Charlie Francis: Athletics coach notorious for his involvement in the Ben Johnson doping scandal

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The Independent Online

To many, Charlie Francis was the devious brains behind a sporting fraud regarded as the biggest scandal in Olympic history, when, in 1988, Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter whom Francis coached, was stripped of the 100 metres gold medal in Seoul after testing positive for banned anabolic steroids.

Yet Francis managed to throw a flicker of light on to the murky world of doping in sport, both through his rejection of sports authorities' hypocrisy and through his astonishingly frank testimony at the official Canadian government enquiry into the Johnson scandal.

Two decades on from Seoul, Francis's conflicted legacy is that undoubtedly he helped to improve the integrity of drug testing in international sport. Not that Francis, forever the sceptic, thought so. "If anyone is clean, it's going to be the losers," he said ahead of the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Francis was probably correct. A couple of years later, he was the coaching mastermind at the heart of the Balco scandal, the US federal investigation into widespread doping that eventually ensnared the likes of Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery and Britain's Dwain Chambers.

Charlie Francis died in hospital in Toronto on May 12. He was 61, and had been ill with rare form of non-Hodgkins' lymphoma for five years. He was born in Toronto in 1948 and grew up in the city's affluent Rosedale suburb. His father was an artist and former ice dancer, who had developed the "Canasta Tango", while his mother, from a US Navy Annapolis family, was a teacher.

"I always loved to run," Francis wrote in his 1990 ghosted autobiography, Speed Trap, complaining that he had no hand-eye co-ordination. "In schoolyard games, I would be picked next to last, just before the fat kid."

He started serious sprinting aged 15 and went on to win five national age-group titles and set a Canadian under-18 100 yards record of 9.6 seconds. Senior titles followed, but it was at the Munich Olympics in 1972, where Francis, who did not progress beyond the second round of the 100m, had his Damascene moment with anabolic steroids. "I felt foolish in my ignorance," he wrote, "but also intrigued."

After retiring as an athlete through injuries, he became a sprints coach genuinely admired worldwide for his technical expertise and innovation. Athletes coached by Francis set 32 world records and won nine Olympic medals. They included Angella Issajenko, Desai Williams – who also raced in that infamous Seoul 100m final – and the hurdler Mark McKoy.

But Francis will always be remembered for Seoul 1988, and Johnson, undoubtedly the coach's brightest star. Francis had carefully nurtured Johnson's raw power from the age of 15 until, in 1987, he won the 100m world title in Rome in world-record time, defeating America's four-time Olympic gold medallist Carl Lewis.

The track rivalry between the arrogant American and the stuttering Johnson enthralled the world in the build-up to the 1988 Olympics. Its dramatic conclusion had ramifications for years afterwards.

"I will always have a lot of love for Charlie," Johnson told a Toronto newspaper yesterday. "Charlie and I were always friends, never mind what happened in the past."

Francis never denied that his athlete used anabolic steroids, but he said that he would not have been stupid enough to inject the archaic drug stanozolol, which takes a long time to clear the body, when oral steroids, with quicker clearance times and therefore less risk of detection, were available. He believed that Johnson was deliberately set up, his drink spiked by rivals, in a conspiracy theory worthy of the grassy knoll.

Francis always maintained that the reason his athletes used steroids was because their rivals were doing so. History records that, of the seven men in that Seoul Olympic final alongside Ben Johnson, five, including Lewis and Britain's Linford Christie, were subsequently involved in doping cases. Lewis and Christie, promoted to gold and silver medals after Johnson's disqualification, have kept those medals to this day.

After the Seoul scandal came the federal inquiry, when Francis was complemented by the chairman, Justice Dubin. Officials at Athletics Canada rewarded Francis's candour by banning him for life. Francis, though, continued working with clients ranging from businessmen to professional basketball, American football and ice hockey players. He might have made more capital from media work. Yet he often cut an elusive, enigmatic figure.

In the early 1990s, I was working on a BBC documentary about the notorious British official, Andy Norman. We sought out Francis to corroborate a story that he had been recruited to assist with the doping programme of a leading woman athlete. She shocked even Francis when she explained that she had routinely avoided positive drug tests by catheterising "clean" urine into her body using a bubble-making toy.

Two months of daily phone calls and faxes from the BBC eventually got Francis to agree to meet. Eagerly, we flew to Toronto where, for four days, Francis avoided our calls.

We parked outside his home and eventually he came out and spoke. We took him for a coffee, where he engaged us for three hours with all sorts of insights and anecdotes, including confirming the story about the bubble-blowing toy. Then Francis got up and announced, "But I won't say anything on camera," and walked out of the café and sprinted to his car.

Charlie Francis takes many secrets with him to his grave, including whether Ben Johnson might have been a world-beater without drugs. As Francis said: "I guess that's the one thing you can't know."

Steven Downes

Charles Francis, athletics coach: born Toronto 13 October 1948; married Ange Coon (one son); died Toronto 12 May 2010.