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Kenny Moore
July 22, 1991
That Ben Johnson is not the runner he was on steroids is clear to everyone but Ben Johnson
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July 22, 1991

Clean And Slower

That Ben Johnson is not the runner he was on steroids is clear to everyone but Ben Johnson

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In 1990, Charlie Francis, Johnson's only coach for the 12 years before Seoul, published a book, Speed Trap, which lucidly presented the rationale for Johnson's steroid use. "There have always been athletes who were willing to forgo drugs," wrote Francis. "But these abstainers are unlikely to stop at a single compromise. They tend to be the same people who are unwilling to leave a school or job for full-time training, or move away from friends and family to find the best possible coach, or to make the myriad other sacrifices that go into becoming a world-class athlete. They may be healthier, more well-rounded individuals for their concessions, but they will not reach the top. The best athletes, for better or worse, are the most single-minded ones."

Whether or not that chilling passage describes his contemporaries, it describes Johnson. He has acted from his singular hunger to be the fastest man in the world since he was 12 years old. He defined himself by the necessities of his event: strength, iron nerves, prideful bluntness.

They were all he needed, because the more he put on the muscular armor and baleful image of the primal destroyer, the greater was the world's deep-throated response to him. In the estimate of his agent at the time, Larry Heidebrecht, Johnson's Olympic disqualification cost Johnson $10 million the next year alone. Most of that money was to come from endorsements and appearances in Japan, a society candid about its taste for ominous and violent figures. The Japanese like the silent, rough treatment. Their man was Johnson.

Francis had been a good sprinter himself—and had used performance-enhancing drugs—but kept enough coachly distance to lament the way Johnson went through sports cars and girlfriends. "His depreciation costs alone were huge," wrote Francis of the cars but surely covering the relationships as well. Yet Francis still identified with Johnson's basic lust, for which all else was a mirror, to run inhumanly fast, to beat Lewis.

Its still not clear how Johnson came to have traces of stanozolol and its metabolites in his urine at the 1988 Olympics. Francis was under the impression that Johnson had been using a completely different steroid, furazabol, provided by Dr. Jamie Astaphan, and that Johnson had stopped taking it 26 days before the Seoul 100-meter final, ample time for his body to get rid of enough of the drug to pass the doping test, as he had done 29 times before since 1985.

But one of Johnson's teammates, sprinter Angella Issajenko, later gave the Canadian board of inquiry a sample of the injectable steroid that for three years Astaphan had supplied to Francis's group of sprinters. All along Francis believed it was Estragol, a brand name for furazabol. Analysis showed it to be stanozolol. Thus, there seems to be the distinct possibility that Astaphan made a blunder with rather historic consequences.

After Seoul, Johnson returned home to Toronto in torment. "I was terribly ashamed," he told Sport. "It hurt because of my mom. It was hard to come back. I didn't know what to do, didn't know where to turn. I was standing on the edge of a cliff."

His family, especially his mother, Gloria, who had brought him to Canada from Jamaica when he was 14, and who had worked at two jobs for years so he could train, drew him from the edge and held him together. For nine months after Seoul, Johnson denied that he had ever knowingly taken steroids. Then, faced with the testimony of Francis, Astaphan and his teammates before the Canadian inquiry, Johnson caved in and told the truth.

Advised by his lawyer, Ed Futerman, Johnson went on to assert at the Canadian inquiry that he had always felt guilty that he had cheated and betrayed the Canadian people, that he was glad he was caught and that he wanted to redeem himself. But then Johnson seemed to deny the one thing of which he was living proof: the effectiveness of steroids. They were his records, he said. He would get them back, clean.

Francis wrote that Johnson had always accepted steroid use and its attendant denials as the norm in the hypocritical world of international track and field. The coach offered little hope for a clean campaign. "If we could have reached 9.79 without drugs," said Francis, "we would of course have done so."

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