Johnson has been slow to admit wrongdoing
Second of a two-part series on the impact steroids can have -- directly or indirectly -- on those whose paths they cross.
TORONTO -- The Ferrari is finis. The
"Now?" he says. "No," says the visitor, taking a peek behind. But the former Olympic sprinter steps on the gas as if he's heard a starter's pistol. Horns blare, brakes squeal, and an accident is avoided.
Johnson is disgusted. "I thought you said `now.' It's that American accent."
Johnson, who ran a world-record time of 9.79 seconds in the 100-meter dash in the Seoul Games Sept. 24, 1988, only to have his record and his gold medal stripped after he tested positive for steroids, is defiant and unapologetic 17 years later.
"I didn't make no mistakes," he says. "I apologized a long time ago. I don't have to apologize anymore. I don't do that now. Everything is a drug. Aspirin, vitamins, medications. It's all a drug."
Spend a day with him and you realize he sets a gold standard for dishing blame. Probably best not to call him a cheater, either.
"Don't tell me I cheated the system because that's [expletive]," he says. "I didn't get treated fairly by the system. They cast me out and they were jealous because I turned in the fastest time ever run by a human and it was impossible at the time."
Later on Johnson admits that using steroids was worth a lead of "4 meters, maybe."
State of denial
The stripping of the gold medal was a watershed day in sports because the cheater wasn't an obscure Soviet-bloc weightlifter but an Olympic headliner from North America. It brought the steroid debate front and center and into the court of public opinion. When Johnson was the fastest man in the world, Canada celebrated en masse, but after the scandal he was referred to by politicians and media as Jamaican-born Ben Johnson. He emigrated from Jamaica in 1976.
He refers to politics as poli-tricks. "Why am I disgraced? In the eyes of the people, I'm still the best sprinter of all time," he says. Tim Montgomery of the United States ran a 9.78 in 2002, but Johnson says that the record run was wind-aided. "They say it was 2.0 [meters per second, the legal limit of wind] but I know it was 2.1, 2.2. They gave it to him because it was an American. I just don't like American officials in track and field."
In the most anticipated and dramatic 10 seconds of the 1988 Olympics, Johnson, in the same field as his hated American rival, Carl Lewis, exploded out of the blocks and opened a significant lead. He slowed slightly as he crossed the finish line, turned toward Lewis, and pointed skyward.
"I mean, 9.79 and slowing down. I knew the world record was broken, so I didn't want to smash it too much, so I slowed down a little," says Johnson, marveling at his accomplishment. "That's incredible, and it's never been seen before in the world."
Johnson says Lewis shouldn't even have been in the race.
Four of the sprinters in the 100-meter field had at one point tested positive for drugs. According to documents released by Dr. Wade Exum, a former United States Olympic Committee director of drug control, Lewis tested positive for three different stimulants prior to the Games, but the USOC accepted his appeal on the basis of inadvertent use and he was allowed to compete.
The documents reveal that more than 100 US athletes (19 medal winners) tested positive between 1988 and 2000. But only a few were sanctioned.
"[Lewis] tested positive," Johnson says. "They all tested positive. They're all doin' something. Everybody's got dirt in them. Let's talk about the clothing."
The Ben Johnson Collection comes out in May.
The subject turns to baseball. Was Johnson laughing at the recent congressional hearings on steroids?
"I'm not laughing," Johnson says. "Steroids does not make a better baseball player. But if it's there, players are going to use it to get some energy. Yeah, people want to see home runs. They want to see records broken. People want to see entertainment. That's what it's all about. Entertainment."
Johnson says he reads the papers and is aware of the grand jury inquiry into the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative in which San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds reportedly said he used steroids and thought he was using the nutritional supplement flaxseed oil. "I don't think Congress is going to buy that," says Johnson. "Flaxseed oil? If they're using it, they're using it. It's not a big deal.
He also saw Mark McGwire testify and could empathize with the media backlash the former St. Louis slugger experienced.
"Well, he is going through what I went through 18 years ago," Johnson says. "He deals with his problem. I deal with mine."
