Ben Still Needs to Run

Ben Johnson always ran in front. First in Seoul, first in scandal, first in exile. But now the pack, increasingly drug-ridden and morally indistinguishable from the fallen sprinter, has caught up to him. Which is exactly why Johnson thinks he can be out front once more.

Mark Kram

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In Sports outcasts and villains are durable, more than even many of the heroes who shared their eras. They remain on display in memory, jogging recall of thin righteousness or steaming prejudice or crude injustice. The great Indian decathlete Jim Thorpe, stripped of his medals, was destroyed culturally. Jack Johnson, who became the first black heavyweight champ in 1908, was the victim of his times and white sexual fear; Jack was as personal as the lock pick scratching at the bedroom door. Later, Sonny Liston was also taken personally; Sonny, it was imagined, wanted into your bedroom, not for your wife but for her jewels and the wall safe. Now there is Ben Johnson, the aging sprinter who will not retire to his spidered attic of history.

Ten years ago, at the Seoul Olympics, Johnson ran the 100 meters in 9.79, making him the fastest human ever. Sixty-two hours later officials entered his room and walked out with his gold medal, which surely would have brought him millions in endorsements and appearance fees. Instead, he became the devil sprinter of athletics, the cheat who disabused us of our remaining illusions about the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs ù a vice that is today in vogue as never before. The Seoul incident, in which Johnson tested positive for steroids, has become known as Ben I. He was suspended for two years. Ben II came in 1993, when he tested positive again after an event in Montreal. He was banned by the International Amateur Athletics Federation for life.

The once black-and-white outlines of his case have now bled into a mist. Gone is the betrayal-of-a-nation tone in the media, along with any real outrage. What is left is the fascination of disaster. Ten years later, the case has become an interrogatory buzz, a scandal revisited on talk shows and TV documentaries ù an enthusiastic reprise of a fall and a disgrace and a purgatory. If Johnson’s new agent, Morris Chrobotek, is to be believed, however, Johnson’s story is about to become a tale of redemption and triumph, a resurrection championed on 60 Minutes or possibly by Bryant Gumble on HBO.

History is rarely that kind and even less likely to reverse its judgment this time. While we know that Jim Thorpe’s undoing came through the aggressive spite and puritanism of Avery Brundage, Ben Johnson lost everything through his own woeful and childlike inattentiveness amid blackmail, abysmal forensics, disappearing funds, and the spectacular indifference of a coach ù Charles Francis (Charlie the Chemist, they call him in Canada) ù who failed him miserably.

It is a fall that seems eminently possible when you meet Johnson, now 37. He sits in his agent’s undistinguished walk-up office in Toronto, so deadened and sad a figure that if the cleaning lady came, she’d dust him. He is easily the most manipulable athlete one has ever gazed upon. His whole being induces pity. He speaks with a heavy Jamaican accent made at times incomprehensible by a stutter. He appears by nature indifferent to articulation, to any passion at all in conversation ù indifferent even to the desperation and urgency now being projected by Morris Chrobotek, the man across the room who wants to restore Johnson’s reputation and his right to compete and earn. When introduced, Johnson asks: “W-w-w-will this b-b-be long?” He pats his shaved head and says, “I have to go to my barber.”

This is enough to make Chrobotek want to shoot him. “Oh, Ben,” Chrobotek grimaces, turning away. “See what I’m up against? It looks like he’s a zombie, the only person on the planet. But that’s not him. He keeps everything inside. No sense of marketing. Give him my mouth, let me have his legs, and look out world!”

It is instantly clear that Chrobotek’s mouth is the only thing driving the resurgent public interest in Ben Johnson’s plight. The agent’s spiel is logorrhea to behold. Nonstop, all-out, ranging from pitchman to media inquisitor, unctuous and synthetically flattering. Listen to him on a radio call-in show:

“Ben may have been done wrong,” a caller says. “But Canada doesn’t owe him a living.”

“You’re right!” Chrobotek pounces. “You don’t owe him a living. Just give him back the one he had, that they stole from him. Whatta ya want? Let him rot in a ditch? Well, Morris Chrobotek isn’t going to let him rot!”

Of course, that leaves two questions. Who are “they”? And how did they leave Ben Johnson to rot? And a third question arises: Who is Morris Chrobotek?

