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“Everybody wants to be the fastest”

Ben Johnson of Canada gestures after winning the 100-meter dash beating Carl Lewis of the United States, behind at right, on Sept. 24, 1988. The International Olympic Committee withdrew Johnson's gold medal for this event in Seoul, Korea after he tested positive for steroids. (AP Photo/Fred Chartrand)

 

Ben Johnson crosses the 100 metre finish line at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, ahead of Carl Lewis (right) and Linford Christie (left)

Seoul, Saturday 24th September 1988, 1.20pm

Atten-hut! Set… hold… BANG!

Ben Johnson lunges forward, throwing his arms behind him as though he is diving into water. While a wisp of smoke dissipates from the barrel of the starting pistol, he steals a foot on the rest of the field, approaching full speed as his greatest rival Carl Lewis is still unfolding.

“And it’s a fair start!” says Charlie Jones for NBC as they approach ten metres, Ben Johnson six-hundredths of a second up on Carl Lewis.

Toronto, 24 years later

“I was 50 years ahead of my time,” says Ben Johnson, sounding both satisfied and bitter. “Usain Bolt now is doing stuff I was capable of doing. What he’s running on these fast tracks they’re building now, I could have run.” He says it again, “I was 50 years ahead of my time. Fifty years!” And he laughs, as he would at a sick joke.

He has suffered from bouts of depression over the past 23 years, especially over the past decade, but they have eased and he is doing better now. Sinking deep into an armchair in a room in a suburban Toronto home, Johnson glances across at Bryan Farnum, a large man whose hands are crossed across his ample stomach.

“Johnson was asked which he treasured more – the world record or the gold medal. ‘The gold medal,’ he said, ‘because they can’t take that away from you”

Farnum is Johnson’s spiritual adviser; he closes his eyes and nods slowly. “Ben’s doing well. His depression – the heaviness in his head – has completely gone.”

“I feel more content,” nods Johnson. “Peace of mind.”

But when it comes to discussing his relationship with Carl Lewis, Johnson doesn’t seem to have found peace of mind. In some respects he is still in the clutches of that old rivalry. Did he actually dislike Lewis? “Well, he was my rival, so if I’m going to beat somebody, I don’t want to be friends,” Johnson explains. “He was the first and last major rival I had. The only one. But I haven’t seen him in person for 20 years. I saw him once on TV, singing the national anthem.”

“I saw Lewis recently,” I tell Johnson.

“How does he look?”

“He looks quite well. He’s got some white hair.”

“Some people say he looks old.”

“He moves a little stiffly,” I say.

“He moves stiffly?” Johnson perks up. “What do you mean?”

“A little bit jerkily.”

“Like he’s in pain?” asks Farnum. Johnson leans forward, listening intently.

“I told you he was having problems, Ben,” Farnum says. “I discerned it. So Richard’s now confirmed that.” Johnson sits back again. He looks satisfied.

Ben Johnson in 2012

“Unbelievable!
NINE… SEVEN… NINE!”

Charlie Jones on NBC, his voice hoarse, screams as the clock stops.

As Johnson crosses the line, he glances to his left towards Lewis, with the gesture that forever encapsulates the race: right arm in the air, finger pointing to the sky. Lewis is a full two metres behind. Then Johnson turns towards the crowd, to accept their adulation.

The start had been extraordinary, but that isn’t the most remarkable thing about the 100 metres Johnson has just run; it is that for the rest of the race his lead kept expanding. For the last ten metres Johnson has been celebrating, and yet he has finished in 9.79, chopping four-hundredths of a second from the world record – from his own world record.

“And now – now – all the critics have been answered,” says David Coleman, “there is no question about who is the fastest man in the world. Now he reigns supreme…”

When he had finished his lap of honour, Johnson was asked which he treasured more – the world record or the gold medal. “The gold medal,” he said, “because they can’t take that away from you.” The news broke 55 hours later.

It will seem odd that Johnson, Canada’s most famous disgraced sportsman, now coaches young athletes. He has argued so vehemently that drugs are a necessity for any athlete who wants to reach the highest level, yet he had insisted to me, “I never speak to any of my athletes about performance-enhancing drugs.”

Never? “They can reach the top without drugs. But, well, let me say this: over the last 23 years doctors and scientists are improving the natural vitamins, so they have the same effect as performance-enhancing drugs. But this way is much cleaner, it’s safe, there’s no harm to the body. It’s legal. Most athletes I know now are using these vitamins and running pretty good. Things have changed.”

Yet Johnson contradicts himself later when he says that, at the highest level, the sport is still tainted. “It’s still tainted. No doubt about that. That’s the way it is. The more money you put on the table…”

But surely, I suggest, it’s a different era, people are being caught for doping now, where previously they mostly weren’t. “Different era, different time zone, same thing,” he says dismissively. “Same 100 metres. Everybody wants to be the fastest man.”

Johnson is mobbed by the press at Seoul’s Kimpo Airport as he leaves Korea in September 1988

But Johnson has been entrusted with young athletes, with people’s children. Is this what he tells them: that they are going to have to make the same choices as him? “I say to them, be the best you can be. If you become a 100 metre finalist in the Olympic Games or world championships, or make the top three, that’s good enough. These kids are smart.”

It isn’t clear if Johnson finds coaching fulfilling. It doesn’t appear to be his raison d’être. “I don’t want to do this for more than a couple of years,” he had said in the car. “I just want to help these athletes to get from point A to point B, then whoever coaches them can move them on and develop them.”

