Almost eight months after the gold medal he won in the 100 meters at the Seoul Olympics was taken from him because an anabolic steroid was found in his system, Ben Johnson is still on the front page of newspapers more often than not in his hometown.
That is due for the most part to the Canadian government’s nationally televised, $3.74-million inquiry into drug use by athletes. The track and field phase began in early March and probably will not end until late June, when Johnson, 27, is finally expected to testify.
Meanwhile, Johnson manages to make headlines anyway. Early last Thursday morning, he and two friends were involved in a highly publicized confrontation after spending a few hours at a nightclub in the upscale Yorkville section of Toronto.
It reportedly was instigated by five other men, one of whom kicked in the windshield of the car that Johnson was driving. Another punched Johnson in the mouth. Johnson later went to a hospital, where he was treated for a broken tooth and a swollen lip. But first, while his assailant escaped, Johnson caught the man who broke the windshield and held him until police arrived.
A recent story in the Toronto Star suggested that Johnson is as fast as ever. Percy Duncan, a 74-year-old former sprinter for Guyana who immigrated to Canada in 1967 and still jogs almost every day at the Metropolitan Toronto Track and Field Centre, said he hand-timed Johnson twice in one day at 6.2 seconds for 60 meters. Johnson’s world record is 6.41.
But that claim was not given much credence by two people who should know, the friends who were drinking beer with Johnson in the early morning hours Thursday. Mark McKoy and Desai Williams, two of Johnson’s Canadian teammates at Seoul, seem to spend as much time in Yorkville nightclubs with him as they do at the track and field center.
On a recent afternoon, while sitting in the spectators’ balcony above the track, McKoy described Johnson’s workout schedule. McKoy is a hurdler who has been suspended by the Canadian Track and Field Assn. because he left Seoul without permission after Johnson was disqualified.
“When he’s here, he’s here,” McKoy said of Johnson. “When he’s not, he’s not.”
When Johnson is there, he sometimes parks his black Porsche, with his world-record time of 9.83 on the license plate, next to the eight-foot chain-link fence behind the center, climbs over and enters through the back door.
That is to avoid attracting attention, his friends say, but word gets around. Everyone at the center knows when Johnson is among them even if he is not wearing the black warm-up suit with his name on the back given to him by his Italian apparel sponsor. Because the center is open to the public, he sometimes has an elderly man or a pregnant woman sharing the track with him.
“It’s more like a social club for us,” said McKoy, who estimated that he and Johnson spend three or four hours at the center but actually work out no more than 30 minutes. Because their only starter’s pistol was confiscated by police last winter, they have someone bang two hurdles together to send them out of the blocks. Except when Duncan is there, they don’t have a stopwatch, either. The serious workouts, McKoy said, take place in the weight room.
Through his new adviser, a retired hairdresser from Jamaica, Johnson said he would not agree to an interview until after he testifies. Some who have spotted the 5-foot-9 Johnson report that he is considerably less muscular than he was eight months ago and has developed a paunch. But McKoy said Johnson looks about the same as he did at Seoul, when he weighed 174 pounds.
Asked if it is possible that Johnson is still using steroids, McKoy smiled.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We don’t talk about it at all.”
McKoy said he doubted that Johnson has been running world records in workouts.
A few minutes later, Williams, a finalist in the 100 meters at Seoul, joined McKoy on the balcony. Told about the time Duncan claimed to have recorded for Johnson during a workout, Williams laughed until tears came to his eyes.
“I’m going to take Percy to all my major meets,” Williams said. “I can finish last and still set world records.”
A day later, speaking by telephone from his Toronto home, Duncan insisted that the times he recorded for Johnson were accurate. But he also insisted that he, not Charlie Francis, was the man who taught Johnson the explosive start that separates him from other world-class sprinters.
“I was the wizard in the background,” he said.
Duncan is openly campaigning to join Johnson’s entourage, which dwindled considerably after the Olympics. In recent years, Johnson was attended to by: Francis, who was one of the world’s most highly acclaimed sprint coaches; Dr. Jamie Astaphan, who became recognized as one of North America’s leading steroid experts; Waldemar Matuszewski, an internationally renowned physiotherapist; Ross Earl, a family friend and business adviser, and three agents.
Today, Johnson has no contact with Francis, Astaphan, Matuszewski or Earl. He is under contract with the agents through the fall, but they direct telephone calls to Johnson’s attorney, Ed Futerman. He shares the responsibility for steering Johnson’s course with the retired hairdresser, Kameel Azan. Neither will reveal how they became associated with Johnson.
“I want to remain as anonymous as possible,” said Azan, who, like Johnson, is a Jamaican immigrant. He came to Toronto as a hairdresser and, according to his son, was able to retire because of wise investments.
“I’m very involved in the politics of the whole thing,” Azan said. “My interest is in the preservation of Ben Johnson, wanting to see Ben Johnson as a person get out of this not as a victim, whether he knowingly or unknowingly had taken drugs.”
Proving Johnson’s contention that he never knowingly took steroids is Futerman’s task. A personal injury attorney for 27 years, Futerman, 52, is in the public limelight for the first time. He seems to enjoy sharing jokes and card tricks with reporters, but not information.
