SIMMONS: Controversial sprinter Ben Johnson holds nothing back in World's Fastest Man

Simmons 1-on-2 interview with surprisingly outspoken Ben Johnson and author Mary Ormsby on release of controversial new book World’s Fastest Man

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Ben Johnson burst from the starting blocks early Friday morning, this time with words instead of speed, exploding as if he were back in Seoul 36 years ago, pointing fingers with loud accusations and sparing no one.

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It was a Ben Johnson I’d never heard before — a 62-year-old man wanting to be better understood, still angry about the confounding circumstances that cost him his 100-metres gold medal, making him the most famous and most vilified Olympic cheat in history.

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“I am a game-changer,” Johnson said with defiance. “I changed the game to what it is today. I am the blueprint of track and field. Everybody now is using the Charlie Francis program of how to run faster. The Ben Johnson training program.

“Everybody felt that after Ben Johnson was gone, everybody ran fast. They feel they created the era, but I did.”

The new book is called World’s Fastest Man, the incredible life of Ben Johnson, written by the incredible Mary Ormsby with the co-operation of Johnson, who provided more than 30 hours of interviews over a two-year period.

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The book challenges so much about the story of Johnson’s disqualification at the 1988 Summer Olympics that it reads like an unsolved mystery.

What complicates it even more — and always has — is that Johnson doesn’t deny in any way that he used steroids heading into the Olympics. He is clear about that. What he doesn’t understand — and the book tries to explain in much detail — is how he wound up testing positive for a drug, stanozolol, that he wasn’t taking prior to the Games.

I changed the game to what it is today. I am the blueprint of track and field.

Ben Johnson

“I’m not going to sit here after 36 years and take the blame for other athletes who use me as a scapegoat,” Johnson said in our 40-minute interview alongside Ormsby. “As long as I live, I will keep fighting (for my reputation).

“I will tell the world that the system is a fraud. It’s a systematic fraud and they never can be trusted. They pick and choose who they want to protect and who they want to test positive. That’s not right, that’s just not right.”

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Through Ormsby’s detailed investigative work, the book reads like a case of error after error, technical mess up after technical mess up — from the highly conflicted International Olympic Committee, to the drug testers, to the security of the lab, to the Canadians who were supposed to protect Johnson and didn’t.

Too many mistakes made in a life-changing 72 hours.

World's Fastest Man by Mary Ormsby.
World’s Fastest Man by Mary Ormsby.

“Once we knew there was stanozolol, we knew it was foul play,” Johnson said. “That was a mistake. That had to be a mistake.

“I was never worried about testing positive, My fear was my life. People out there would put something in my drink or in my food. People would poison me … I knew I was clean going into Seoul.”

But what he will never forget — and still feels inside him today — is the idea that he was banished from the Games and then left alone. Like he didn’t matter. Like he wasn’t a person.

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“I know how I felt 36 years ago in Seoul in my room,” Johnson said. “I felt very bad, like I was going to die.”

On a Friday night in South Korea in 1988, Johnson shocked the Olympic and sporting world by obliterating the celebrated Carl Lewis in the final of the 100 metres, the signature event of the any Summer Games.

Johnson didn’t just beat Lewis, he did it in stunning world record time, it was the sprinting equivalent of a knockout punch, which for a very short few days made him the most celebrated athlete in the world.

Then came the disqualification that still stings. Elation and celebration turned to anger and sorrow across Canada. And really, there here has been nothing comparable in a sporting way before that or since.

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Yet Johnson, through the power of the book and Ormsby’s investigative prowess, maintains he was set up. Possibly by the Americans.

“The reason I tested positive is that I left Adidas and went to Diadora,” Johnson said. “They didn’t like that. I’m telling you facts. It’s all about money.

“I know America wants to win that gold medal. When the problem happened in Seoul, when my dad in Jamaica first heard about it, he said ‘The Americans had to be involved.’ The second words he said, ‘The Canadian government has to protect his son.’”

There is no evidence either of those things were ever true, from government or Olympic officials.

When Ormsby was asked what would have happened had Johnson been American, she said: “I believe he would still have his medal.”

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Three times in the year heading to Seoul, the book explains, Lewis tested positive for banned substances. Three times, American authorities chose to look the other way and ignore the results.

“I was never worried about testing positive,” Johnson said. “My (late) mom always said to me ‘the only way they can beat you is in a doping room.’”

The disqualification of Johnson made him something of a sporting pariah in Canada. His name was accompanied by the word disgrace. His profession was taken from him.

Even now, in his early 60s, he still so wants to change what Canadians think of him. He wanted to get his story told, in his way and, in his belief, the right way.

“I’m a human being,” he said. “I have feelings. This is my life. Whatever happened to me in Seoul shouldn’t have ever happened because I was too good. Yes, I used performance-enhancing drugs. I know other people were using it. I believe it was the right thing to do at the time. I don’t apologize for that.”

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Ormsby’s book questions so much about the positive test that your head is almost spinning from the degree of details. The layers of procedural mistakes in the testing lab and the investigation that followed are almost farcical.

Johnson was found guilty of being on a performance-enhancing drug, just not a drug that he happened to be taking heading to the Games.

In essence, Johnson committed a crime of sorts, just not the sporting crime he was convicted of that changed his life forever in Seoul. And if he looks at the world of athletics or track and field today, he does so through dirtied lenses.

He has witnessed too much. He has paid too large a price. The disqualification cost him and his team millions upon millions of dollars. The recovery — spiritually, emotionally — to this day has not in any way been easy.

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Johnson blew the field away in 1988, running in what was then an unbelievable time of 9.79. In Beijing in 2008, Usain Bolt of Jamaica — Johnson’s place of birth — blew the field away himself, running the fastest time ever, 9.69.

Bolt remains one of the most popular Olympic figures in history, if not the most popular. And Johnson, he was the guy stripped of his gold medal.

You’re asking me if Usain Bolt in his prime could beat me in my prime and the answer is no.

Ben Johnson

Thirty-six years later and Johnson figures with new track technology and new shoe technology, that he still considers himself the fastest man in the world.

Who would win between eight-time Olympic champion Bolt and Johnson?

“You’re asking me if Usain Bolt in his prime could beat me in my prime and the answer is no,” Johnson said. “Today, technology is better than the technology I was using. The shoes, the bounce of the track, all of that has changed.

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“Bolt is from Sherwood. If he had to go home, he had to pass my house. But I never met him. We don’t like each other. He feels like he’s better than me. He’s said (a few times) that anyone who takes steroids should go to jail. He’s good, he’d give me a run for my money, but he’d never beat me.”

After all that’s gone on, the bravado is still part of who Ben Johnson is. He can be quiet and soft spoken and uncomfortable, until the subject is sprinting or about what happened to him.

Then he gets louder and more passionate and more confident and, in our conversation Friday, surprisingly intense.

The book, World’s Fastest Man, published by Sutherland House, is now available online and in bookstores across the country.

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