Under attack from a hostile attorney for the first time, Charlie Francis not only attempted to defend himself Wednesday but also the sprinter he coached for almost 12 years, Ben Johnson.
On his sixth day of testimony before the Canadian government’s commission of inquiry into drug use by athletes, Francis objected on several occasions to a less than flattering characterization of Johnson by Johnson’s own attorney, Ed Futerman.
As if Johnson has not been humiliated enough by having to forfeit the gold medal he won in the 100 meters at the 1988 Olympic Games after testing positive for an anabolic steroid, Futerman attempted to establish Wednesday that his client did not have the intelligence to decide for himself whether he should use performance-enhancing drugs when, at 19, he was introduced to them by Francis in 1981.
Futerman also went on the offensive, portraying Francis as an ambitious, devious, manipulative Svengali, who led Johnson and other athletes down the road to steroids without warning them of potential health hazards because he was driven to produce international champions.
“Are there any circumstances under which you might give steroids to someone under the age of 18?” Futerman asked.
“I can’t see any,” Francis said.
“What if someone was under the age of 18 as far as mental capacity was concerned?”
“Are you suggesting that Ben was under the age of 18 . . . ?”
“I’m not suggesting anything,” Futerman said. “I’m just asking a hypothetical question.”
But it was clear from his line of questioning that he was preparing a defense of diminished mental capacity for Johnson, ending speculation that Futerman might try to argue that his client did not use steroids.
Futerman did not challenge Francis’ testimony of the previous five days that Johnson used steroids from November 1981, to September 2, 1988, three weeks before Olympic track and field competition began.
Futerman’s questioning of Francis, however, was argumentative enough at times that it provoked objections from the coach’s attorney, Roy McMurtry.
“He can’t object every time I embarrass his client,” Futerman protested on one occasion to the commission’s chairman, Charles L. Dubin, Ontario associate chief justice.
“If anyone’s embarrassing his client . . . " McMurtry said, apparently feeling that he did not have to finish the sentence to make his point.
In response to questions from Futerman, Francis testified that Johnson was quiet and shy, perhaps because of a speech impediment that caused him to stutter, and was not noticeably athletic when they began working together in 1976. Johnson, 15, had arrived in Toronto only the year before from his native Jamaica.
By the time Johnson was 19, and it was apparent that he had world-class speed, Francis said that he was closer to the sprinter than any adult other than his mother.
“Did he trust you?”
“Yes,” Francis said.
“Did he believe that you knew what was best for him?”
“I believe that’s a fair statement,” Francis said.
Futerman then tried to establish that others who knew Johnson, such as the principal at the high school for disadvantaged students that the sprinter and many other West Indian immigrants attended, did not seem to have much confidence in Johnson’s intelligence.
Francis recalled an argument he had with the principal about that assessment when Johnson was 16, testifying that he and a teacher at the school tried unsuccessfully to have the student put on a more demanding academic track.
When Francis said that he had no doubt three years later, when he discussed the subject of steroids with Johnson, that the sprinter understood the scope of the conversation, Futerman challenged him.
“Would it be fair to say that not everyone shared that opinion, that some people would be concerned about Ben’s ability to understand that?”
Francis said: “I fully believed that he understood what he was doing. I believed he understood enough that I was willing to entrust my career to him.”
Futerman was most effective when challenging Francis’ steroid expertise, establishing that the coach, who graduated from Stanford in 1971 with a political science degree, does not have a formal education in pharmacology or biology and was not aware of all the potential side effects associated with steroid use.
Francis said that his athletes were under the care of Dr. Jamie Astaphan until 1986, when Astaphan moved to the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. After that, Francis said, he advised the athletes to maintain regular contact with their family doctors.
“Ben was going to a doctor all along,” Francis said. “I assumed he was in good care.”
“You assumed, you assumed, you assumed,” Futerman said. “But you didn’t ask him?”
“No,” Francis said.
Francis said that he should have found another doctor in Toronto to administer the steroid program for his athletes after Astaphan left. “But it’s not so easy to find a doctor who’s willing to put his neck on the line,” Francis said.
“Thank God for that,” Futerman said.
Futerman also speculated that Johnson, based on his margin of victory in Seoul, would have become the Olympic champion even if he had never used steroids.
“Isn’t it kind of sad that Ben will never know what he would have done the last eight or nine years without steroids?” he asked.
Said Francis: “Ben is the type sprinter that comes along only every five, 10 or maybe 100 years,” he said. “But, at the time, I didn’t know that.”