Before meeting him, one imagines Peter Ustinov cast as a man in a dirty white suit, a marginal, international man, aggrieved that powers and principalities will not allow him to execute his unseemly schemes. Not so; Chrobotek is a crisp, neat little man of 50 years whose only nod to flair, besides his speech, is a tiny earring that he takes out before going to serious meetings. Chrobotek does not want to be underestimated or dismissed as a fool, but in this regard he’s asking a lot, given his sometimes undisciplined arguments, his airy speculation, and his ringing claims for the man who is surely the major sports outcast of the last quarter of the century.

The reconstruction of the great sprinter has not been easy. Chrobotek, a Toronto businessman with no prior experience as a sports agent, came into the picture in 1996 after being urged to meet Johnson by mutual acquaintances. Following this first encounter, Chrobotek says, he began to meet regularly with Johnson over the next three months, slowly excavating facts until he himself believed, incontrovertibly, that Johnson was guilty only of ignorance and had been betrayed by Athletics Canada, the national amateur-sports governing body, and sorely used by those around him. Chrobotek’s first call was to Athletics Canada. By his account, the conversation went like this:

“My name is Morris Chrobotek. I am Ben Johnson’s agent.”

“Pardon me, sir?”

Chrobotek identified himself again and told the man at Athletics Canada the purpose of his call. Whereupon he heard the man say to others in the room, “This guy wants Johnson to run again.” In the background Chrobotek heard general laughter.

The man then asked, “Is this a joke, sir?”

“One day you’ll wish it was a joke,” Chrobotek said, hanging up the phone.

Two years later, the relationship between the two seems almost comically one-sided, with Chrobotek in perpetual high dudgeon and Johnson like a sleepy panther in a corner, oblivious to comment. But one comment cut Johnson deeply. In 1993, Pierre Cadieux, the Canadian sports minister, called him a “national disgrace” and suggested that he leave the country. “The most terrible thing I’ve ever heard,” Johnson says, with a tiny flicker of vehemence.

And here you catch a glimpse of the bond they share ù these two outsiders, a German-born Israeli Jew and a Caribbean black, now both naturalized Canadian citizens. Chrobotek, well traveled and worldly, sees himself as a man of ideals and action, yet like Johnson he was formed by the shock of childhood immigration and racial and cultural apartness. Ben grew up in the shantytown of Falmouth, near the lush resort of Montego Bay, Jamaica, where the water glints of jade and the land is heavy with fruit and sun. He spent his days racing on long ribbons of beach, a place natural to his being, a world away from the cold-dark containment of Canada. For his part, Chrobotek grew up poor in Israel before his family came to Toronto. (He was 11; Johnson came north at 14.) He has always seen himself as a bottom fish, not quite belonging. He worked as a hairdresser at Vidal Sassoon in Toronto (where he considered the work art, but “artists don’t make money”), sold cars briefly, and now has a healthy business negotiating worldwide hotel-accommodation contracts for airlines.

Chrobotek is, in the end, a mixture of the cunning Sammy Glick, eyes always on the main chance, and the righteous Ðmile Zola, defender of the French officer and accused spy Alfred Dreyfus, driven, against odds, to protect the degraded. Asked why he is doing this, Chrobotek replies, “I don’t know why myself sometimes.”

Johnson, though sold on Chrobotek’s sincerity, was wary at first of his motives. After all, who was this new best friend? Was he some wandering cracked zealot? Or a mystery plutocrat, bored and monied, looking to use a lost cause as some sort of rush? (“Cracked, maybe,” says Chrobotek. “Monied, no.”) But doubt has been replaced by a strange intimacy. Listen in on a late night phone call:

“You’ll get what you deserve, Ben. I promise you. I’ll be talking to 60 Minutes. They may want to make a deal. You never spoke in the old days. You can’t take it to the grave. You got to start coughing up this garbage. They walked away from you, left you with a microphone in your face. You gotta start reading people; don’t be taken in by smiles. By the way, I wrote a sympathy letter to Florence Griffith Joyner’s family. Hope you don’t mind. The right thing to do. Go to sleep now, Ben.”

He hangs up the phone. “There you go,” he says. “That’s how I deal with him. Have you ever met an agent like me? I got depth.”

