If anyone knows of unexpected barriers one needs to conquer in life, it is John Smith.
An outstanding quarter-miler, Smith attended UCLA during the turbulent late ‘60s and early ‘70s and became active in the anti-Vietnam War and black nationalist movements. But Smith kept aim at his goal: to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States. As the 1972 Munich games rolled around, he was favored to finish first in 400 meters.
But then life played one of its tricks--a hamstring injury three weeks before the games. He struggled to make it to the finals but pulled up around the second turn of the race.
Smith would also be haunted for years by the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Arab terrorists during the games.
“Why my Olympic Games? Why my games?” Smith asks, shaking his head. “During (the Seoul Olympics), people lost medals for taking drugs. Well, whoop-de-do. People were losing their lives when I was in the Olympic Games.
“It was like being home during the Watts riots. I was so sick of that stuff, and then I went over there and I’m in a war zone again. I said to myself, ‘Damn, I can’t leave this garbage.’ ”
Now in his fifth season as an assistant coach in charge of sprinters for the UCLA track team, Smith has established himself as one of the most prominent coaches in the world. Four Smith-coached athletes participated in the Seoul Olympics, and two, Danny Everett and Steve Lewis, came home with two medals apiece. Lewis provided Smith with some measure of redemption when he won the gold medal in Smith’s event, the 400.
But then another obstacle popped up.
On March 1, disgraced sprinter Ben Johnson’s coach, Charlie Francis, implicated Smith and dozens of other current or former athletes during a Canadian government inquiry into use of anabolic steroids. Francis testified that Smith told him that another professional coach, Pat Connolly, asked Smith in 1979 for Dianabol, a steroid drug, for Olympic sprinter Evelyn Ashford.
Then last week, Canadian sprinter Angella Taylor Issajenko testified that Smith told her that when he lived in Toronto in 1980-81 he used Dianabol while competing. Commented Smith: “This is getting ridiculous. They (Issajenko and Francis) are fabricating and distorting everything.”
Smith said he has never taken steroids nor advocated their use by his athletes. He points out that during the four months preceding the Seoul games, Lewis, for example, tested negative eight times for steroids. To date, none of the athletes coached by Smith has tested positive for steroids.
“Charlie’s trying to justify why he told his athletes to take drugs, and he’s using people such as Evelyn, Pat and myself,” Smith said. “We’re three who have not been tainted, so to speak, about the use of performance-enhancement drugs. . . . We’ve done our coaching day in and day out in a very mother-and-fatherly approach. Charlie’s done it through science and needles and the whole nine yards.
“Charlie’s a very intelligent coach, but he resorted to experimenting with people’s bodies, and that’s a heavy responsibility. Now he’s facing the pitfalls of taking that route.”
Smith met Francis when Francis was a sprinter at Stanford and Smith was at UCLA. Like Smith, Francis suffered an injury before the Munich games and couldn’t compete.
“When we met in 1980, he (Francis) was more or less into developing athletes though drugs,” Smith said. “I wanted to do it through teaching the artful approach of running and the metaphysical side.
“Charlie discussed his lack of acceptance of religion and of a higher being. . . . We didn’t agree on anything once we started talking about things that weren’t tangible.
“I’ve known what he’s done. I feel I’m a better coach because I don’t have to use the stuff. There’s only room for one at a time on top. I took my time over the years, and so did he, but he did it out of a bottle and I did it straightforward.”
UCLA enters this season trying to win a third straight National Collegiate Athletic Assn. title.