“Ultimately,” he said during a brief interview last week, “my goal is to have Ben running again as soon as possible.”
He would not discuss his strategy, but, in his cross-examination of witnesses, he has portrayed Johnson as a naive, barely literate man who is not bright enough to make an international telephone call and was manipulated to use steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs without his knowledge by an ambitious coach and a doctor.
Those who have had minimal contact with Johnson and found him inarticulate, perhaps to a great degree because of his stammer, do not have difficulty believing that theory.
“My impression of him, and let me stress that it’s just my impression, was that he was in a situation where there was a great deal of trust placed by him in the people around him,” an International Olympic Committee vice president, Richard Pound of Montreal, testified last week.
“I did not have the impression of anybody who would have understood the nature of an anabolic steroid or anything like that.”
But those who know Johnson well find Futerman’s defense ludicrous, if not insulting.
“It’s too late to even pray for that one,” said Jim Christie, a Toronto Sun sports reporter whose authorized biography of Johnson, “The World’s Fastest Man,” was released less than three weeks before the Summer Olympics. Originally priced at $22.90 (U.S.), it now sells for $3.40.
“He’s so naive that he might not have understood everything he was taking at the time. He couldn’t tell you the schedule when he was being injected with various things. But he couldn’t be ignorant of the fact he was getting steroids as part of his training regimen. He wasn’t that naive.”
Francis and several of Johnson’s teammates from the Mazda Optimists Club testified Johnson was aware that he was using steroids and other banned substances. A former sprinter, Tony Sharpe, said Johnson once assisted him in smuggling a beer cooler containing human growth hormone past customs agents on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.
Johnson’s friends say he is bothered by the defense because it reflects poorly on his upbringing. He still lives with his mother, a cashier at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, in a house in a middle-class neighborhood near York University. His father works as a telephone installer and repairman in Falmouth, Jamaica, where Ben lived until he was 14.
Yet whether he knew he was taking steroids might be crucial in determining if he can represent Canada in major competitions such as the Olympics, the Pan American Games and the World Championships after his two-year suspension by the International Amateur Athletic Federation expires in the fall of 1990. Canada’s sports minister, Jean Charest, is expected to make a decision pending the outcome of the inquiry.
The inquiry has been only one of Johnson’s concerns since he returned from Seoul. The federal government took him to task because he failed to pay income taxes for two years and has placed him on a repayment schedule. Then he was arrested when he waved a starter’s pistol at a fellow motorist who allegedly cut him off on a Toronto freeway. Johnson has an Aug. 22 court date on charges of common assault and possession of a weapon dangerous to public peace.
His criminal attorney in that case, Marty Kerbel, said Johnson has taken all of his troubles in stride.
“He’s displayed a remarkable lack of any self-pity,” Kerbel said. “There’s been no hand-wringing or ‘Woe is me.’ None of that stuff. He’s doesn’t appear to be totally consumed by it.”
But asked whether he believes Johnson is happy, Kerbel said: “I can’t believe that . . . deep down he doesn’t have a lot of regrets. If I had been close to that much money, I’d have regrets.”
Immediately after Johnson’s disqualification, one of his agents, Larry Heidebrecht of Williamsburg, Va., estimated that the scandal could cost the sprinter as much as $15 million.
Johnson’s Toronto agent, Glen Calkins, said many of Johnson’s endorsement contracts expired at the end of 1988 and were not renewed. It has been reported that all remaining contracts except for the one Johnson signed with the Italian apparel company, Diadora, were invalidated because of morality clauses. Calkins denied that, but he acknowledged that his phone seldom rings.
“Obviously, nothing is happening right now,” he said.
Johnson is hardly a candidate for welfare. He made $300,000 on the sale of real estate in Markham, a prestigious Toronto suburb, where he began before the Olympics to build a Victorian mansion for himself and his mother. The construction crew walked off the job when the results of Johnson’s drug test were announced, but they later completed the foundation before the property was sold.
There is some confusion about the number of cars Johnson owns. Besides the $108,000 Porsche and a couple of other sports cars given to him by a sponsor, Mazda, he bought a $257,000 limited-edition Ferrari a few weeks before the Olympics. It is believed that he has sold one or more of the cars, but automobiles remain his passion.
He dropped out of a public high school and enrolled in a vocational school, which he also failed to finish when he became a full-time athlete before the 1984 Summer Olympics. But if he had not become a track superstar, his friends say he would have been an auto mechanic. They say that his fantasy is to work as part of the pit crew for Brazilian Grand Prix driver Ayrton Senna.
Many would say that Johnson already lived out one fantasy.
“One of his great motivations was his anti-Carl Lewis feelings, his dislike of Carl’s flashiness and his fancy clothes and his rhinestone-studded sunglasses,” said Christie, Johnson’s biographer. “Ben told me once, ‘The guy’s got no time for running anymore. He forgot what got him here.’
“But then I saw the cars and the growing entourage, and I said, ‘You must be able to sympathize with Carl. You don’t have time for a lot anymore, either.’ But he failed to see any connection. He thought he was just Ben, but everybody could see he wasn’t.
“Now he’s gone back to being just Ben, which is what he wanted to be all the way through. Obviously, it has been a very tough growing up experience, but it was one that Ben needed.”