Fool's gold, paradise lost

Ben Johnson is trying to get his life back on track.
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The Independent Online
TIME HAS moved on since the day that Big Ben struck. Thursday, in fact, is the 10th anniversary of the afternoon Ben Johnson blasted from his starting blocks in Seoul's Olympic Stadium and left Carl Lewis, Linford Christie and the rest of the world trailing in his high-speed wake. Big Ben struck gold with a vengeance, smashing his own 100m world record in the process. It proved, however, to be tarnished gold.

Within 48 hours the world's fastest man had been unmasked as the world's fastest cheat. "From hero to zero in 9.79 secs," the Toronto Sun lamented as Canada's most famous adopted son, an emigrant from Jamaica at the age of 14, returned home to his infamous lot as a national disgrace. Ten years (and another failed drugs test) after, Johnson is back on his marks again - this time, as the not so bad, and not so big, Ben.

Tomorrow morning, in the Osgoode Hall Courtroom in Toronto, the Ontario Court of Appeal will consider whether to lift the lifetime ban imposed on Johnson by Athletics Canada, and upheld by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, after his second contravention of track and field's anti-doping rules five years ago. Johnson's manager, Morris Chrobotek, will be claiming unfair restraint of trade on the grounds that his client has lost $100m in potential earnings, was not guilty of the second offence, and ought not be kept in sporting exile while the likes of Mark Mc-Gwire are free to ply their trade and fight for places in the record books.

On the latter count, Johnson has cause for complaint at the very least. While the besmirched sprinter serves his penance as the biggest fish caught in the sporting world's drug-net, McGwire bats on in pursuit of the Major League's home run record - an all-American hero, despite his admitted use of andiostenedione, a testosterone-boosting compound banned by the International Olympic Committee but not by the baseball authorities. Then there are athletes such as Grit Breuer and Aleksandr Bagach, both winners at last month's European Championships in Budapest and both, like Johnson, two-time drug offenders.

"Three months ago I would have said Ben had no chance with his appeal," Steve Buffrey, the Toronto Sun's man on the Johnson beat, pondered on Friday. "But there seems to be a lot of support for him now. People have seen what's happened in the Tour de France, what's happened with Michelle Smith and what's happening now with Mark McGwire. They're saying that what Johnson did was technically cheating but that it's not a lot different to what's going on in all these pro sports. There's certainly a groundswell of public sympathy for him."

That itself underlines how times have changed in the 10 years since Johnson was booed through the arrivals lounge at Toronto Airport, the morning after his 9.79sec world record run (since removed from the books but still unmatched) was found to have been fuelled by the anabolic steroid Stanozolol. Amid the the national uproar, and baying for tainted blood, the Canadian government commissioned an inquiry into the use of drugs in sport, the Dubin Inquiry. At the subsequent hearing Johnson admitted he had been one of 14 athletes in Charlie Francis's sprint group who followed a systematic steroid programme administered by Jamie Astaphan, a doctor from the Caribbean island St Kitts.

He served a two-year suspension, returned to competition in 1991, reached the Olympic 100m semi-finals in Barcelona in 1992, and was banned for life when excessive levels of testosterone were found in a urine sample he gave after an indoor 60m race in Montreal in January 1993. Johnson, however, has always maintained he was an innocent victim the second time around. If his appeal fails tomorrow, he intends to continue his legal fight for reinstatement by challenging the validity of the Montreal test, contending that the fateful sample was stored overnight in a car boot instead of being refrigerated.

"I will keep going," Johnson pledged last week. "I'm a human being. I have a right to make a living, just like everyone else. I'm just waiting for the opportunity to come back someday. And when that day arrives I will be ready."

Johnson does not deny that he is ready to make a fast buck. He was not slow to exploit his notoriety in his first comeback, most lucratively in the re-match he contested with Lewis in Lille (which was won, ironically, by Dennis Mitchell , the American sprinter banned last month for a doping offence). "Everybody needs money," Johnson said. "It's what makes the world go round, right?" Whether the world's fastest (chemically assisted) man can make his legs go round as quickly as they used to is, however, another matter. With nothing to do other than idle around the suburban Toronto home he shares with his mother and two sisters, Johnson has continued to train throughout his enforced exile from athletics - for three hours a day, six days a week. Claims that he clocked 10sec flat in a recent time trial have been frowned upon in Canada. Nevertheless, when asked how fast he thought he could run next summer, the 36-year-old replied with a straight face: "Fast enough to break 9.79sec."

That begs the question of what assistance Johnson might require to match his drug-charged deeds of old. And he has not flinched from answering it. Steroids, he says, have been replaced by creatine, a natural compound, as the muscle-building booster to his diet. "I didn't use it when I made my comeback before," he said. "That's one reason why I think I can run faster this time, if I get the chance to.

"A lot of people have been saying they want to see me back, that the lifetime ban is a nonsense. It's encouraging. It's all been very positive." That, of course, was the problem with the troubled water Ben Johnson passed in Seoul 10 years ago. It was very positive indeed.

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