Interview: Ben Johnson, sprinter

VILIFIED for his failed drugs test at the 1988 Olympics, Ben Johnson emerged in an era when doping was rife and the mantra was ‘If you don’t take it, you won’t make it’

VILIFIED for his failed drugs test at the 1988 Olympics, Ben Johnson emerged in an era when doping was rife and the mantra was ‘If you don’t take it, you won’t make it’

Ben Johnson, wearing a thick black jacket, black slacks and polished black shoes with a black woolly hat pulled down to his ears, is driving through the grey, sprawling Toronto suburbs.

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“I grew up on this street,” he says, pointing out the window of his Mercedes, which is also black. “It was a six-storey block we lived in, not a high rise,” he continues, fidgeting and restless. He is distracted by the car in front, which is religiously observing the speed limit. “Oh man,” he says, “the Canadians are like the British. The same rules. They love to follow the rules.”

It is 35 years since Johnson moved with two of his sisters from Jamaica to join his mother in Toronto. Having finally accelerated past the slow car, he can start to daydream again: “I’m gonna go back to the Caribbean. Raise some chickens. Build a house. Just need to get some things sorted first.”

Has he never considered Toronto home? “Well, yes and no. I was treated really bad, you know? Back home, where I was born, the lifestyle is different. There’s no traffic, no police harassing you. It’s just peaceful, quiet. You can relax and chill. I like that type of environment, you know? Not busy-busy-busy, going round all the time. That’s not healthy at all. Hopefully, one day I’ll just relax at home.”

Outside the Metro indoor athletics centre at York University, where Johnson trained from the winter of 1979 onwards and where he now coaches a small group of young athletes, he locks his car and pulls the hat over his ears.

“Hey, Ben Johnson?” a young black student stops as he passes, swivelling on his feet.

“Yeah,” says Johnson cautiously.

“Woah! Picture?” says the student, brandishing his phone.

“I’m in a hurry, man,” says Johnson, looking at his wrist. “OK, quick…”

Johnson and the young student, who towers over him, stand and pose, then they shake hands and the student skips away, tickled pink. What will he tell his friends? That he bumped into Ben Johnson, once the fastest man in the world, or that he had a run-in with the man who brought shame to Canada, whose name, after all these years, is still prefixed by the word “disgraced”?

It is 24 years since Johnson wrote the most explosive chapter in Olympic history. In fact, he was responsible for a double blast. First, in the 100 metres final in Seoul, he obliterated the world record and also his bitter rival, Carl Lewis. Then, a little over 48 hours later, there was a second explosion when it emerged that he had tested positive for stanozolol, an anabolic steroid. The tremors are still felt to this day.

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When Usain Bolt ran 9.79 in Oslo on Thursday evening the time was considered unremarkable. That is a major change from Seoul, where, when Johnson ran the same time, it caused a sensation.

But something that has not changed, and which owes rather a lot to Seoul, is the suspicion that surrounds the 100 metres. As “positive” legacies go, Johnson would prefer not to be known as the man who finally opened a naive world’s eyes to systematic drug-taking at the highest level. But he is. And it haunts him still.

The first surprise on meeting Johnson, as I had done earlier in the day, is his size. In Seoul he resembled someone who wouldn’t look out of place in a body-building competition. It was his muscles – his huge shoulders and gargantuan thighs – that, later, encouraged some to adopt an “I knew it” attitude to his drug-taking. But in ordinary clothes he looks slightly built – he always did.

I was meeting Johnson to interview him for my book, The Dirtiest Race in History, telling the story of the Johnson-Lewis rivalry, their confrontation in Seoul, and the positive test. The race left a huge impression on all those who watched it, but so did the aftermath. As a news event the failed drugs test seemed on a par with a natural disaster or terrorist attack. And at the centre of this maelstrom was Johnson, bundled out of Seoul like a criminal, then forced into hiding in Toronto. An abiding memory is of Martin Bell, reporting for the BBC from New York, where Johnson touched down briefly, describing, in solemn tones, the “tumult and pandemonium” in JFK airport. Bell reported on wars, and the scene playing out behind him looked like one.

Worse awaited Johnson in Toronto. The next day, one Canadian newspaper columnist seemed to speak for the nation when he wrote, “Thanks Ben, you bastard. Thanks for the humiliation, the embarrassment, the international disgrace.”

