He struck so quickly, so frighteningly quickly, that he threw us all back upon raw instinct. When Canada's Ben Johnson exploded to a world-record 9.83 seconds in the 100-meter dash at the World Track and Field Championships in Rome last August, we really shouldn't have been so shocked, but we were, and our reflexes didn't do us much credit.
This is an article from the Nov. 30, 1987 issue
Some of us, seeing Johnson so far ahead in the first strides, yelled that he must have jumped the gun. He had not. The electronic sensors in the blocks caught his reaction time as a swift but perfectly legal 0.129 of a second.
Some of us, convinced by long experience that the fastest starters are the slowest finishers, knew that Johnson would fade and be caught by Olympic champion Carl Lewis. Wrong again. Though Lewis tied the old world record of 9.93, he never got close. Johnson won by more than a meter. Those 40-odd inches of daylight now represent the gap between Johnson and all of history's previous World's Fastest Humans.
Yet we—that regally complacent "we" whose jaws dropped when Johnson supplied his proof—should be shocked that we were shocked. Ben Johnson is so good, and has been so good for so long, it's astounding that we simply had no widespread appreciation of his supremacy until Rome.
Johnson was capable of the world record two years ago. The wins and margins were there; only the breezes were not right for records at the World Cup in Canberra, Australia, in 1985 or at Zurich in 1986. We watched him set and reset the indoor 60-meter record. We watched the last 50 meters of his 100 grow ever stronger. What clouded our judgment?
In a word: Lewis. Lewis's 1984 Olympic gold medals in the 100 (in which Johnson placed third), 200, long jump and 4 X 100-meter relay were so impressive that for the next two seasons, when he was hurt (hamstring, knee) and distracted (recording, acting), we gave him the benefit of the doubt. In 1985, when Johnson had the better year, Track & Field News ranked Lewis first in the 100 anyway. In 1986, when Johnson beat Lewis at the Goodwill Games in 9.95—then the fastest 100 ever at sea level—Lewis lightly said, "You have to respect him. This seems to be really important to him. Me? I'm just biding my time this year."
It took Rome and Johnson's 9.83 to club us into sensibility. And along with recognition of Johnson as the best 100-meter sprinter of all time came the uneasy feeling that a deserving man had been made to endure unworthy doubts.
A childhood stutter, the accent of his Jamaican youth and a natural shyness have made Johnson a man who quietly works within his limits, even as he extends them. He presents himself for public notice mainly through his running and gives the appearance of being cool to any judgment except that of the stopwatch, the finish camera or the eye of his coach of 10 years, Charlie Francis.
Lewis, by contrast, is a man of nuanced expression. His mind can seem a searchlight: Whatever he fixes with his gaze thereby glows and is revealed. He wants to sing, he wants to act, so he prepares and performs in these disciplines. And because he does not wish to find himself belting out his meaning to the void, he needs an audience.
Johnson wishes not for applause but respect. But that was the one thing he didn't seem to get from Lewis. In Johnson's view, Lewis pronounced his acknowledgment without performing the inner bow that is the true granting of it. Lewis, so radiantly certain of his own worth no matter how many times he was beaten, was a man guaranteed to gall the taciturn Johnson.
During 1986 and 1987, when Johnson ran faster times than Lewis and defeated him whenever they met, and still he was never running against the "real" Lewis, Johnson said little. But he began pouring his and his coach's and some of his adopted nation's resentment at being ignored into his work. His self-expression would not be talk but power and the technique to control it. In the process he built a musculature that was a startling image of reassurance, even of armor.
He would compress all the anger from all the slights into the heart of his race, into his start. And it would only be afterward, after Rome, after the detonation, that we would begin to suspect what pressures were contained in the vessel that is Ben Johnson.
