The Incredible Life of Ben Johnson: World's Fastest Man*

The asterisk says it all. Ben Johnson was the fastest man in the world, until he was caught in the middle of a steroids scandal. His coach remained unrepentant - and Johnson himself was a difficult man to assess - until now.

Revisiting the man at the centre of Canada's steroid scandal

Book cover- Ben Johnson in profile, running  Author Photo. Mary Ormsby against neutral backdrop
(Author photo courtesy Richard Lautens/Toronto Star)

World's Fastest Man* The Incredible Life of Ben Johnson

by Mary Ormbsy

Sprinter Ben Johnson always had a unique relationship with time. At his peak, he could bang out practise runs that consistently finished exactly when his coaches dictated, down to one or two tenths of a second. His feel for the stopwatch was uncanny. How Johnson measures longer intervals is less well known. 36 years have slipped by since he ran 9.79 seconds in the 100-metre final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The young fellow who was at the epicentre of Canada's worst sports disaster is a grandfather of three now.

Mary Ormsby, who was the Toronto Star's Ben Johnson reporter for the entire debacle, vividly hauls it all back into the present, for better or worse, in World's Fastest Man* The Incredible Life of Ben Johnson. Once again, a reader confronts the unsatisfying characters who so completely owned our attention back then.

Details are the life blood of this new bio. Ormsby is fantastic on the mayhem of the first hours after the Olympic gold, and the positive steroid test. She quickly gets to the deeply compromised position that Dick Pound found himself in, as both a lawyer obliged to assist his fellow Canadian team member, and an IOC rainmaker expected to be impartial for the organization. Just as quickly, Ormsby describes the melee Johnson experienced as he plummeted from champion, new multi-millionaire and global star, to an extended perp walk, hustled by burly cops through airport after airport from Korea to his mum's house in Scarborough, Ont.

One sprinter runs far ahead three other sprinters

On the matter of his mum, we learn a lot about the exceptionally close bond between Gloria Johnson and Ben. His five siblings agree that Ben and she were inseparable. Gloria adhered to a somewhat mystical Christian faith, some of which influenced Ben's decisions. The sprinter says everything he achieved in life was for his mum. Ormsby notes that Johnson shed tears only twice in all the years she spoke to him: once describing the 2010 death of coach Charlie Francis, and once discussing Gloria's last days in 2004.

Ormsby tells a story about Johnson that stays with a reader. Toronto, circa 1976, he's hungry and out with some pals in a Downsview area park. One of the boys bagged a pigeon with a slingshot, and the kids lit a little fire and prepared to cook and eat the bird. Police rolled up and said that was not allowed in the big city. It came as a surprise to young Ben. He was equally startled by the racist taunting he encountered in school. We get a sharp sense of how jarring the jump from rural Jamaica to urban Canada must have been for him.

The inner life of an enigmatic man 

Ormsby delivers glimpses of Ben's inner life, which Canadians have never really seen before. In the run-up to Seoul, Johnson took a mental and physical health break in St. Kitts. Basking seaside, he had a sudden realization: "my childhood was taken away from me completely because I went from Jamaica to Canada and right into track and field. So I didn't have time to play with other kids or have fun."

This introspection lands shortly after he has run 9.83 at the world championships in Rome. Ormsby is all over that watershed moment. Millions of dollars suddenly pour into Johnson's hands, way too much of it in cash. The money cascades out like a fountain around him. Coaches, family, clubs, doctors, Canadian sports organizations; everybody's loving their golden goose. Which explains almost everything we need to understand why so many people ignored serious, obvious evidence that the world's fastest man was on steroids.

Central players from the late 1980s come back into focus. Ormsby revisits the familiar rivalry with American athlete Carl Lewis.

We get a clear look at Johnson teammate Angela Issajenko, who in the fall of 1979 was the first of Charlie Francis's track stars to get on the steroid program. Ben Johnson began using Dianabol in late 1981. Issajenko injected him on occasion. Her meticulous journals, documenting years and years of steroid use, were the single most important exhibit in the Dubin Inquiry into drugs in sport.

A sprinter, in the foreground, raises one finger to the sky while two other sprinters look on.

