Early this month on a wet, cold night in the north of France, Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis finally ran their first race against each other since the 1988 Seoul Olympics. They could see their breath while warming up for the 100 meters at the GNP Mobil Grand Prix meet near Lille, but they seemed not to see each other. They took their practice starts elbow-to-elbow in adjoining lanes without exchanging a word or a look.
Lewis wore blue. Johnson was in neon chartreuse and jet black. When they were introduced, the cheer for Lewis was long, laced with the voices of French schoolchildren. The sound for Johnson was deeper, as if a military academy had chimed in.
It was a clean start. Johnson blasted out strongly, his distinctive wide foot placement unchanged from the first steps of his world-record races of 9.83 at the 1987 World Championships in Rome and of 9.79 at the '88 Olympics in Seoul. After 10 meters he narrowly led Dennis Mitchell, who was second. Lewis, taller, always slower to unfold, was back in the pack.
In Seoul, Johnson had bulled to a full-meter lead in the first 30 meters and accelerated on through 60 as no man had ever done. More disheartening to the pursuing Lewis, Johnson slowed only infinitesimally over the final 40 meters, until he began his own angry celebration. Had he not thrown up an arm and turned to taunt Lewis before the finish, Johnson probably would have run 9.75.
July 21, 1991
At 30 meters in Lille, Johnson was caught by Mitchell. Lewis and the rest of the field were closing. If he were to have a prayer, Johnson now had to summon some of the old speed.
Johnson had passionately insisted that he would be just as fast without the anabolic steroids that he had used for sever years before he was caught in a drug test at Seoul and stripped of his gold medal and world records (Lewis's time in Seoul of 9.92 was ratified as the 100-meter world record). However, after serving a two-year suspension, a creaky-clear Johnson, who has been dope tested frequently, ran no better than 10.40 in losing the four races that preceded his show down with Lewis. Johnson's clockings were nowhere near world-class time Lewis, meanwhile, had hit 9.93 behind Santa Monica Track Club teammate Leroy Burrell's world-record 9.90 at the TAC Championships six weeks ago.
Yet Johnson was eager to race. He wanted the money. He and Lewis had signed some time ago to run in Lille for a reported $250,000 each, but meet director Raymond Lorre fretted about Johnson's times. To try and ease Lorre's concerns, Johnson said he would take a 25% cut if he didn't break 10.17.
Johnson could command a hefty guarantee for the rematch because only a race against Lewis would so dramatically reveal how much of Johnson's success had been due to drugs. Johnson said none. "The drugs don't make you faster," he told the German magazine Sport last fall. "They may help you during training, but I'm not even certain of that. But the drugs don't make you run 9.83."
If he could support that contention with a good race against Lewis, Johnson would prove, in 10 redeeming seconds, that he is a great natural talent and a remarkable survivor. But a bad race threatened to be mortifying. A bad race would suggest that he had never been the man he thought he was.
If it were that bad, Johnson would be the last to face it. "Running is my life," he had said before and after his fall, and he meant it. He luxuriated in expensive sports cars, pliant women and the chance to build his mother a beautiful house in the suburbs of Toronto. But he knew the source of those rewards and how, when he was suspended, the pleasures had stopped. He had to stop construction on the house (he kept the Testarossa). So he had to come back, and if he couldn't, it would take more than one race, maybe more than a year of races, before he would understand.
In 1990, Charlie Francis, Johnson's only coach for the 12 years before Seoul, published a book, Speed Trap, which lucidly presented the rationale for Johnson's steroid use. "There have always been athletes who were willing to forgo drugs," wrote Francis. "But these abstainers are unlikely to stop at a single compromise. They tend to be the same people who are unwilling to leave a school or job for full-time training, or move away from friends and family to find the best possible coach, or to make the myriad other sacrifices that go into becoming a world-class athlete. They may be healthier, more well-rounded individuals for their concessions, but they will not reach the top. The best athletes, for better or worse, are the most single-minded ones."
Whether or not that chilling passage describes his contemporaries, it describes Johnson. He has acted from his singular hunger to be the fastest man in the world since he was 12 years old. He defined himself by the necessities of his event: strength, iron nerves, prideful bluntness.
They were all he needed, because the more he put on the muscular armor and baleful image of the primal destroyer, the greater was the world's deep-throated response to him. In the estimate of his agent at the time, Larry Heidebrecht, Johnson's Olympic disqualification cost Johnson $10 million the next year alone. Most of that money was to come from endorsements and appearances in Japan, a society candid about its taste for ominous and violent figures. The Japanese like the silent, rough treatment. Their man was Johnson.
Francis had been a good sprinter himself—and had used performance-enhancing drugs—but kept enough coachly distance to lament the way Johnson went through sports cars and girlfriends. "His depreciation costs alone were huge," wrote Francis of the cars but surely covering the relationships as well. Yet Francis still identified with Johnson's basic lust, for which all else was a mirror, to run inhumanly fast, to beat Lewis.
Its still not clear how Johnson came to have traces of stanozolol and its metabolites in his urine at the 1988 Olympics. Francis was under the impression that Johnson had been using a completely different steroid, furazabol, provided by Dr. Jamie Astaphan, and that Johnson had stopped taking it 26 days before the Seoul 100-meter final, ample time for his body to get rid of enough of the drug to pass the doping test, as he had done 29 times before since 1985.