Johnson was born on Dec. 30, 1961, in Falmouth, on the north coast of Jamaica, 17 miles east of Montego Bay. Falmouth was a prosperous sugar and rum port for two centuries, but it couldn't accommodate deep-draft shipping and fell into disuse. Its economy was moribund by the time of Johnson's arrival as the fifth child of Gloria and Ben Johnson's family of two boys and four girls.
For more than 30 years, the senior Johnson has installed and fixed phones for the Jamaica Telephone Co. Even with a relatively good job, providing for six children required additional effort, so Ben Sr. also raised chickens, ducks and pigs in their small yard, under banana, akee and breadfruit trees.
"We had a cow and goats," says Ben Jr. "We had every kind of animal you could tame." Ben Sr. still keeps 23 beehives in the yard and another 155 on a plot outside of town. "You have to do many little things to make a living in Jamaica," Ben Sr. told Paul Hunter of The Toronto Star. "That way if you miss on one, you can hit on something else."
It wasn't a lesson Ben Jr. embraced. He seems to have been an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket man from the first. His older brother, Edward, sprinted for the Conquerors track club, so at age seven or thereabouts Ben decided that was what he would do, too. Eddie eventually ran 10.4 in the 100 and got a scholarship to Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, but Ben showed no early foot. "I don't remember seeing a lot of potential in him, but Ben would want to talk about track all day," Glen Brown, who ran for the rival Village club, told Hunter. "It seemed to be all he cared about, but we never took him seriously." So Johnson, the most single-minded of children, has heard that tune all his life.
Ben is remembered by his friends as a boy of ravenous appetite who liked swimming, joking around and martial arts movies. His teachers have to think hard to remember him at all. According to Veda Foster, the principal of Falmouth All Age School, "He was quite shy and withdrawn. We really don't know much about Ben. In fact, I was just talking with my staff about how we should put together a scrapbook on him. He's such a hero in town, it might inspire some of the students to read. They'd see a picture of Ben and want to know what was written underneath."
Johnson was an average student in this school, but rural Jamaican education is like rural Jamaican wages. You need something more if you're going to survive.
Hardscrabble Jamaica, cradle of sprinters, usually gives her best to someone else to raise. For example, of the top four finishers in the Rome 100 meters, all but Lewis were Jamaican-born. Third was NCAA champion Raymond Stewart, who runs for Jamaica but was trained at Texas Christian University, and fourth was Linford Christie of Great Britain, who emigrated at age seven.
What goes for athletes goes double for struggling families. Few Jamaicans have not had neighbors go abroad. "My mother had a friend in Canada," says Johnson. "That started it." Johnson's mother went to Toronto by herself in 1972, stayed long enough to find work and get settled, returned briefly to Jamaica and then moved back to Toronto again. The second time, the family joined her. "I went because Mom went," says Johnson, who was 14 at the time. "I didn't really know where I was going."
Gloria worked in the kitchen at the Toronto airport passenger terminal, but Ben Sr. wasn't able to find a job. "Dad didn't like the cold much," says Ben. Finally his father returned to Jamaica, to live in the house in Falmouth, to take back his old telephone job, to keep his bees and hope all was for the best. "Sometimes a man has to suffer to make good," Ben Sr. said, "At times I get lonely and miss them very much. Let's face facts. It's easier for them to have a better life over there. But we are still 100 percent family. As soon as I retire, I think I'll be leaving for Toronto."
Surprisingly Ben Jr. doesn't recall his adjustment to the North as trying. "The first part of the winter, I didn't really feel the cold," he says. "I had Jamaica heat in my body. The first time I ever saw snow, I played in it with my sister for hours wearing just a T-shirt."
He went to Yorkdale High School and because of his accent and stutter was put in classes for the least promising students. "Ben has said, 'They didn't ask me for anything and I didn't give it to them,' " says coach Francis, who calls the program in which Johnson was placed "a pedagogical dumping ground."
"I didn't like to go to school," says Johnson now. "I quit [Centennial College, a community college in the borough of Scarborough, which he briefly attended after graduating from Yorkdale High] and did track full-time. It was a big risk. I could have gotten hurt, and then where would I be without an education? That's why my track money, every bit, goes into investment, for after."
