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Johnson: World’s Fastest Human Is a Multinational Commodity

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The Washington Post

Ben Johnson, who has met with the king of Belgium and lunched with the prince of Monaco, actually prefers the more commonplace.

The real wonder of the Canadian sprinter is that his world-record accomplishments have come in a quite ordinary way, running first on one foot and then on the other.

Johnson is a man of straightforward abilities who is leading an increasingly complex life as he prepares for the Summer Olympics in Seoul.

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The 26-year-old, who first raced for pennies in Jamaica, is now a millionaire (he has six-figure endorsement contracts in Japan and a record $1.75 million five-year contract with an Italian shoe company that help account for an annual income of about $500,000) and the world-record holder in the 100-meter dash, a multinational commodity who sells gas and oil in Japan, sneakers in Italy, cheese in Finland and chocolate milk in the United States.

He is the subject of a forthcoming biography, “The Fastest Man on Earth,” and is a five-car entity, owning at various times a Corvette, two Mazda RX7s, a Porsche and (is about to acquire) a limited-model Ferrari Testarossa.

As Enzo Ferrari, himself not a bad salesman, remarked with the sort of plain logic Johnson could appreciate, “Of course the fastest man in the world must have the fastest car.”

But these are merely the gaudier details of Johnson, adornments like so many Christmas balls to the talent itself. Beneath them is a man of simple thought and construction who employs a disconcertingly intense gaze and only a few words at a time, frequently in a stutter developed as a child.

His is a forbiddingly dense physique, a solid 5-foot-11, 165-pound mass whose single most obvious dimension is in the 100 meters, an elementary affair in which a gun goes off and he bolts down a track faster than anybody has before.

Saturday Johnson easily won the 100-meter final at the Canadian track and field championships with a wind-aided time of 9.90 seconds.

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Like the event itself or his beloved sports cars, Johnson the runner consists of minutiae, such as partial meters and hundredths of seconds, the piecemeal reactions, velocities and electro-biological impulses that make him swift. “He has the sprinter’s temperament, the quick-firing nervous tissues,” said his biographer, James R. Christie.

But these culminate in a graceful synchronization of arm and leg that may be nothing more than Johnson’s own particular search for self-expression. For when the parts have resolved themselves into a pattern and a number results such as 9.83, the world record he set in Rome last summer, then the broken words become whole and his statements are clear. “I don’t talk no bull,” he told the cameras in Rome.

With the Summer Games approaching and a likely decisive encounter with Carl Lewis of the United States, the second-fastest man in the world, Johnson’s pronouncements have dwindled to a few monosyllables and brief eloquent acts.

At the Canadian track and field championships last weekend, he finally proved himself fully recovered from a hamstring injury to his left leg and six months of inactivity. In what was his first full 100-meter competition since February, he recorded a half-hearted time of 10.38 in Friday’s quarterfinal heat, followed by a 10.20 in Saturday’s semifinal, and then gave his full-out effort in the final later Saturday afternoon for his time of 9.90.

The time was ruled wind-aided when gauges showed a reading of 3.70-meters per second (2.0 is the maximum allowable). Even so, it was utterly convincing evidence that he has returned in nearly full form. “It was fast enough for now,” he said. “The wind doesn’t matter. I just need a few races to get back into form.”

Moreover, Johnson will arrive in Seoul even faster than he was in Rome at the world championships last year, when he set his record by defeating Lewis’ own intimidating 9.93, which stands as the second-fastest time ever at sea level. In training, Johnson has run 60 meters in a time of 6.35, six-hundredths better than his world indoor record of 6.41. His 100 mark so far appears assailable by one person, himself.

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“Who’s going to break it?” he said. Asked if he could do it himself, he replied flatly, “Me? Yeah. Sure.”

It may be said of Johnson that the less he speaks, the more dangerous he becomes. He is for the most part regarded as a sensitive, gentle-spoken sort, but when he filled out a psychological profile not long ago, another portrait emerged. Asked to check a box indicating how aggressive he is, with a choice between not aggressive, somewhat aggressive and very aggressive, he wrote, “Add another box.”

He does not socialize much with other members of the Canadian team, nor does he confide much in those beyond his immediate family. When he was recovering from his hamstring injury, he chose to go into isolation in Jamaica, rather than remain with the Canadian team and longtime coach Charlie Francis.