But one of Johnson's teammates, sprinter Angella Issajenko, later gave the Canadian board of inquiry a sample of the injectable steroid that for three years Astaphan had supplied to Francis's group of sprinters. All along Francis believed it was Estragol, a brand name for furazabol. Analysis showed it to be stanozolol. Thus, there seems to be the distinct possibility that Astaphan made a blunder with rather historic consequences.
After Seoul, Johnson returned home to Toronto in torment. "I was terribly ashamed," he told Sport. "It hurt because of my mom. It was hard to come back. I didn't know what to do, didn't know where to turn. I was standing on the edge of a cliff."
His family, especially his mother, Gloria, who had brought him to Canada from Jamaica when he was 14, and who had worked at two jobs for years so he could train, drew him from the edge and held him together. For nine months after Seoul, Johnson denied that he had ever knowingly taken steroids. Then, faced with the testimony of Francis, Astaphan and his teammates before the Canadian inquiry, Johnson caved in and told the truth.
Advised by his lawyer, Ed Futerman, Johnson went on to assert at the Canadian inquiry that he had always felt guilty that he had cheated and betrayed the Canadian people, that he was glad he was caught and that he wanted to redeem himself. But then Johnson seemed to deny the one thing of which he was living proof: the effectiveness of steroids. They were his records, he said. He would get them back, clean.
Francis wrote that Johnson had always accepted steroid use and its attendant denials as the norm in the hypocritical world of international track and field. The coach offered little hope for a clean campaign. "If we could have reached 9.79 without drugs," said Francis, "we would of course have done so."
Johnson strove for image rehabilitation. He spoke to school groups on the dangers of all drugs, saying anabolic steroids can cause heart attacks, cancer and liver damage. "Steroids," he added, "can change your character."
He never went into personal detail, but it seemed fair to wonder how much of the elemental Johnson had been personality and how much stanozolol poisoning. Was he now going to trade in the Testarossa for a Volvo, term himself a "recovering competitor" and join a men's support group? No. His ambition was not steroid-induced. Only its realization was. He would try again, the hard way.
He went back to weight training. His squats and bench presses, though not quite what he had attained on steroids, were promising. And swiftness, he kept saying, wasn't in a syringe. It was in the mind. "Speed is a matter of how you treat your body and reactions when under pressure," he said. "If my body has been there before and my mind has been there before, I know that I can go back there again."
This spring, in his first outdoor races since Seoul, Johnson went all the way back to how he had run as an adolescent. He was all start and no finish. "He's a decent sprinter," said Lewis's coach, Tom Tellez, "but he doesn't know what to do with a nonsuper body. It must be like you were once a stud horse and now you're a gelding."
Lewis watched Johnson at a meet in Seville, Spain, in May with morbid curiosity. "He looked hollow," Lewis said, "with none of the old drive to dominate. It was eerie."
Lewis longed to close the book on Johnson, with whom he had been furious for years, convinced by the grapevine and circumstantial evidence that Johnson had used drugs and beaten the tests. "The bastard," was Lewis's first clear thought near the end of the Seoul 100, when he knew he had lost. "He did it again."
"I hope we can run, shake hands and end it," Lewis said manfully before the rematch in Lille. "Our only conflict was the drugs."
Don't let Lewis tutor you in diplomacy. "We think of the 1980s as the age of greed," he added. "Ben symbolizes that."
In fairness, they both do. Ben might deserve his place with Donald, Ivana, Imelda, and Jim and Tammy, but Lewis's Santa Monica Track Club demands such astronomical fees and perks that meet directors have little money left for the rest of the athletes. A handy case in point is the capable Mitchell, who won the meaning-laden race in Lille by a meter in 10.09. "No, I didn't get $250,000," he said. "Knock off a lot of zeros, and the five, and maybe cut the two in half. Still, I got a nice bottle of champagne." He took his tone from the label. Very dry.
Lewis produced a little late-race lift and barely made it to second in 10.20, ahead of Adeniken Olapade of Nigeria, who did 10.22. When Johnson reached down for another gear at 40 meters, he found sand in the transmission. "My technique is off," he said after the race. "My power is not even 60 percent."
He faded to seventh in 10.46, 2½ meters behind Lewis, and settled for $187,500. Lewis offered his hand. Johnson waved him away. Later he said he would not shake Lewis's hand as long as they compete.
In 1981, when Johnson—who had a clean personal best of 10.25—was 19 and deciding whether to take steroids, Francis told him that staying clean was equivalent to placing his starting blocks a meter behind everyone else's. Sorry, Charlie. Lewis's margin in Lille represented a swing of four full meters against Johnson since Seoul.
To be sure, years of steroid dependence may have made Johnson a worse natural sprinter now—with his system probably in disrepair—than if he had always been clean, but such before-and-after pictures of the efficacy of steroids will not go unnoticed. In 1988, Dr. Robert Voy ran a drug hotline for the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Today. Most of the calls were from people who wanted to know where the hell they could get some of whatever Ben Johnson took.
"You hope," said Lewis after running in Lille, "that kids see both that [steroids] work and what they cost, in health and in honor. Ben got caught. Look at him now. That's what this race was all about. This night we were able to show that drug heroes do not exist anymore."
Johnson, however, would no more vanish than he would give Lewis a high-five. He got the money but not the point. "It's going to take time to feel the same in the mind," said Johnson repeatedly. "But these guys better be ready in Tokyo [at the World Championships in late August], because I'll be there. I always believe in Ben."
Emotionally, he clearly does. So no one hearing him had the nerve to say, Ben, Ben, the way you used to feel in the mind? That was the drugs.