Older brother Eddie joined the Scarborough (now Mazda) Optimist Track Club, and once again Ben tagged along and met the coach, Francis. "I remember seeing his legs," says Johnson. "Real big quads and hamstrings."
The Stanford-educated Francis had sprinted for Canada in the 1972 Olympics, run a 10.1 (hand-timed) 100, worked for a while as an insurance underwriter, then gravitated to coaching.
The raw material Johnson presented to him was hardly fearsome. "At 15, Ben was maybe five-three and weighed 93 pounds, and couldn't make a lap of the track," says Francis. "His brother stayed small, so I never thought Ben would grow. But in six months he went up six inches and gained 43 pounds."
Francis is a man of swift, sometimes cynical intellect who habitually sees better ways of doing things, damn the orthodoxy. He is a compulsive teacher. In the process of explaining why Johnson starts faster with his elbows bent than with them straight, he quickly has a visitor in a crouch, doing drills. "They got on Bob Hayes in 1964 for starting with bent elbows, but he was right," Francis says. "Right for him. Lewis, with his long legs, is different."
Francis usually speaks very softly, which makes his sudden gusts of feeling the more telling. He darkens when destroying the idea that Johnson just appeared out of nowhere this year. In fact, of all the great sprinters, Johnson has risen the most methodically. "He is very stable," says Francis. "He's been making fractional improvement for 10 years." Beginning in 1982, Johnson dropped his 60-meter best by exactly .06 each year for five years in a row. Then, last year, he cut it by .09. "Reason to believe there is more left," says Francis.
The key question is how Johnson, always a great starter, developed an equivalent finish. "Everyone has an envelope of energy, a fixed amount per race," says Francis, stating the problem. "If you spend it at the start, you die at the end. Ben spent it at the start. Ben died at the end. Lewis has always conserved at the start to have speed at the end. But now Ben, rather than conserve early, seems to have enlarged his total envelope. He has more energy to burn. He finishes well almost in spite of his start."
Johnson has done this through drills and exercises that have changed little in years. "Ben never has to learn anything new. He can perfect every exercise," says Francis. He has done it by lifting weights. For example, Johnson does triple bench presses (three sets of three lifts) at 335 pounds. "He values a well-proportioned body," continues Francis. "The core sprint exercises—the hips, the upper legs, the arms—are where he goes high. The others are recreational. He calls them 'beach lifts,' although he'd never be caught near a body-building contest. He even hates those tights everyone wears."
Lewis, one recalls, loves them. Form and function, thy names are Lewis and Johnson.
Francis coaches in the Metro Toronto Track and Field Center, a brick building on the campus of York University that contains a gorgeous 200-meter banked track, a 60-meter straightaway and a weight room. Here Johnson trains six days a week, lifting, drilling, honing his uncanny reaction time. And here he is surrounded, as he has been for a decade, by other fast Caribbean-born runners: Angella Issajenko, who was fifth in the women's 100 at Rome; Desai Williams (10.17 in the 100); and Tony Sharpe (10.19 in the 100).
"Ben hasn't changed at all since '77," says Williams, who finds Johnson a slippery subject for dissection, though he's willing to try. "He's still an introvert. Well, maybe he's a little more flamboyant.... No, not flamboyant. What am I saying? But at least a little more talkative. He's always been mellow, and funny at times. I've never seen him aggressive except when it comes time to run. I remember, way back, we were in Saskatoon for the Indoor, and he wanted some toothpaste, so he pulled a red and white tube out of my bag. Looked like Colgate to me, too, but he brushed and brushed and got no suds, and suddenly his eyes got big and he said, 'What is this?' It was heat rub. But the point is, he never got upset. He was calm. He said,' 'This is how a mon learn to be careful around his friends.'
