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Sunday, 22 July, 2001, 00:38 GMT 01:38 UK
The pariah of the sporting world
Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis
Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis were rivals
At the Seoul Olympic Games, Ben Johnson ran faster than any man in history. Two days later he tested positive for drugs and was stripped of his medal. David Belton went to meet Canada's faded hero.

It is a surreal moment meeting Ben Johnson.

There are no lackeys, no public relations people fussing around, no chintzy sofas in an executive suite of an international hotel.

46 strides, a top speed of nearly 50 Km an hour, 100m in 9.79 seconds. He'd destroyed his rival Carl Lewis and run faster than any man in history

We meet at a car wash on a freezing cold December afternoon in a bleak Toronto suburb. Johnson's freezing fingers are struggling to put tokens into the machine for his Superwax.

On the passenger seat of his Toyota are various bottles of vitamins, a can of 7Up and an old tattered pair of tracksuit trousers. Our rendezvous seems to befit Johnson's status as one of international sport's most enduring pariahs.

Famous bluntness

"You're l-l-l-late," says Johnson. The stammer that used to induce panic in presenters is still there - and the famous brevity. I am reminded of the interview after his victory at the 1987 World Championships. It went like this:

Interviewer: "Ben Johnson, you said you'd run 9.83 seconds and you ran 9.83 seconds! How do you explain that?"

Ben Johnson: "I don't talk shit."

The broadcast went out live to 10m American viewers.

It was that no-nonsense straight talking that his adopted homeland loved so much, especially when questioned by moronic American interviewers.

Canada's dislike of its brash southerly neighbour is no secret, and Johnson symbolised what Canadians believed were the fundamental differences between the two countries - the United States had segregation and race riots, Canada boasted a Jamaican immigrant and sporting hero who was embraced by the whole country.

I climb into his car and we set off for his old training ground. Burger Kings and Firestone Tire franchises lurch out of the gloomy afternoon.

Toronto is an unremarkable place. Yet the ordinariness of our journey only adds to an ineffable feeling that I am sitting next to someone who really did find true greatness.

Ben Johnson
Johnson ran faster than any man in history
I watch him as we drive along. He is 39 years old now and has grown sleeker. But he has the same shaven skull and those same intense, trusting eyes. It was that intensity that used to intimidate his opponents.

There was never any of the pumped-up swagger of Linford Christie, nor the primping fussiness of Carl Lewis. Johnson just took his tracksuit off, got into his blocks and waited for the gun.


In Seoul, on that bright September afternoon in 1988, when the gun went off, Johnson exploded down the track.

Of course he took drugs, he says. You couldn't compete if you didn't take drugs

Forty-six strides, a top speed of nearly 50km/h, 100m in 9.79 seconds. He had destroyed his rival Carl Lewis and had run faster than any man in history.

It is worth putting his achievement in context. Between 1968 and 1983 the 100m record was shaved by 400ths of a second. In one year Johnson took 1600ths off the record.

I ask Johnson about it. He shrugs. "I knew that day - when the gun went off - the race was over."

This is why people here in Canada still love Ben Johnson. He tells it just the way it is because that is all he knows how to do.

"Ben is Ben," Canadians say with a shrug. And it's true - he' s without self-regard and it is hugely endearing.

I ask him about the drugs. He stares at me. Of course he took drugs, he says. You couldn't compete if you didn't take drugs.

It was like they said in the inquiry - if you didn't take drugs you might as well set your blocks up a metre behind the start line.

The inquiry was the Royal Commission which the Canadian Government set up after the Seoul Olympics - still widely seen as the most comprehensive investigation into drugs in sport.

Under oath, coaches and athletics officials had to admit that at least 40% of their athletes were using drugs - perhaps as many as 80%.


Looking back and knowing what we know now about the extent of drug use in sport, our shock at Johnson's downfall seems painfully na´ve.

Johnson's humiliation after Seoul was devastating. He was accused of betraying his country. Some started to refer to him as Jamaican-born - so much for Canadian multiculturalism. He also lost as much as $30m.

Colonel Gaddafi
Johnson is now coashing Colonel Gaddafi's son
After the inquiry, insult was heaped upon humiliation when his lawyers considered a defence suggesting he was too stupid to understand why he had been taking steroids. Johnson may be no academic but he knew exactly what he was taking and why.

Nowadays Johnson lives a strange, disjointed life. His friends - what few he has or trusts - say he is great with kids but no one will risk employing him.

Instead he divides his time between Toronto, where he lives with his mother and sisters, and Tripoli where for the last two years he has worked as personal trainer to another pariah, Soad Gaddafi - son of the Libyan leader.

We have reached the indoor stadium. Johnson mooches around the warm-up area - stretching those vast calves that pounded him around the running tracks of Europe and Asia for cash and records.

It is not long until Christmas, and Johnson tells me he fully expects to be in Tripoli within a week. I ask him if his family will be disappointed. Those eyes glower at me. Got to work, he says.

A young athlete comes up to me and asks me if I know who it is I am filming. Of course, I do, I say. Ben Johnson. No, he says and smiles. "That guy you're filming there - he's the fastest man who ever lived."

We film Johnson jog slowly around the track. I have this overwhelming feeling of sadness.

"Ben Johnson - Lost Seoul" will be shown on Reputations, BBC2 on Tuesday 24th July at 9pm.

Ben Johnson on his coach
"He [Francis] gave me tablets and told me not to say anything"
Ben Johnson
after his 1988 positive test
Ben Johnson
"I lied and was ashamed for my family"
Ben Johnson
"Everybody cheats in life so why Ben Johnson"
See also:

13 Jul 00 | Athletics
Thief out-sprints Johnson
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