Athletics: Johnson in a race for lost time

The man who cheated his way to a world record is fighting for a fresh start and a chance to show Greene he can still be a force
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The Independent Online
THE WORLD'S fastest man is getting ready for Seville, you could say. But you would have to specify which one. Maurice Greene is not the only man who has run 100m in 9.79sec. "Sure, Ben Johnson ran 9.79," the American acknowledged on his trip to London to promote his appearance in the CGU British Grand Prix at Crystal Palace on Saturday, "but he got penalised for it. He got penalised for cheating. Therefore, as far as I'm concerned, Ben Johnson's time doesn't exist."

Ben Johnson, however, does exist. Like Greene, he is getting ready for a date with destiny in Seville. And, according to his manager, Morris Chrobotek, the exiled speed merchant is getting ready to break Greene's world record. "Look out, world," Chrobotek trumpeted from his Toronto office on Friday. "You've got a surprise coming. Ben Johnson will be back. And he'll be running quicker than 9.79."

Before he gets back, though, Johnson will have to win his marathon race for reinstatement. He could be past the post on 16 August, when the council of track and field's governing body, the International Amateur Athletic Federation, convenes on the eve of the World Championships in Seville. One of the items on the agenda will be whether to uphold the decision made by a Canadian court of arbitration in April to overturn a lifetime ban imposed on Johnson by Athletics Can-ada, and endorsed by the IAAF, in 1993. A sub-commission, including the British official Robert Stinson, has been appointed to consider the matter.

Johnson must obtain clearance from the IAAF before he can return to competition. Having missed the Canadian trials in Winnipeg last month, he will not be getting to his marks in Seville to challenge Greene for the 100m title he himself won in Rome in 1987. But he will be in Europe with his manager on Tuesday, presenting his case for reinstatement at the IAAF's headquarters in Monte Carlo, backed by the 60-page arbitration report which concluded that in imposing the life ban, Athletics Canada, the Canadian governing body of the sport, "failed to follow both IAAF procedures and its own".

The dispute relates not to the drugs test Johnson failed after running his 9.79 in the Olympic 100m final in Seoul in 1988 (he served a two- year suspension for using the anabolic steroid Stanozolol) but to a urine sample he gave after an indoor 60m race in Montreal in January 1993. It showed excessive levels of testosterone, though Johnson has steadfastly maintained his innocence, contending among other things that the fateful sample was stored overnight in a car boot instead of being immediately refrigerated.

"We're optimistic," Chrobotek said, "very optimistic. If the sub-commission supports us then I think it's pretty clear that the council members will. And I have no doubt that they will because the report outlines all areas and also Athletics Canada have acknowledged under oath that they have erred."

At six years and six months, Johnson's fight has already taken five years and 10 months longer than Dougie Walker's. "Yeah," Chrobotek said, "I've just read that Walker has been totally acquitted. God bless the British." Walker's return is also subject to IAAF approval. Unlike Johnson, though, at 26 the Scot who won the European 200m title last summer still has time on his side.

Johnson will be 38 in December. It is 11 years now since he last broke 10 seconds for 100m and seven years since he last competed at world level, as a 100m semi-finalist at the Barcelona Olympics. Johnson, however, has maintained his twice-daily training regime - spending his mornings at the York University track in Toronto and his afternoons at the Venice Gym - and insists he is ready to return to the international circuit. "I'll surprise people," he said last week. "The speed is still there, and so is the acceleration. I'll be up with the big boys."

Johnson's manager has no doubts that his client will be up to speed. "Look," Chrobotek said, when Johnson's age and length of absence from the international fast lane were pointed out, "six weeks ago Ben ran 11.00 when he was 8lb overweight and carrying two injuries. Four weeks ago he went down to 5lb overweight, still carrying an injury, and he ran 10.20 - electric timing, no cheating. And he was just tested, by the way - by the drugs commission over here, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport.

"If he can run 10.20 at 5lb overweight and with an injury, you can imagine what he can run in the next three, four weeks. He's going to go under 10 seconds. He's ready to go.

"The first thing is to get through this appeal. Then I'm going to have Ben running 60m races at first, working up to 100m, where I can tell you 9.79 will be broken by him. He will close off at the Olympics in Sydney. But our objective is to break 9.79."

The message is big and bold, loud and clear. It is unlikely, though, to have the Greene camp quaking in their running shoes. There is a link between the two groups, Greene's coach, John Smith, having been fleetingly guided in his own running career by Charlie Francis, the guru who masterminded Johnson's original drug-fuelled rise to prominence. Unlike Johnson, however, Greene has passed every drugs test he has taken. "I can say on my mother's life that I've never taken anything illegal," he maintains.

Greene also maintains that at 25 he is already the outright, undisputed, fastest man of all time. "OK," he said after running an impressive 9.87 in Stockholm on Friday, "if you want to compare Ben Johnson's 9.79 with my 9.79 you should point out that he ran his with a following wind of 1.1m per second. I ran mine with a wind of plus 0.1. So I've run the fastest 100m with the least wind."

Greene plans to run faster, too. "My goal is 9.76," he said, "and I believe I'll do it this year. There's no limit to how quick I can go." The chances are that time will have moved on for the 100m before old Big Ben gets a chance to strike again.

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