Sprinters in their prime are known for their petulance, their peacock attitude. Johnson at times was no different, but all that died in 1993. “I have no ego,” he volunteers, once again sitting up in Chrobotek’s office. “You couldn’t f-f-find it ù “

“With tweezers,” says Morris, finishing his sentence.

Johnson is asked what his state of mind has been.

“It’s all right,” he replies.

Morris is out of his chair. “It’s not all right!” he shouts. “Either say it’s great or it stinks. I want to hear an expression here. I want to see your face. Here, look at me! I’m right here. I want to know where your head is. This’ll eat away at you. It’s your body language that people can’t understand.” Chrobotek returns to his desk. “He’s no monster. He can’t lie to me. He’s a terrible liar. He’d be grabbed in a second. When he lied after Seoul he was protecting many people.”

Chrobotek continues, “Knowing his interior and how he functions, I know he didn’t cheat. He didn’t have to! He’s gullible. Extremely accepting. Not tuned. Not focused. It’s his handicap, trusting people. I could give him drugs right now, and he’d take them.”

“Charlie” ù Johnson means Charles Francis, his Olympic track coach ù “told me that a sprinter couldn’t hope to be world-class without them.”

All Olympic Villages are hothouses of petty envy, hysterical ambition, and damning rumors. Chrobotek believes Johnson was the focus of the latter in Seoul. “American sponsors have power and the money,” he says. “They want their gold medals. I heard that NBC would pull out if any of the American athletes were tested. Carl Lewis spread a lot of rumors about Ben. He was sabotaged by word and deed. I could have gotten any athlete drugs just through room service.”

But then the accusations shift. Though Johnson has admitted that his handlers had been plying him with steroids for years before Seoul, he claims that he knew enough to avoid taking them right before the Olympics, when they might show up in a urine test. The fateful dose, according to Johnson, was supplied unbeknownst to him in an act of betrayal from within his own camp. Francis never personally gave Johnson drugs. That dirty business was the province of Dr. George Mario “Jamie” Astaphan, a physician from St. Kitts who allegedly turned to blackmail and sabotage when the millions he hoped to make off the fastest man in the world were about to be snatched from his grasp. (Though Astaphan was never charged with a crime in connection with the Johnson scandal, in 1995 he was convicted by a Florida court of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and steroids. After serving a two-year sentence, he is now back practicing medicine in St. Kitts.)

Just prior to Seoul, Johnson, injured and exhausted by his pre-Olympic training regimen, went to St. Kitts with Astaphan to rest, and there the doctor shot him up with a mysterious milky substance. “What’s this for, Jamie?” Johnson claims he asked. “To make you heal,” Astaphan is supposed to have replied.

The atmosphere in Seoul was tense. Astaphan and Francis were going from room to room arguing about their cut of the money, their split of Ben Johnson. “When this is over,” Johnson says he told Astaphan, “you’re fired.” The doctor then allegedly told Johnson and Francis that the sprinter was in danger of testing positive, and he demanded $1 million to keep quiet.

Why didn’t Francis pull Ben from the race? “Because Ben’s earnings kept the whole track team going,” Chrobotek says. “He was the showcase. Charlie’s a classy guy and a great coach, but he let Ben down. He should have removed Astaphan from the scene. Charlie knew Ben had drugs in him but did nothing.”

Murkier still was the imbroglio surrounding Ben II ù Johnson’s second, career-ending positive drug test in January 1993. He was actually tested three times. Urine samples taken on January 15 and 21 were clean, but the January 17 sample registered high levels of testosterone, indicating steroid use, and two months later Johnson was banned for life. The sprinter has aggressively maintained that he has never touched drugs since Seoul, but he didn’t appeal the ban until Chrobotek appeared on the scene.

The agent is incredulous. “How do you test positive two days before, negative four days later, then test negative again at your next event? It makes no sense. I’ve contracted for a $50,000 forensic audit by some of the best doctors in the field. The whole process in Montreal was ridiculous, from the conveyance of the sample on. The sample wasn’t marked ‘fragile,’ and it sat overnight in the doctor’s car.”

