Ex-track star Johnson, others reaching out to disadvantaged youths
Posted: Tuesday December 16, 2003 5:16PM; Updated: Tuesday December 16, 2003 5:16PM
Don't you love it when, just for a change, you find a jock who isn't a knucklehead? Tired of replays of Joe Horn's tacky, premeditated post-touchdown cell phone call? Had enough of Rasheed Wallace's colorful, adults-only diatribe on the state of the NBA?
Well, not every pro athlete is a self-absorbed camera mugger. A lot of them really get it. As evidence, we reintroduce you to bright, caring ex-jocks like Michael Johnson, Nadia Comaneci, Edwin Moses and Franz Klammer -- just a handful of the 42 legendary retired athletes who make up the Laureus World Sports Academy.
If you're like us, you've probably never heard of Laureus. That's because its members aren't making headlines with salacious antics or showing up on police blotters. These are classy folks, retired international champions -- not a NFL, NBA or major league player among them -- who travel the globe staging clinics in disadvantaged outposts and using their celebrity to generate seed money for needy youth sports programs.
In Sierra Leone, you find Laureus athletes backing the Coach2Coach Child Soldier Program, designed to help rehabilitate children who have been abducted and forced into the military. Others jet to Brazil to help a program geared to deal with the violence and crime among abandoned youngsters. Volunteer time, every minute of it.
"People need to know there are good things happening," says Johnson, one of track and field's greatest names. "Unfortunately, people are going to read about Joe Horn pulling out the cell phone or Kobe Bryant [accused of sexual assault]. And it feeds on itself. People talk about it because it is so bad for our society. And people tend to believe athletes are so bad and so self-centered."
Many of the retired athletes, including Emerson Fitipaldi and Katarina Witt, will convene Thursday in New York for a charity auction to benefit the Laureus Sports for Good Foundation. Already on the table is a bid in excess of $1.5 million for a first edition Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren.
Johnson, elected by other academy members last year and one of Laureus' leading globetrotters, returned earlier this month from Bombay, India. Other clinics and fundraisers have taken the sprinter to China, Morocco, South Africa and France.
For someone who has closely chronicled Johnson's story, it is compelling stuff to see his steady progression to sporting statesman. This is a classy, humble guy who didn't hog the spotlight in an individual sport, even while ruling the track world with his historic 200/400-meter double at the Atlanta Olympics.
I remember one of Carl Lewis' advisers, perhaps in a fit of jealousy over the inevitable passing of the torch, telling me before the '96 Games that Johnson lacked the pizzazz to be a media darling. Forget about just blazing the oval, he mockingly suggested Johnson's camp get him some speech lessons. Bad call, guy.
It turned out Johnson could handle the media and marketing glitz, albeit in his own firm, no-nonsense way. This is a meticulous, highly detailed character who doesn't have time for fools. But trust us, behind the deep Barry White bass is an athlete of impressive substance.
When his track career ended on his terms with 400-meter gold at the Sydney Olympics, Johnson didn't run off to a recording career or Hollywood screen test. Instead, MJ set up base with his wife, Kerry, and 3-year-old son, Sebastian, in San Francisco, in part because of the area's wealth of cultural treasures. It's from here that he runs his sports consulting business -- his clients include the South African Track and Field Federation -- trains some football players for the IMG sports agency, and handles equity fund investments. He also dabbles as a track commentator for the BBC.
So what would Johnson do if he ran the scandal-plagued international track community for a day? Simple: He'd have the international federation solely handle the process and penalties after a positive drug test -- taking it out of the hands of national governing bodies -- and aggressively throw money at research to develop tests for now undetectable performance-enhancing drugs.
"If you look at the big picture, I think the whole THG, designer drug scandal is a good thing for the sport," Johnson said. "Every time someone gets caught I see that as a positive, because it is an effort to clean up the sport. We really have to look at drug use in sports, whether track and field or any other sport, just like you would look at crime in society. To think it is going to stop completely would be foolish and unrealistic. It is never going to happen. Just like with criminals in society, you are always going to have people who are raised with poor morals or who don't feel confident in their ability to go out and be successful without cheating someone else."
Asked how prevalent steroids are in his old sport, Johnson deftly says he hasn't a clue. Old baseball players like Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti are fools, he warns, for throwing out percentages without the slightest hint of scientific analysis.
"People focus a lot on the money in sport and the desire to win medals, but what is often lost is there is a helluva lot of risk involved [using steroids]," he said. "It is not an easy thing. Secondly, you don't know whether or not it is going to work. It is not an absolute science. And if you ain't got your health, what the hell else do you have? That is the one thing you don't really want to risk.
"So if a guy makes that decision it doesn't come easy. Probably a lot of people out there thought about it and may even be willing to do it, but they are too afraid to."
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.