"He thinks," continues Williams, savoring now. "You don't think he thinks, but the wheels are always turning. 'Let's play craps,' he said in Monte Carlo. Out of the blue. 'Bet what I bet,' he said. He knew all the combinations. We won $1,400. I wouldn't have believed Ben Johnson would play craps. Maybe he has changed a little since '77."
Williams sits quietly for a while. "I guess only a psychologist can figure out what's in his mind. I can't. Charlie can't. He's so controlled. But he jokes around, and we bug him a lot. He takes it. He's a good team player; he can mold, he can fit in in a crowd if there is one person he is comfortable with. He's so personable, I think people will try to use him. But he's smart. He won't let them. He'll never be a politician. He's blunt. He's to the line."
It is a potent phrase, taking us to that line where all posturing must cease. "What Carl says doesn't seem to really bother Ben," says Williams. "He's got tunnel vision. Carl's talk is outside the tunnel."
On Friday nights you can find longtime Johnson family friend Ross Earl, 46, president of the Mazda Optimist Track Club, by riding an escalator to the cavernous Scarborough Bingo Emporium, where the enduring, dreamlike impression is of corpulent women running in ecstasy through clouds of smoke. "Six hundred fifty people on a good night," says Earl, drawing you into a back room. "This is how we've raised over a million and a half for the kids over the last 22 years. We spend it on travel, training expenses, winter training camps in warm weather."
Earl, who teaches 12-to 14-year-olds with learning disabilities at Scarborough's Buchanan Public School, has known Johnson for 10 years as a silent rock of loyalty. "He and Angella Tssajenko are about the only two who have never gone shopping around for other coaches, other sprinters' ideas," he says. "Charlie Francis is a controversial coach. But Ben has trusted him without a worry. His mum always says, 'God will look after Ben,' but she's to be admired, too. She worked extremely hard for her kids. She had two jobs. Without her help Ben couldn't have trained full-time. And his brother, Edward, is a minister now."
Ben's debt to his mother will abide with him. "Things were always so tough financially that from the first time he ever made any money in track, he's talked of one thing, with as much concentration as upon a world record," says Earl. "He's wanted to buy a home for his mother."
Two and a half years ago Ben bought one, a neat brick house in Scarborough, where he, his mother and three sisters now live, and where he will open the door in baggy gray sweats and bare feet. A guest catches a glimpse of a gleaming gold head of Tutankhamen on a stand in the hallway before being seated at the kitchen table. A small green parrot, with intense purposefulness, comes down from the fruit bowl, takes the visitor's pen in its bill and wrenches it from his grasp. It is his master's bird. Johnson grants interviews sparingly, dubiously. But he is also a man of unfailing courtesy, and he retrieves the pen. He says that an avalanche of attention, both corporate and journalistic, has buried him since Rome and made him wish to keep talks with people he doesn't know to a minimum. Yet when asked about his intention, come spring, to build a dream house, he grins and runs to get the architect's drawings.
"Seventy-three hundred square feet," he says, unrolling what seem to be the plans for Brideshead. The parrot hops aside and regards these with solemn interest. The house will have great curving staircases. Its trophy room will not be quite as big as the garage. "Victorian," says Johnson, "with a suite for Mom that will have a separate entrance and staircase. The master bedroom, up here, will be 20 by 27 feet. It should be done by the fall, at the time of the Olympics."
"Building it won't be a distraction?"
"No, I've got it all organized. I just have to keep coming up with the money to pay for it." A house is a good investment, but his prime motive, Johnson makes clear, is to exceed his mother's wildest dreams of where she might one day rest her head. "It's a very nice feeling, yes," he says, "to think about how it will all be."
Johnson's agent, Larry Heidebrecht, demurs when asked to specify Johnson's exact income from race appearance fees, sponsorships from Adidas and Mazda, and endorsements. He does allow that Johnson need not worry about having enough money to build his house in the country.
