Athletics: Johnson and temptation's curse: As allegations in Canada link Ben Johnson with another positive drug test, Mike Rowbottom, Athletics Correspondent, examines the sprinter's life and the effects of his ban at the Seoul Olympics

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The Independent Online
IF THE reports of further drug abuse which have appeared in Toronto newspapers are confirmed, it seems that Ben Johnson could never quit the habit of believing in the axiom which underpinned his endeavours throughout the 1980s - if you don't take it, you won't make it.

After the trauma of his detection at the Seoul Olympics, Johnson's protest that he had 'never knowingly taken drugs' gave way to a full confession to the Dubin Inquiry which was set up to investigate the question of drug abuse among Canadian athletes. He subsequently toured schools and colleges warning young people of the folly of taking drugs.

If he has indeed returned to his old ways, the initial reaction is that this is an act of the utmost cynicism. In the wake of Seoul, the Canadian public predominantly saw Johnson as a weak individual who was led astray by his coach, Charlie Francis, the articulate history graduate from Stanford University, and the doctor who supplied him and other athletes with drugs, Jamie Astaphan. There was also an element of feeling that Johnson had done no more than many of his rivals, and had simply been unlucky to be caught.

In a nationwide poll following the Dubin Inquiry, 78 per cent of Canadians questioned said they thought Carl Lewis, to whom the Seoul gold medal went after it had been stripped from Johnson, took steroids too. But if the latest story is confirmed, Cecil Smith, an executive director of the Ontario Track and Field Federation, believes there will be a huge backlash against Johnson by the public which supported him.

'The warning lights about a positive test came on around February 10, then they subsided, and now they have exploded,' he said. 'The fall-out in Toronto so far has been humungous. Just humungous. We have had people calling from Japan, Britain, the US, Australia, everywhere.' Ironically, Johnson said in January: 'I'm ready to do something this year. I'm going to shock the world again one more time.'

As a person, Johnson has not given the appearance of being radically changed by his experiences in 1988. Smith, who has talked to him regularly, last saw him a couple of weeks ago. 'He was the same. He was just Johnson. He likes to crack jokes. He likes to enjoy himself in a simple way. He knows he's under the spotlight, but he still tries to enjoy his life in the way he wants to, even if that is not always the best way.'

Soon after his return from Seoul he was involved in a nightclub brawl. During his two-year ban, he also faced a charge for aiming a starting pistol at another motorist on Toronto's busy 401 Highway.

Although his fall from the heights cost him, in Francis's estimation, dollars 25m ( pounds 17.6m), he is still believed to be worth more than dollars 2m. For his first five races after his comeback in 1991, he was said to have received about dollars 400,000.

Johnson has recently moved out to the northern outskirts of Toronto, to Newmarket, Ontario, where he lives in some style. He still drives his prized black Ferrari Testarossa sports car, worth dollars 250,000; he also has a Porsche and three Mazdas. His girlfriends are reported to be as numerous - 'he is still sowing his oats' said one observer.

Johnson, incorrigibly it seems, is Johnson. The question is, was it in his power to break away from the influences which moulded him? Johnson was born in Falmouth, Jamaica, on 30 December, 1961, the fifth of six children from a modest background. His family emigrated to Canada in 1976 and a year later, as a skinny 15-year-old, Johnson first met up with the man who was to have a profound influence on his life: Francis.

At that time, Johnson was a seven stone weakling - just under, in fact - and had difficulty lasting for a full lap of the track. He developed quickly.

In the Pan American junior championships three years later, he finished sixth in the 100 metres in 10.88sec, behind the winner, Carl Lewis. As the years went by, the gap between the two men decreased. At the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984, Johnson won bronze behind Lewis; in the 1987 world championships he finished ahead in a world record time of 9.83sec. And so to the triumph and disaster of Seoul in 1988, where he took one hour and six cans of low-alcohol beer to provide the urine sample which was to convulse the sport.

Following Francis's life ban from the sport for his policy on drug-taking - 'if you don't take them, you're starting 10 metres behind the start line' - Johnson turned to the respected United States coach, Loren Seagrave, who tried without success to alter his technical style. After a brief period being advised by his former team-mate, Desai Williams, who had also been implicated in the drugs scandal, Johnson turned two years ago to another respected figure, the septuagenarian, Percy Duncan.

But there have been constant rumours that he has linked up again with Francis. During the run-up to the Barcelona Olympics, where Johnson finished last in the 100m semi-final, he was said to have been training with Francis in Portugal. Francis has been a regular visitor to the Metro Centre track in the grounds of York University, Toronto, where Johnson works out. However, Francis has a legitimate interest in that his wife, Angela Coon, also trains there - she will represent Canada over the 60m hurdles in this month's World Indoor Championships in her home city.

Off the track, Johnson's fortunes have been managed since 1988 by Kemeel Azan, who owns a chain of hair salons in Toronto. Upon seeing Johnson emerge bemused and distressed from the Olympics, Azan took him under his wing. He has persuaded him to make free guest appearances speaking out against drugs.

He has arranged elocution lessons to control the speech impediment which Johnson has had since birth. 'He's been trying to help him develop into a decent sort of person coming off the shock of Seoul,' Smith said. 'It would be very sad for Azan if Ben is found guilty again. He says he is devastated by the reports, and I believe him.'


Age: 31.

Born: Falmouth, Jamaica, 30 December, 1961.

Lives: Toronto, Canada.

1976: Emigrated to Canada.

1980: On Canada's Olympic team.

1982: Won Commonwealth silver medal at 100 metres.

1984: Became the first Canadian sprinter for 20 years to win an Olympic medal - the 100m bronze in Los Angeles.

1986: Won Commonwealth 100m and relay golds.

1987: Won world title in world record time of 9.83sec in Rome. Won world indoor 60m title. Won all 21 races in finest season for sprinter.

1988: Won Olympic 100m gold in Seoul in world record 9.79. Disqualified and stripped of gold and record after drugs test showed traces of the steroid Stanozolol. Banned from athletics for two years. Reported to police after aiming a starter's pistol at another motorist on an expressway in Toronto.

1989: Admitted to Canadian government's Dubin Inquiry that he took drugs regularly for six years before Seoul. Stripped of world indoor 60m record (6.41), world 100m record (9.83) and 1987 world title. 1991: Returned to competition at indoor meeting in Hamilton, Canada. Went on to reach world indoor 60m final, but best 100m time of year was only 10.31.

1992: Went into hiding before Olympics. Emerged to run 100m, but went out in semi-finals.

1993: February, won 50m indoor race in France in 5.65, just 0.04 outside world record.

During 1982-1988 period, when he admitted taking drugs, Johnson broke one world, five Commonwealth and eight Canadian 100m records, and eight world indoor records at 50 yards, 50m and 60m.

(Photographs omitted)