Athletics: Surin steps out of Johnson's shadow

Click to follow
BRUNY SURIN ran clear of not seven, but eight athletes in winning the world indoor 60 metres final. The extra competitor was the fellow Canadian who took world sprinting to the heights and then plunged it down, twice, to the depths - Ben Johnson. And moving away from that dark figure into his own space had taken the fresh- faced 25-year-old from Montreal considerably longer than the 6.50sec he required to cover the distance in the Toronto SkyDome.

A recent survey carried out in Quebec identified Surin as the second most popular athlete in the country after the ice hockey player, Mario Lemieux. But the scandals of Johnson's positive drug tests - at the 1988 Olympics and, provoking a life ban, in January of this year - have caused potential sponsors in Canada to shy away from him.

'I think Bruny is a victim of the thing,' his wife, Bianelle, said. 'People like him, because he's a smart guy and everything. But it's always like, 'Track and field, hmmm. 100 metres, hmmm.' He can't do anything about it.'

But Surin can and has done something about it now. Despite the organisers' statement that around 70,000 tickets had been sold for the three days of competition, there were no more than 5,000 present in the blue-seated bowl to see his victory. However, a worldwide television audience of 500 million bore greater witness to a moment which Surin hopes will mark a transformation in his status.

Since this Haitian-born athlete gave up long-jumping to become a full-time sprinter four years ago, in the wake of Johnson's Olympic disgrace, he has laboured in the shadow of the former world record holder. 'Since 1989, when I won the Canadian championships, and in 1990, people said I was winning because Ben Johnson wasn't there,' Surin said. 'Even when he came back he got all the attention. That was not fair for me. Now I have proved to all the people that I am the fastest Canadian.'

Even after winning his opening heat, Surin, who heads the world ranking list this season with 6.45sec, just 0.04 off the world record, felt confident enough to declare: 'I'm the new guy. I'm the guy in Canada now. And I'm showing everybody that it is possible to achieve big goals in track and field without taking drugs. Everybody is going to know who Bruny Surin is. The name will be known.'

Surin's is a quiet rather than a brash confidence. It stems partly from a realignment he gave his career after his disappointment at last summer's Olympics, where he led for 50m in the final before fading to fourth place.

On the advice of a Canadian Olympic team official, Surin began working with a sports psychologist from the University of Montreal. Before Christmas he spent a month working with the American coach Tony Campbell and his leading sprinter, Dennis Mitchell, the Olympic bronze medallist. One early training session of 300m repetitions left Surin flat on his back for 15 minutes, and he had to be helped away. But he came back.

'When I first showed him the programme he said, 'I can't do that type of work. I've never done that before,' ' Campbell recalled. 'I told him, 'You've never run fast before, either. Do you want to win or be a bridesmaid?' '

On Saturday, the pressure which Surin has felt for four years, the pressure which caused him to wake up worrying at five in the morning earlier in the week, was dealt with in the way he had always dreamed it would be. 'A lot of people expected me to win. It was a big relief. Now I've got a title like all the other guys. Now I can say I'm the top of the top. I'm only 25. If I look at Linford Christie winning the Olympic title at 32, I think I have another seven or eight years at the top. I'm a newcomer, but I'm here to stay.'

Ironically, the surface on which he established his new status was the same one on which Johnson had run a subsequently discredited world record of 6.41sec in winning the world indoor title in Indianapolis in 1987.

Frankie Fredericks, the Namibian Olympic 100m and 200m silver medallist, finished 0.01sec behind Surin, but, sadly, Jason John, the 21-year-old from Birmingham, could not take full advantage of the fast surface. Having equalled his personal best of 6.60sec in the semi-final, where he finished ahead of Mitchell, he stumbled out of the blocks in his eagerness and lost control halfway down the track. He remained on his knees for a minute before walking, distraught, across the line and out of the stadium.

John, who had to be persuaded to stay on and run the 200m yesterday, failed to qualify from his heat, finishing fourth in 21.25 sec.

Butch Reynolds, taking part in his first international championships since his controversial two- year drugs suspension, reached today's 400m final without undue strain in a time of 45.70sec.