Johnson doesn't think Olympic-style testing would work in the US.
"They need a company outside the American doping federation and outside the IAAF [International Amateur Athletic Federation].
"The US federation covered up most of the athletes. We know of six different Yankees that tested positive in Seoul and only Ben Johnson gets shafted."
There's no love lost between him and Lewis.
"We're not friends," he says. "Never been, never will. Carl Lewis could never beat me on the track or off."
Several calls to Lewis went unreturned.
"He's trying to tell the world he's clean over the years. You know I did something wrong. He tested positive three times and he shouldn't have even be at the Olympic Games at Seoul. And he has my gold medal and one day I will get my gold medal back."
Johnson says there will always be new drugs and ways to hide them.
"Nothing you can do about it," he says.
Why ban anything?
Dealing with the past
Ben Johnson is alternately jovial and jousting. An old man challenges him to a race and he asks him, "Where's your car?" Pretty women put their arms around him and pose for pictures. Wise guys ask if the pants have steroids in the pockets.
The motto of his new clothing collection is "Catch Me." And he's been caught more than once. He attempted a comeback in the early 1990s but tested positive for testosterone in Montreal in 1993 and was been banned for life by the IAAF. Johnson was tested Jan. 15, 17, and 21, and only the second test came back positive. He claims it was improperly handled.
"The urine they took from me, the lady took it home," Johnson says. "By the time they put it in the fridge and tested it, it was positive. They did it on purpose. This is key stuff. My justice will come."
Losing the Olympic gold cost him a fortune. "I lost 100 million in endorsements," he says.
So he flew to Libya and was hired by dictator Moammar Khadafy to train his son for soccer. "You have to respect the culture of the Muslims," says Johnson. "Khadafy is a good person. I trained [his son] to be a good athlete. It was quite a good experience back and forth for four years.
"I was happy to be there. He loves sports, he loves soccer."
Johnson also lined up to race a thoroughbred, a pacer, and a stock car. He finished third in the race, as the car was left spinning its wheels on a muddy track. It reminded people of Olympian Jesse Owens, who raced horses. "He got paid for it, I didn't," says Johnson. "I raised money for charity, sick kids.
"I didn't have to work. I had my own money saved up. I invested it."
He also tries to mentor kids he sees at the track at York University, where he works out nearly every day.
"We need to show good faith for the young kids, the next generation coming up," he says. "Today, I tell the kids don't use drugs, because it's bad for you."
Now 43, Johnson looks physically fit. He claims he could still run the 100 meters in 11 seconds.
Johnson said the problems with steroids are often from self- medication.
"It depends on how you abuse it," he says. "If you abuse it for a period of time, there can be some side effects. But I was monitored by a doctor, that's the difference, so everything was OK."
New line of work
Johnson is seated at a table near Toronto's City Hall, with running suits, hats, and bags for sale. The event is a send-off for a man walking from Toronto to New York and back to raise money for tsunami victims. But most of the metal seats are empty, the plaza nearly deserted. "Canadians don't support anything," he says.
They sell only two hats ($28 Canadian) in two hours despite the striking logo of Johnson silhouetted in mid-flight. "That's my shadow at Seoul, 60 meters into it. I sped up."
But he lost his clothing endorsements. "Now, I have control over it," he said. "I'm the president, and it's the best thing that could ever happen to me."
He's off to visit the clothing factory, where he inspects the work, and frowns at possible delays. He's asked to identify the fabric of a cashmere sweater and fails.
"My sister is a fashion designer," he says. "I deal with concept. I make sure pattern quality is good."
"He's fiercely determined and motivated to succeed," says Di-Anne Hudson, a company vice president and designer of the Ben Johnson Collection.
Johnson says keeping busy has helped ease the pain of the death of his mother, with whom he lived until she died in 1990. "I did something good in my life. My mom and dad saw me run faster than any human, and that's it. Better than a gold medal.
Johnson feels vindicated by time.
"Nobody can be like me," he says. "Time is the best judge. I knew sooner or later everything would come out."