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Ben Johnson: The original drug cheat takes a run at redemption

It was 25 years ago that Johnson stopped the clock in Seoul’s Olympic Stadium at 9.79sec, the fastest man ever. It was the most tainted race in sport – six of the eight runners have been associated with doping – and a race that still casts a shadow over the start line of every 100 metres.

Johnson accepts a cup of tea with a nod as the commentator goes into rhapsodies. Then comes Johnson’s voice: “The world caved in on me… it cost me everything… I doped and I am sorry… pressure to be the best is all-consuming.” Fuller leans forward and turns off the laptop. This is his project, #ChooseTheRightTrack, one for which in April he tracked down Johnson – a man who, Fuller says, “personified doping” – to his home in Toronto.

The plan is to take Johnson back to Seoul and on 24 September, the anniversary of the 100m final, for him to stand in lane six, the same lane, the same stadium, and unroll a petition calling for greater action in the war on drugs to “improve the waning credibility of world sport”.

Fuller, as in cycling, where he has campaigned vigorously to end Pat McQuaid’s tenure in charge of the sport, selects truth and reconciliation as one of the cornerstones of a new sporting world, one that it takes a leap of faith to imagine. But it will not stop Fuller leaping.

He recently met Lance Armstrong and believes that one day – once the American’s legal battle with the United States government is resolved – he too can play a part in the clean-up process. “I spent three days with him a few weeks ago,” says Fuller. “He’d love to [get involved]. He’s the one person in the sport of cycling that can contribute the most.

“One of the challenges we face is that you are talking about athletes that move through the system after they retire and they go into administration and management roles and these guys too have participated in doping practices. Quite often these are the guys standing holding the flaming torch and the pitchfork screaming, ‘Hang him, hang him, ban him for life’. And it’s that hypocrisy that needs to be dealt with.

“Use the combination of carrot and stick; the carrot is the incentive of no retribution, no punishment; and the stick is if you don’t take advantage of this and we discover either through testimony of others or through some new technology [that you’ve doped] then you are going to be hung, drawn and quartered.”

Johnson is a grandfather now – he spent the London Olympics back home in Ontario with his granddaughter – but his past will not settle in a rocking chair on the porch. Why is he here? “My life has changed in many different ways but I want them [his family] to have a good life if I am not here,” says Johnson. “Carry my name, have a good life… that’s why I am here.”

As has often been the case, Johnson is not consistent in what he says. During an hour in his company he says he has “moved on and dealt with it”, says he wants to change what he sees as a perception that sport was clean until he came along, says the blame should rest largely on those behind the athletes. “And me?” he says at one stage after discussing those who have pointed the finger at him only to be found to have doped themselves. “I’m still the bad guy.”

He is not being paid for his part in Fuller’s crusade. “I’m not looking for fame or media attention,” he says. “I’m just trying to help the situation. I’m trying to help myself and clear my name once and for all and say, ‘This is the problem, I’m not the problem, I’m a small solution of the system that I was involved in’.”

When Johnson arrived in Seoul for the 1988 Olympics he was already the fastest man in the world. After breaking the world record at the World Championships in 1987 he was taken horse racing by Primo Nebiolo, head of the International Association of Athletics Federations. There are claims that he was not tested after the final, but was whisked off to be fêted instead.

Johnson cannot remember, but still clearly smarts with a belief that he was hung out to dry when the clothes line should have been full. Yes, he doped, but his sport, coaches, administrators, should have shared the guilt.

He is a headline act for Fuller’s campaign, a campaign that deserves to be heard, and it is also worth hearing Johnson talk about why he did it. It is not an excuse but it resonates down the years into this age of the doper.

Johnson was 15 when he started running with Scarborough Optimists, in the Ontarian town where his family had emigrated from Jamaica. In 1981, when he was 19, his coach Charlie Francis called him to the side of the track.

“He called me over by the fence and asked me how I feel. I said, ‘I feel great’ and he said, ‘Well you know people you are performing with are using performance-enhancing drugs?’ [he says he did not]. He said, ‘You think about it’. For two, three weeks I thought about it. I didn’t tell my mother, or anybody else, just kept it a secret. I came back to the track and I said, ‘Yeah, I will try it’.”

Johnson maintains he had no real choice. “My situation was as a young boy, my god, what a decision to make, running clean but how am I going to win against these guys doing what they’re doing? I decided that wasn’t fair, I’m going to join the game.”

Does he see it in his successors on the track? Have they joined the game too? “If you look at some of the athletes, in the last two or three Olympics, they’re all hyper. You can look in their eyes. There’s an alert. This is not normal. It’s crazy.

“Most athletes want to win. It’s a temptation. Once you go across that bridge there’s no turning back. You want to win a gold medal? Be fastest in the world? You keep asking yourself these questions. This is the price you have to pay, but this is what you can get in the end, on the other side.

“As a young kid, it’s a path I took. It’s the way my life is. I chose that path and that’s the way it is. Yes, I do have some regrets. What I did was wrong. I’m trying to change that.”

Life in the past lane: Johnson’s rapid fall

* Ben Johnson broke the 100m world record for the first time winning gold at the 1987 World Championships in Rome. By the time he arrived at the Seoul Olympics a year later there were already whispers about his legality.

* On 24 September 1988 he broke the record again, recording 9.79sec to win gold. Three days later he tested positive for the steroid stanozolol.

* Johnson returned from a ban in 1991 and ran at the 1992 Olympics, reaching the semi-finals. A year later he tested positive for excess testosterone and was banned for life. Since then he has coached a son of the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, raced against a horse and a car, and worked as a fitness trainer back in his home state of Ontario.


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