Ben Johnson returns, smaller, slower and poorer

July 30, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- He will line up for his morning heat, and every movement will be watched by thousands of spectators. When he explodes across the finish line, his time will be analyzed, his straining face and muscular torso flashed across the world via television.

Ben Johnson is back.

Four years after his fall from grace, the Canadian sprinter will return to the Summer Olympics during tomorrow morning's heats of the men's 100-meter dash.

He is no longer the overwhelming favorite, the most feared runner of his generation. The luster of his career was tarnished in the moments after he jolted Carl Lewis and won the 1988 Olympic final in an almost incomprehensible 9.79 seconds. After testing positive for an anabolic steroid, Johnson was stripped of the gold and fled Seoul, South Korea, in disgrace.

A two-year ban left his body diminished, his speed slowed, his wallet empty.

Yet, he would not quit. Despite times that would embarrass a collegian, the man who once held the world record of 9.83 seconds continued to travel the international circuit in search of appearance fees and redemption.

Now, reunited, at least unofficially, with his old coach, he is in the Olympics.

But he is rarely seen. Except for picking up a credential at the athletes village and posing for a picture, Johnson has been in hiding, appearing only rarely for a public workout.

He qualified for the Olympics with an impressive 10.16-second time in last month's Canadian trials, his last chance to make the team. Johnson made it to Barcelona the same day that Lewis, the man awarded the 1988 100-meter gold, finished sixth in the U.S. trials.

For Johnson, the time was a remarkable turnaround after he put together a string of races in which his times hovered around 10.40.

"A lot of people counted me out," Johnson told reporters at the trials. "But I told myself I could pull through."

Now that he is here, few expect him to be a factor in the 100. Still, he is like some sort of ghost of Olympics past, his name invoked by officials and athletes as a symbol to transform a sport that appeared riddled with drug abuse.

Before Johnson was caught taking steroids, before he was called to testify under oath in a Canadian government inquiry, there was no out-of-competition drug testing, no major push to at least attempt to rid the sport of performance-enhancing drugs.

"It was a big, huge scandal for the sport," Lewis said. "But since then, it has become a positive scandal. There has been a focus on international drug-testing. If you look at Ben, his life is better because of it. And the sport is better, too."

After expressing bitterness over Johnson's drug use for months after the Seoul Games, Lewis has tempered his feelings toward his former rival.

"We have rules that punish people for mistakes," Lewis said. "But you can't punish people for life. If you can't forgive, you have a problem with your own heart."

Johnson, however, still seethes at the mention of Lewis' name.

"I don't want to know Carl Lewis anymore," he said.

But now that he is here, can Johnson become a factor in the men's 100? Few think so.

Yet, Dennis Mitchell, the U.S. trials champion, said he admires Johnson for sticking in the sport and coming back.

"Ben Johnson taught me a lot of things," Mitchell said. "He taught me achieving something in track and field sometimes is as simple as a thought. If you think you can do something, you can."

Mitchell and Johnson recently trained together in Gainesville, Fla. What started as a vacation for Johnson became an ordeal for Mitchell.

"When we'd be doing block work, I'd say: 'Ben, I can't do it that fast. This is too hard.' He'd say: 'Dennis, I think you can. You can do it,' " Mitchell said.

Even though he has tested cleanly since cheating in South Korea, questions continue to swirl about Johnson's latest time drops. Charlie Francis, the coach who admitted he was involved with encouraging Johnson's drug use, has recently been seen in the stands while Johnson raced and trained.

Johnson told reporters at the trials: "A lot of people are saying bad things right now. When I was running slow, nobody cared. Now that I'm running fast, everybody is trying to make accusations."

But even Lewis is willing to concede that Johnson is running untainted by scandal.

"I don't see any reason for me to think he's not [clean]," Lewis said. "I don't see any indications from his performances that he's not."

Johnson may have been fast enough to get to Barcelona. But he probably won't have the power to get a gold.

The 100 final could be the fastest in history. Lewis and Johnson are gone, replaced by younger sprinters.

"I don't think he's going to be a factor at all," said Leroy Burrell, the former world-record holder in the 100. "At least I hope not, or it's going to be a pretty boring Olympic Games."

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