As Johnson discusses how the press of business has postponed a Hawaiian vacation that was to combine his fondness for swimming, nightlife and friendly young women, his speech never takes on the rapid-fire cadence that it does when he talks with the assembled press. Nor does he conspicuously stutter.
"It used to be almost painful," says Earl. "Ben cruised through the bottom level of high school, and at graduation his reading and math levels were still elementary, but he has educated himself ever since and has had people work with him on the stutter until now it's not often noticeable. He's still sensitive about it, though."
Thus, as Johnson headed to Europe last August for races leading up to the world championships, he had everything under unprecedented control: his house, his speech and his sprinting. Share his reaction, then, upon reading a preview of the Rome 100 in an airline magazine, to wit:
"It appeared his [Johnson's] greatest task lay not in realizing his obvious sprinting ability, but in overcoming an almost debilitating stutter. It seemed almost symbolic: while Lewis was smooth and polished in every respect, Johnson was struggling and faltering."
Walking off the plane, Francis said, "Ben, did you read that thing?"
"Are you angry?"
Johnson recalls the sensation. "Sure, that became part of my race in Rome," he says. "Everything was. Like when I raced Lewis in Sevilla in May. I'd come from Utah, where I'd had a cramp in the cold. The race was close, but I beat Carl again. Everybody was yelling that he'd won." The photo set matters right. Johnson won in 10.06 to Lewis's 10.07. "But I got angry." Johnson made a private vow: "The next time we run, it's not going to be this close."
Lewis reached Rome in spectacular condition. "He had definitely improved," says Francis. "I think he knew he was ready for a 9.90, and if he gets a good reaction time, say .16 or so, and if he leans just right, he's got 9.89. He must have believed Ben just couldn't do that."
Lewis had superior times in the heats and semis. Preliminaries are a form of talk as far as Johnson is concerned. Lewis sprints to feel good, maybe to show a little something, strike a little terror. Johnson just runs to qualify.
Lewis and Johnson drew adjacent lanes for the final. They didn't speak as they took their marks. In the crowd Johnson's mother shut her eyes. It may be in these strained moments before the biggest races that Johnson's inwardness serves him best. However many voices swirl in chaos, he listens only to his own. He's to the line.
"That's what you train for, that concentration," Johnson says. "Experience makes you better at it. I'm not going to panic. I've passed that level."
At the gun, Gloria Johnson kept her eyes tightly closed and began to pray. Her son executed the best start in history. At 60 meters, his time was 6.38 seconds, .03 of a second faster than his world indoor record for that distance. Lewis, who had moved .196 after the gun—thereby surrendering .067 to Johnson—was a meter and a half back at 60 and didn't start to close until 80, when it was too late. At full speed, both men reached 26.95 miles per hour. Near the finish, Johnson somehow saw the clock and knew he would break the record. A flash of joy showed on his face.
Then he reached the line, his mother opened her eyes, and both knew it was fact. He slowed with elaborate care and let it sink in. And it happened that in this one race he had not drained himself of anger.
"Did you know you could run this fast?" asked NBC's Dwight Stones.
"I knew," rumbled Johnson, "because I don't talk no——."
"It was like a venting of three years of frustration," says Earl. "But even so, it surprised me." Once it was out, it was gone. "I have nothing more to say," Johnson contends now. "There's nothing to be proven after Rome."
Nothing statistical, that's for sure. Johnson's 9.83 might have been in the vicinity of 9.75 at altitude, which is where Calvin Smith set the previous record of 9.93 in 1983, so Johnson would have beaten Smith by close to two meters. Because it was at sea level, Lewis's race in pursuit of Johnson must be considered the second-fastest 100 ever.
Among those shaken by the decisiveness of Johnson's victory was Carl Lewis. In the hours afterward, it was as if his searchlight had suddenly been forced into a closet. He swept 10 million candlepower over the walls, hunting ways to escape. He thought to question the start but knew he could not. He questioned his own form, sensing he could have come to full speed earlier.