In September, Johnson attempted to convince the Ontario Court of Appeal that his lifetime ban was unjust. It took the three-judge panel only 21 minutes to dismiss Johnson’s appeal of an earlier lower-court decision upholding the ban.

Ben Johnson is still sitting across the room, and Morris Chrobotek is still talking. “It’s a joke, this testing, and extremely arbitrary. Athletes, the ones with power, call up ahead of time and say, ‘You want me there, no testing.’ Or those doing the testing in some countries are paid off. Testing has no credibility. It’s shotgun. The International Olympic Committee and the IAAF think they’re cleaning up the sport. Forget it. For every one caught, there’s hundreds that get by. Look what’s going on out there!”

Part of Chrobotek’s argument on Johnson’s behalf is that drug use is endemic, that only some perpetrators are caught or punished, even as Ben Johnson was somehow framed. Certainly something is terribly wrong, as Chinese swimmers are suspended, as women athletes who competed for East Germany are coming forward after 20 years to tell about the drugs they were forced to use. The three gold medals won by Irish swimmer Michelle Smith in Atlanta have been tarnished by the four-year suspension imposed on her this summer; the Tour de France is mired in scandal; and home-run champion Mark McGwire’s use of the steroidlike substance androstenedione is condoned even though most “amateur” athletes would face severe sanctions for using it. As Johnson was preparing his appeal this summer, the American 100-meter sprinter Dennis Mitchell was banned for four years after a test revealed abnormal levels of testosterone, and Florence Griffith Joyner, the heroine of Seoul, died at the age of 38 with old rumors of steroid abuse following her to the grave.

Lending credence to Chrobotek’s indictment are those who have been exonerated. U.S. swimmer Jessica Foschi tested positive for steroids at the 1995 national championships in Pasadena but was let go because there was credible evidence that her sample had been tampered with. In 1994, British 800-meter runner Diane Modahl was tested in Portugal and found to have 42 times the permissible level of testosterone. The preposterous results didn’t reach the British bureaucrats for nine weeks, whereupon she was denounced and given a four-year suspension. When it was proved that there had to have been contamination, the IAAF reinstated her. Modahl is now suing the British Athletics Federation, seeking recompense for its credulous acceptance of the faulty test.

“Our appeal has been denied at two hearings,” says Chrobotek. “We haven’t had due process. They won’t hear us out about Ben II. They’re stonewalling. All I hear is what they don’t know. Can you imagine?”

He shakes his head and says, “When they banned Ben, they banned Michael Jordan, that’s how dumb they are. They’re covering up something. They may think they can outlast me, drain me dry, but they won’t. I’m like a bad disease.”

Chrobotek claims he has spent $300,000 on legal fees and lost another $300,000 by neglecting his own business. “My lawyers charge up to $1,800 a day,” he says, which is why he tries to do research and investigative legwork himself.

He has told reporters that he gives Johnson random drug tests at frequent intervals and even claims that he has wired the runner to a polygraph during interviews to prove that he’s telling the truth. He says he’s tired of all the distortions.

“Look at this,” Chrobotek says, unfolding a newspaper and pointing to an article about his client. “Ben shows no remorse, it says. Well, Ben was wired for that interview. I want that rat to show me where Ben said he doesn’t have any remorse. I’m going to hang this guy’s ass on the wall.” He pauses. “If Ben had no shame about Seoul, even though it wasn’t his fault in the end, I’d walk away.”

“Don’t say that, Morris,” says Johnson.

Ben Johnson lives downstairs in the house he shares with his mother and sister. He spends his leisure time reading, watching movies and Roadrunner cartoons, and taking his mother to church. The spacious home in Toronto’s Newmarket neighborhood is one of the last remnants of his former wealth. He has become adept at monastic habits, has learned to live a life in constant flinch and curtailment. One supposes he hears nothing, sees nothing. When he goes into a coffeehouse, he sits in the rear with his back turned to the door to avoid being recognized. He has never held down a job and lives on a few hundred dollars a week. Much of his current income derives from charging journalists minor fees for his time, a condition required of this magazine as well.

Though Chrobotek shoulders all of Johnson’s legal costs, Johnson must meet his mortgage payments, and the shadow of foreclosure hangs heavy over him. The loss of his cars ù the Porsche and especially the Ferrari Testarossa ù was a punch that hurt. Johnson says he lost the Ferrari when he used it as collateral for a loan from an acquaintance in order to make a house payment.