After he served his two-year ban, following Seoul, Johnson made a comeback, competing at the Barcelona Olympics, but failing to make the final when he stumbled out of the blocks. In January 1993 he went close to the 60m indoor world record but tested positive again, this time for testosterone. He was banned for life by the IAAF, but he appealed and, six years later, a Canadian adjudicator said that procedural errors meant he could compete again – though only in Canada. Nobody would race against him, however, and at one meeting in Ontario he ran alone, recording 11.0 seconds for the 100m. Then he tested positive for a third time, this time for a diuretic. “I was nailed,” says Johnson.

Three times? “They catch who they want to target,” he shrugs.

In 1997 he coached Diego Maradona – “a very nice person if you get to know him, but don’t cross him” – and also an aspiring footballer, Al-Saadi Gaddafi – the third son of the late Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi. That arrangement was reportedly worth $50,000 to Johnson for a 90-day spell in Tripoli. His spiritual adviser Bryan Farnum was anxious to point out that Johnson never even met the colonel.

Johnson coached Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona in 1997

“Tripoli was very nice,” says Johnson. “My mom always said I’d live near the water.” Two years later, Gaddafi junior’s football career was halted in its tracks, after one match for Perugia, when he tested positive for Nandrolone. Stopping off in Rome on his way home from Tripoli, Johnson was mugged by a gang of children. Some of his earnings from Tripoli – more than $5,000 – had been in his wallet, and it was all gone. Johnson gave chase, only to be outsprinted by all but one of the young gang members. It made a brief, amusing story in the international media, and confirmed Johnson in the fall guy role he has played since Seoul.

At various times Johnson has been persuaded to cash in on his notoriety. He advertised Cheetah energy drinks. But he claims he needed the money; when he returned from Seoul, he says, there should have been $4 million in his trust fund. “That was the money I needed to live on, to do the things I wanted to do in life,” he says. “But all that money was gone.”

In August 2008 he filed a $37 million lawsuit against the estate of the lawyer, Ed Futerman, who had encouraged him, in the aftermath of Seoul, to deny “knowingly” using drugs. Apart from his financial problems, he suffered with the death of his mother, whom he still lived with, in 2004. “I can’t cook,” he explained when she died, “and my mother used to take care of me.” He lives on his own now, though he has a daughter and a granddaughter. His eyes light up when he speaks about his granddaughter; he sees a lot of her. But he says he’s careful about relationships. Where once he was fearless, even reckless, now he claims to be more wary of women.

He says he watches replays of his races – including Seoul; especially Seoul – on YouTube. “Sometimes, yeah.” He laughs. “My granddaughter watches it and says she can beat me now; she can run faster. She’s five years old. She told me she wants to go to the track with me. There are signs she’s going to be a runner.”

“Most people, by now, would have a very serious disease, or be dead. They’d commit suicide based on what Ben’s gone through with the media”

He says he gets fits of depression but doesn’t just stay in bed. He treats what Farnum calls the “heaviness in his head” by working out. “I still go and coach and train myself, but in the back of my mind, there’s this sadness. That my mother’s gone. Or at a certain time of the year, like Christmas time, when everybody’s on holiday with their families and other stuff, it really hits you, you know?”

Ever since he forged such a close relationship with his coach Charlie Francis – who began training Johnson when the athlete was 15 – it has seemed that Johnson has craved a father figure. I wonder if Farnum is the replacement. Farnum, a former merchant banker, is a towering, big-bellied, dark-featured man with an unsettlingly steady gaze. He is not much older than Johnson, but their relationship seems more like father-son. When he leaves his house to head to the track, Farnum pulls him close and, with feeling, tells him, “You drive carefully, Ben.”

But when I put that theory to him, Johnson shakes his head, “No, no, I don’t need a father figure. But people trying to take from me, those days are over.” “You know,” Farnum interjects, “these last 22, 23 years Ben has gone through a psychological rollercoaster that most people, by now, would have a very serious disease, or be dead. They’d commit suicide based on what Ben’s gone through the last 22 years with the media. But he’s strong. He’s very strong, very determined.” “I either trust people or I don’t,” says Ben. “There’s no in-between.”

And there is no in-between when, within weeks of our meeting, Farnum tells me he and Johnson have parted company. “I no longer represent Ben Johnson,” reads the email. “Ben is on his own and we wish him well.” Apparently, he lost trust in Farnum.

If he could say anything to Carl Lewis now, I ask Johnson, what would it be? “I would say to him, ‘We were all running for the same title. I beat you fair and square. And you only beat me in the doping room.’” But it is plain that, even if he really believes this, it offers no comfort.

The pain of defeat remains etched on his face, his anger unconcealed as he spits the words out. Only one thing, to which he clings stubbornly, wilfully ignoring that his name has been wiped from the record books, offers consolation to Johnson. Or two things: his run at the 1987 World Championships in Rome when he set a new world record of 9.83 and his run in Seoul. Abruptly, he sits forward and, with the faux aggression of a boxer at a pre-fight weigh-in, asks, “Hey, you tell me: who was the first guy to beat 9.9?”

“It was you, Ben.”

“And who was the first guy to beat 9.8?”

“You.”

“Okay.” he laughs, settling back into the large leather chair in Farnum’s office. The chair is so big and so dark that he disappears into it. He looks tiny.

And then he springs forward, repeating his boast for the umpteenth time. “Fifty years! I was 50 years
ahead of my time. Make sure you print that.”


Richard Moore is the author of ‘The Dirtiest Race in History: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 Olympic 100m Final’ published by Bloomsbury at £18.99

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