Finally, after a few days listening to rumors that there were ways to mask or block the presence of illicit anabolic steroids in the TAAF drug tests, Lewis said he was convinced that some of the victors at the worlds had used drugs but somehow passed the tests. He named no names and produced no evidence, but of course Johnson stood accused.
"Ben races so much and is tested so much, how can they say he is on drugs?" says Francis, who estimates that Johnson was tested more than 20 times in 34 races over the summer. "Blocking agents? He's been blocking his kidneys for a whole season? I think Carl is lucky no one has sued him yet."
Johnson has reflected rather sympathetically on Lewis's motives. "You can't be too greedy on top," he says. "Maybe he got used to it, but it can't go on forever. I think he got spoiled and forgot that. Everybody has his own time. Somebody will come and run me off the track, and when that happens, I'm not going to say I was hurt or I was distracted, or the guy who beat me was cheating."
"I've known Carl and his family since 1980," says Francis. "His sister Carol roomed with Angella Issajenko at meets, and I remember his mother, Evelyn, offering to do our laundry. She is genuinely nice. So now I don't know what to say. If I could just dislike the guy, it'd be easier. But I think of his mom, and I get queasy trying to be judgmental."
If all this weren't enough, three times in the weeks following Rome, Lewis and Johnson were at the same European meets. Three times they didn't race. There was talk in both camps of a lucrative three-race series next year that would pair them at 60, 100 and 200 meters, but no deal had been signed. "So we wouldn't meet Carl after Rome for financial reasons," says Francis. "We didn't want to dilute the issue."
Lewis and his agent, Joe Douglas, were aware of the Johnson camp's thinking and disagreed with it. Douglas says, "I didn't think racing in September of 1987 would affect a series of races in 1988. It might even help if Carl happened to beat Ben. I told Larry [Heidebrecht], 'You're making a mistake not racing us. It's going to backfire.' "
In a way, it did. At Lausanne, on Sept. 15, Johnson was contracted to run the 100. Francis swears he was told that Lewis wouldn't be there. In the last hour, meet director Jacky Delapierre allowed Lewis into the 100.
"That wasn't part of the deal," said Johnson, and he switched to the 60. Lewis won the 100 in 10.11 and was cheered. Johnson won the 60 in 6.56 and was jeered by 20,000 Swiss who naturally had wanted to see the two tangle.
"All I'm saying is that I'm not afraid to run against anybody," said Lewis.
To Johnson, the implication that he was ducking Lewis was a cheap shot. "I'm not afraid to run against Carl or anyone else," he said. "I finished my job in Rome."
Thus Johnson's season, spectacular world record or no, ended with a whine. And once again Lewis has artfully put out the story that Things Aren't Settled. Once again a pressure gauge attached to Johnson's forehead will register 5,000 pounds per square inch by spring.
Ross Earl, still sitting in the office behind the smoky bingo hall, allows that he has studied a little philosophy in his time. "Ben, such a simply focused man, is in the simplest of all events," he says. "I enjoy that. He's like Descartes saying, 'I think, therefore I am.' Basic. Elemental. Ben runs, therefore he is. And he reminds me of how Spinoza postulated different levels of intelligence, of understanding. The more you know, he said, the more you understand why things have to be the way they are."
Is this to imply that Johnson's simplicity partakes of that organic, more accepting intelligence?
"It is," Earl says, "if it means he completed himself in Rome. You can tag it as a kind of oneness that was affirmed in that world record. I watched it on TV. I've watched and recruited and coached and raised money for 25 years now, and Ben's the first world-record holder we've ever had. And I sat back, just dizzy with happiness, and thought, "Wow, where on earth do you go from here?' Charlie Francis can coach the rest of his life and never have the satisfaction of seeing Rome again...." He trails off, imagining a few different futures.
"Unless," he says at last, "Ben comes through and does it again in Korea."
"It's a fast track [in Seoul]," Johnson has said. "The air stays calm, like Rome. lean do 9.78."