.” The Hamilton race marked a dramatic return to competition by Johnson, whose disgrace at Seoul led to the creation of a federal commission under Ontario Chief Justice Charles Dubin that investigated the use of illegal drugs by Canadian athletes and made sweeping recommendations for reform. Following the Hamilton meet, Johnson, who has passed six tests for steroids during the past two years, was one of two runners from the 50-m race randomly chosen for drug testing (the results were to be announced this week). After the race, Johnson’s coach, Loren Seagrave, said: “I’m supersatisfied with his performance—you saw some serious acceleration out there.”

Indeed, technical errors by Johnson and Seagrave may have cost Johnson victory. The event, before a sellout crowd of 17,055 people, including journalists from about 14 countries, began after officials twice called the runners

back from false starts—and once secured two parts of the rubber-coated hardwood track that had separated at the starting line. Johnson told reporters after the race that when the starter’s pistol sounded for a third time, he was off guard and “got caught” too far back in his starting blocks. He added: “Then I dipped too soon at the finish.” Seagrave said that he was partly to blame because he noticed that race officials had

set up timers at 50 yards as well as at 50 m. “There were two finish lines,” said Seagrave, “and I never properly informed Ben.”

Despite that, the Hamilton race was a promising start for a hectic schedule of eight international meets at which Johnson is scheduled to appear, including Los Angeles’s Sunkist Invitational this week—which will earn him $35,000. Still, times in Hamilton were relatively slow. Council won in 5.75 seconds, 14 onehundredths of a second below the current world record of 5.61. Johnson’s time was 5.77.

Earlier last week, Canadian track-and-field officials, in a move clearly timed to coincide with strong international interest in Johnson’s return to racing, imposed penalties on Johnson’s former coach, Charlie Francis, and 13 others who, in testimony before the Dubin inquiry, were implicated in the drug scandal. Officials of Athletics Canada (which changed its name last June 17 from the Canadian Track and Field Association) announced that Francis was banned for life from coaching athletes under

the organization’s jurisdiction. Among the athletes affected were two of Johnson’s former national team members, sprinters Desai Williams and Mark McCoy, who were placed on probation for two years.

Francis’s lifetime suspension provoked a storm of controversy. Paul Dupre, president of Athletics Canada, said that Francis received a stiff penalty because he had not repudiated his stated belief that some Canadian athletes need to use anabolic steroids because the musclebuilding drugs are widely used in international track and field. Still, critics noted that even though the Dubin inquiry’s report, published last June 26, said that Canadian track officials shared much of the blame for drug use by Canadian athletes, no officials were penalized. Interviewed on the CTV television network in Hamilton, Francis said that the track-and-field association’s only response so far to the Dubin report was “changing their name to Athletics Canada.”

In another development last week, federal

Sport Minister Marcel Danis announced that Ottawa would set up an independent agency to investigate drug use by athletes. Danis also said that anabolic steroids would be reclassified as a controlled substance under Canadian law.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s American archrival, Carl Lewis, who placed second behind Johnson in Seoul, was involved in a scrape with the law. On the day that Johnson ran in Hamilton, Lewis was charged with drunk driving in Houston after police saw his BMW automobile strike a curb. In Hamilton, Johnson declined to comment on Lewis’s difficulties. The Jamaicanborn runner wore black ribbons on his singlet in memory of his father, Ben Sr., who died last year. “I dedicated this first race to my father,” said Johnson later. “I failed, but it will be different next time.” In the months ahead, Johnson will have ample opportunity to make good on that promise.

MARK NICHOLS

JAMES DEACON

Hamilton