His days are monotonous. He drives his sister’s car. After dropping her off at work, he keeps appointments and goes to York University, where he trains for races that may never come. He remains preternaturally strong for a sprinter and squats 545 pounds every day. All he has left, it must sometimes seem, are the sweat and the sun that are the ballast of his life. He is most animated when he trains, though it is still not enough to bring a smile to those doleful eyes.

He has returned to his first coach, Percy Duncan, who, when he found the 14-year-old Johnson, was beginning to develop some of the most talented runners in Canadian history. The Canadian sports bureaucrats devised means to separate Johnson and Duncan before Seoul. Duncan is a tall, 84-year-old British Guyanian, his skin as smooth as the surface of a malacca cane.

“The entire world wouldn’t believe Ben could run that fast without drugs,” Duncan asserts. “I am saying that he didn’t need them. He was that fast! Drugs did nothing for him. He never knew until it was too late. Ben is a natural. He was born to run in the sun. He is in sunshine all day long in his homeland. Rays of sun providing him with energy.”

And he never learned about life?

“Only to run.”

How does the sun make you run faster?

“It penetrates the top of your head. Cleans your blood vessels out. The heart works smoothly and easily. More blood is permitted to get to the organs of the body. The organs are bathed with a better flow of energy.”

How special was he?

“Is he,” corrects Duncan, smiling. “He’s one in 100 million. He’s always been structurally stronger. They never believed he could do ten seconds because of his big, slow-twitching muscles that are not for speed. But Ben has fast-twitching muscles, too. He is a special package. The Germans studied his body in the lab in hopes of trying to duplicate or find what he has. Everything they found in Ben contradicted their learning.”

Did he get distracted before races?

“Ben is simple. He will not argue. There is only the race. He’s closed off. No happiness or sadness penetrated.”

What do you two talk about?

“The human body. He knows so much, but doesn’t know how to tell you. I have to keep that part of his mind alive with stimulating ideas and thoughts. He’s aware that he’s the fastest man in the world and that no ordinary man can beat him.”

Even now, closing in on 40?

Percy laughs. “I ran a 10.2 at age 50. His body is like a propeller. Nobody can catch him.”

But the tough competition out there ù the young guys like Maurice Green?

“Ben will leave them standing. Ben is as fit as he was six or 10 years ago.”

How badly did Ben disappoint you in Seoul?

“Tears. Even now, I have to lie down to rest when I think. It drains my energy. It’s the saddest story I’ve heard in sports.” He draws a sigh. “Just one more race in the sun.”

Sometimes, after hours with Johnson and Chrobotek, the relationship seems out of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Lennie to George: “Tell me how it’s going to be, George.” George then builds rhapsodic bridges to the future. But there is no passage to more gleaming days; perhaps the hopes Chrobotek is raising are phantasmal, too. It’s even possible that, whatever the merits of Johnson’s appeals may be, Athletics Canada and the international sports establishment prefer Ben to stay where he is; that he is more valuable as a symbol of their rectitude and of their enforcement, however whimsical and scattershot, of the hollow prohibition against drugs; that, in brief, he is an eternal billboard advertising their vigilance.

In which case, is Morris Chrobotek, whose sole client is Ben in Coventry, a deluded altruist, succeeding only in making the whole affair even more stingingly tragic?

In early October, Chrobotek is excited, has news. It seems Ben Johnson will run again. His opponents: a standard-bred harness-racing horse, a thoroughbred, and a stock car at a harness-racing track on Prince Edward Island later in the month. The proceeds will go to the Children’s Wish Foundation, a charity for the terminally ill. The four entries will be staggered according to their estimated speed, with Ben being closest to the finish. “Ben’s going to show everyone how slow cars are!” he cries, sounding like a carnival barker. “We have to do this! I’m telling you. We’ll be running in January, probably Australia. This is serious!”

In his first race in nearly six years, Johnson comes in third, ahead of the car.

Sneers and laughs are not appropriate here. The portrait carries heavy, uncompromising lines, and long after you leave, the plaintive and puzzled voice of Ben Johnson lingers. You ask him what he did wrong and he says, “I ran too fast.”

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