Ormsby, like many Canadians, is still wrestling with the man behind the doping program: "Then there is Charlie Francis. Brilliant, driven, unselfish, and devoted to his athletes. And the architect of the most explosive drugs scandal in Olympic Games' history. What to make of him?"

Francis absolutely cared deeply about all his Optimist club athletes, and Ben Johnson in particular. Ormsby details many examples that this is so. On his deathbed, Francis remained adamant that 'everyone' was doping, and all he was doing was levelling the playing field. Ten of Francis's 23 carded athletes were on steroids.

While the whole house of card cheats was crashing down, one of the saddest and most annoying things was how doggedly Ben Johnson clung to his denials. Back in Seoul, the moment it hit the fan, Charlie Francis immediately told Johnson to deny that he was taking Stanazolol, which was the substance they found evidence for in his urine. Johnson denied using Stanazolol, and kept denying it for way too long.

A couple of elements at play here: As soon as Johnson got back to Toronto, his family was courted by a new lawyer, Ed Futerman, and the politician, Toronto Sun publisher, and sports executive, Paul Godfrey. Together, they orchestrated the public line that made Johnson out to be a clueless pawn in Charlie Francis' hands. This was a demeaning defence, which got even uglier when the royal commission was called.

A man in a suit, seated, looks at another man who presents him with a vial.

As for the doping denials, Ormsby summons a fine nuance: Ben Johnson really did believe that he was not taking Stanazolol, specifically. He knew he was cheating and doping, but not with that substance. Turns out, the whole cadre of Charlie Francis's doping athletes were swindled by the treacherous doctor Jamie Astaphan. He told them they were taking an undetectable Japanese steroid called Furazabol. He charged top dollar for 'Furazabol' but in fact, he was pumping them all full of Stanazolol. This wasn't just regular Stanazolol, but an even cheaper veterinary variety, which was not intended for human use. Of all the cheaters in the sordid story, the sweaty weasel Astaphan comes off the worst.

Ormsby does not dwell at great length on the Dubin Inquiry. Her chapter on the proceedings includes an evocative phrase about the participants "…the fallen Olympic Hero, his beloved and now estranged coach, a compromised physican, a money-hungry entourage, oddball lawyers, sanctimonious sports officials, a parade of White athletes who would escape punishment for their steroid testimony while Black athletes did not…."

WATCH | Closing arguments at the Dubin Inquiry:

Closing arguments at the Dubin Inquiry into drugs in sport

35 years ago
Duration 2:03
Charles Dubin issues a report criticizing testing policies and procedures of the Canadian government and amateur sports bodies.

If there's a complaint about the author, it's that she seems to know her subject almost too well to be objective. She indulges some of the conspiracy ideas Johnson harbours, which don't really deserve our attention. Giving his loopy theories place among his legit grievances might diminish our overall sympathy for Johnson. He was a cheater, for sure, but just as certainly, he was in a system that abetted his cheating, and maybe even led him to believe that it was all wink-wink sort of okay.

Life after Dubin is a deeply mixed bag for Johnson. The big money is gone forever, but he does have a couple of surprising coaching clients. He takes on Maradona, the aging bad boy soccer prodigy, and whips him back into excellent shape. The two have a strong friendship, perhaps because Johnson himself was a very good soccer player in his youth. Johnson also gets paid handsomely to coach Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's son, Saadi. Gaddafi junior was a chubby playboy with dreams of joining a Serie A team. Johnson got his man into better condition, but young Gadaffi promptly tested positive for illegal steroid use.

Johnson himself also gets caught again and again for subsequent World Anti-Doping Agency violations. By the age of 37, he's used up all his doping strikes. He does some awful commercial work, because he needs the money. Understandably depressed, he drinks too much, and spirals.

In 2008 Johnson quit alcohol altogether, took up meditation, and started going to church again. A small circle of trusted friends are standing by him. Ormsby brings readers up to the minute on Johnson's goals. If he gets his way, Ben Johnson will save up enough to retire in Jamaica's Trelawney Parish, where he was born, and live out his days in warm weather and relative anonymity.

World's Fastest Man* The Incredible Life of Ben Johnson. Mary Ormsby, Sutherland House, 286 pages, b&w photos, hardcover $35.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


David Giddens produces and writes and edits for CBC Sports. POV writing and podcast are his main areas of attention.

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