The scale of the scandal means that, when Johnson is asked for an interview, it is invariably about Seoul. He must be sick of talking about it. No, he says. “It’s more annoying that people think I used drugs to make me run fast,” he says. “You don’t take drugs to run fast. Scientifically that’s not possible. A sprinter like me was born.”

Yet he isn’t known as a great sprinter. He is known as a cheat. That must be upsetting. “To a certain degree, yeah. But I know the time will come for me to tell my story, to answer the questions. Before I didn’t have the answer. I have it now. But I’ve taken a lot of punches.”

The clearest sign of how much Seoul haunts Johnson is in his continued insistence that he was sabotaged. He still believes his drink was spiked by a “mystery man” in the anti-doping room.

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In one sense, it is a moot point. Johnson admitted later that he had been using performance-enhancing drugs, including steroids, for seven years. However, this fact raises another point that has never been adequately answered, and which troubled Johnson’s old coach, Charlie Francis, until his death two years ago.

Why, when Johnson and his team clearly knew how to beat the drugs tests, did they come unstuck in Seoul? Did they trip up, or were they tripped?

Even if it was the latter, there will hardly be a bucketload of sympathy for Johnson. And yet consider another legacy of Seoul. Six of the eight finalists would eventually be linked to drugs, either through testing positive or for their involvement in doping cases. That includes Lewis, who tested positive for stimulants at the US Olympic trials in 1988. Had the normal three-month ban been applied, Lewis would have missed Seoul. But the US Olympic Committee exonerated him, as they did so many others during a period in which corruption was rife and anti-doping controls were almost laughably primitive.

Francis always maintained that he and his athletes were not seeking an unfair advantage. On the contrary, he said they were levelling the playing field. To compete clean, claimed Francis, would have been like setting up your blocks a metre behind everyone else.

“If you don’t take it, you won’t make it,” was the mantra of his sprinters’ doctor, Jamie Astaphan.

I ask Johnson what he would say to Lewis if he saw him now.

“I would say to him that we all were running for the same title, I beat you fair and square, from zero to 100. And you only beat me in the doping room.”

Johnson does his credibility little good by some of his associations. When I meet him he is with his spiritual adviser, a tall, burly man, with dark hair and a deep tan, called Bryan Farnum, who had greeted me not with a handshake, but a bearhug, and who claims to be able to “discern” people’s souls, living or dead. Thus he says he can discern Carl Lewis, the “mystery man,” and, much to my discomfort, me.

While Farnum explains his gift, Johnson leafs through some sheets of A4 that his spiritual adviser had given me. They are briefing notes arranged under the heading “Religion and Politics”. One note requests respect for Britain’s royal family. It relates, apparently, to reports at the time that Johnson snubbed the Queen at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. Farnum is keen to correct another misconception. Although, more recently, Johnson was recruited to coach Al-Saadi Gaddafi – the third son of the late Colonel – Farnum stresses that he did not, “as a lot of people seem to think, have a close relationship with Gaddafi”.

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A few weeks after our meeting I receive an email from Farnum. “I no longer represent Ben Johnson. Ben is on his own and we wish him well.”

But Johnson has been on his own since 1988, during which time he has suffered depression and struggled to reinvent himself, at times not even bothering but instead trading on his notoriety (he advertised “Cheetah” drinks). He has dwelled for years on Seoul and on the decisions he made leading up to the Games. “I thought about it a lot,” he says. “I say to myself, did I do the right thing? To go down that path, to take performance enhancing drugs? And I say, that was the right thing to do at the time. I was training so hard, 40 hours a week sometimes, four or five hours a day. Charlie figured I’d need something to help me recover.

“And then,” he pauses, which Johnson often does to cope with his stutter, as though waiting for it to pass, “during Seoul, top of the world, feeling so good, I got nailed for it.”

Should he be regarded as a victim? In one sense, yes. He took the bullet. And the disgrace has stuck – “the most reviled drugs cheat in history” screamed one headline in a British newspaper in 2008. But he was not the only cheat in Seoul. And the skulduggery and subterfuge extended beyond drugs. In fact, perhaps the oddest aspect of the story is that Johnson’s “mystery man” story might not be as ridiculous as it seems.

This man was, it turns out, planted in the anti-doping room in Seoul by Lewis’s manager, Joe Douglas. Douglas told me as much, claiming it was to “keep an eye” on Johnson, and make sure he didn’t take a masking agent.

And the mystery man? He runs a diamond mine in Angola.