That caused a temporary break with his coach, and as he ran countless meters backwards and forwards in the island seawater as therapy, he announced, “I’ll coach myself.”

This lonesome posture has caused some to consider Johnson remote. But those close to him say it is not from willfulness so much as a confusing blend of shyness and purposeful intent, the sort that makes him wear a large gold neckchain with a plain, baggy warmup suit. And for all of his sports cars, until just recently he still drove his mother to work and picked her up in the afternoons.

“Because he’s somewhat shy, people think he’s a bit aloof,” agent Larry Heidebrecht said. “It’s not that. He’s friendly, when people get to know him they like him. He’s just very honest and direct, he doesn’t go in circles . . . His whole concentration in life thus far has been one-dimensional. He’s very driven.”

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If Johnson is without artifice, it likely is because he comes from workmanlike people. His father, Ben Sr., is a 20-year man with the Jamaican telephone company, who still lives in the sugar and rum port of Falmouth, loath to give up his pension.

Johnson’s mother Gloria brought him and his brother Edward and four sisters to Toronto when he was 14. She worked for some time in the Toronto airport kitchens and still earns a paycheck as a cashier despite her son’s new wealth, and the house he is building for all of them in the suburbs.

His retiring nature is no doubt in part because of the stutter. The speech impediment combined with his heavy Jamaican accent made him silent and withdrawn, particularly in school, where teachers assumed he had a learning problem.

He took just one year of auto mechanics at a vocational college before ending his education, but he is by no means unintelligent and is in fact thought of as a wit by his Canadian teammates.

“You wouldn’t call him book-smart,” biographer Christie said. “But he’s quick-minded. His sense of humor shows that.”

Johnson’s early career did not give him much reason to embrace public life. In the 1984 Olympics he felt and tried to tell others that he could beat Lewis, but since he was regarded as a poor interview no one paid much attention. Then he disappointed himself by taking only the bronze medal, not quite ready to compete with the lithe American. “In 1984 no one wanted to talk to him,” Francis said.

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Francis also remembers the painfully thin 14-year-old whom Edward Johnson brought to a Toronto track club for the first time 11 years ago. At 93 pounds, he could barely make a lap around the track but was clearly fast even when he used the starting blocks backwards. In the next six months he grew 6 inches and began putting on weight, but that made his body ache, and Francis wasn’t sure exactly what he had gotten.

“He was so skinny,” Francis said. “I thought he was 12. He was weak, and he always hurt, but he showed brilliance here and there. So we never could figure out what was going on.”

The following summer, at 15, Johnson ran the 100 meters in 10.3. “Do you think I can break the world record next year?” he asked Francis shortly thereafter.

“So he was never short on ambition,” Francis said.

It was also at around this time Francis watched Johnson get defeated in a questionable photo finish by another young runner. Johnson walked over to his coach and said, “I won, didn’t I?” Francis replied, “Yeah,” and waited for a tantrum. Johnson merely nodded. “That’s what I thought,” he said.

Since then Johnson has developed a rapport with Francis, a graying blond closet smoker who was a sprinter in the 1972 Olympics and shares Johnson’s disdain of small talk. Francis perceives Johnson’s insulation as directly related to what he does on the track.

“He internalizes everything,” Francis said. “He thinks it takes away his strength if he talks about things. He puts his strength on the track; what counts to him is so much inside, and he doesn’t care very much what others think. That’s a terrific thing, to be to able to internalize the force and use it, not fritter it away.”

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But more and more frequently the outer world has intruded on Johnson as the demands of his new status have increased. Since he began to defeat Lewis regularly--with an 8-6 record against him and the last five straight victories--he has become almost frantically sought after. During the six months off with his hamstring injury, he not only suffered the misunderstanding with Francis, but also ran himself ragged with international corporate commitments.

There was for a time confusion in his overall management, and in his income taxes because of the variety of countries where he now earns money, all of which has been resolved after some aggravation.

Most of all, there has been the pressure of coming back from the injury, and the nagging presence of Lewis, with whom he has bickered intermittently and who ran an impressive, though wind-aided 9.78, in the U.S. trials. Finally, however, things seem to be simplifying again.

“It has been tough,” Johnson said. “I’ve felt pressed. But I had to sit down and plan how things should go, and everything’s been fine. I’ve gotten over it.”

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