Big Ben he's not, but scandal still muscles his life

MIKE LITTWIN

August 01, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

BARCELONA, Spain -- Ben Johnson is in the starting blocks, which was once like saying Willie Mays is up to bat. He looks good. His head is shaved. He's wearing a gold necklace you could use as a belt. We know Johnson can't run anymore. So that's not the question. The question is: Can he still pose?

In the pre-scandal days, when he could do both, Johnson had a body you could teach anatomy from. Talk about rippling muscles. When this guy flexed his arm, it looked like the tide was coming in.

When Big Ben walked into a room, Schwarzenegger would think twice before he took off his shirt.

And now?

OK, since you asked, the musculature is reduced to typical sprinter's size -- which is to say pretty darn good, but no one's going to ask Johnson to make any Terminator movies.

So, it was the steroids, right, just like we thought? It sure wasn't the shoes.

That's pretty much what you wanted to know, isn't it? Glad to help. You see, Ben Johnson is back in the Olympics -- this time as a curiosity piece.

It must be a humiliating experience, although Johnson must have thought he had nothing more to learn on the subject. He's the Dr. Ben Johnson of humiliation.

And yet, I wonder if he understood his fate here: Whenever Johnson shows his face, they stare, they point, they gossip. This is the flip-side of fame. We seek out the taint of scandal; we're disappointed when there's no scarlet letter.

People look at him now the way they do Nixon or Pee-wee Herman or Pete Rose.

Today, he rests on the fringes of these Olympics, a 100-meter man with virtually no chance for a medal. After struggling through two preliminary heats yesterday, Johnson figures to be eliminated in the semifinals today.

He isn't back. He's simply here, and it's fair to ask why he bothered. Maybe his point was simply to be seen, to say that he has survived.

Or maybe he holds out hope of rehabilitation. I wonder.

The glory days are a dim memory, for that glory, we now know, was stolen. As for the inglorious times, he'll never shake them. They define him. We know who Ben Johnson is. He's the cheater, who, the morning after his great victory in Seoul, answered the knock on his hotel room door and listened as they told him he failed his drug test and must give up his gold medal, his world record, his honor, his everything.

In the space of maybe 12 hours, he crossed the great divide from hero to pariah. No one in the world of sport ever fell so fast, so far, so absolutely.

And so we stare.

It isn't completely fair, but what is? Life is hard, and sometimes you don't make it past the semis.

The truth about Johnson -- or maybe one truth about Johnson -- is that he was the guy who got caught when everyone believes that so many others, some as famous as he, were just as guilty.

And wasn't Johnson, who came to Canada from Jamaica at 15, whose life was always put in the hands of some trainer or some doctor, a victim of a kind? Maybe. But he was 26 at Seoul, and plenty old enough to assume responsibility for himself.

He was 26, and the sprint world was much different. The year before, in the world games at Tokyo, Johnson had shocked everyone by beating the great Carl Lewis and setting a world record. Lewis had been complaining that Johnson was dirty -- that the track world had a drug problem. Most people said Lewis was simply a bad loser.

And then came the 9.79 seconds in Seoul. Maybe you watched him. He broke cleanly, then drove himself faster and faster and faster. They say you can't keep getting faster over 100 meters, but they say, even when they watch Michael Jordan, that you can't stop in midair. Who knows what's possible?

In that race, Carl Lewis ran the fastest time of his life, and Johnson smoked him.

Then, they told us he cheated, just like Lewis said.

It's all a blur after that. Johnson drew a two-year suspension. His coach was suspended for life. His doctor was made to confess his role.

And Johnson all but disappeared.

They say he's still big in Italy and in Japan. His shoe company never dropped him. But there are no endorsements at home, no more billboards.

Last spring, he came to Florida to train with Dennis Mitchell, the American sprinter who may win the gold here. The reports were that Johnson came to party. But he worked, got back into reasonable shape, and then tried to qualify for the Olympics. Finally, he ran a 10.16 in the Canadian national championships.

But he slipped when he came to Europe. And his second-heat time yesterday was only 10.30, fourth in a heat in which only four advanced and the winner was clocked at 10.08.

"I don't feel any pressure," he said.

He also said he'd make no promises as to his performance. Mitchell and Leroy Burrell are the stories now. Maybe old Lin Christie. Maybe one of the Africans. Lewis didn't make it because he had a virus. Johnson is here, but only as a memory.

There is a postscript, though. There's a sprinter named Jason Livingston from Great Britain. He's the European indoor champion in the 60. Johnson is his idol, and they call him Baby Ben. Three days ago, it was announced that Livingston had failed a test for steroids and that the British team had suspended him and was sending him home.

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