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Beamonesque? : It May Take Track Pundits Years to Put Johnson's 9.83 Seconds Into Perspective

September 01, 1987|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

ROME — Once it was established that Canadian Ben Johnson's start in the 100 meters here Sunday was legal, the only debate concerned how to describe his world-record time of 9.83 seconds. To the American journalists, it was Beamonesque. The Canadian journalists preferred Beamonic.

Perhaps it was neither. Perhaps Johnson's achievement in breaking Calvin Smith's previous world record by a full 10th of a second was not on a level with Bob Beamon's long jump of 29 feet 2 1/2 inches, which was more than a foot and a half better than the previous best and has stood as a world record for 19 years.

But it was close enough for the subject to merit considerable discussion Monday at the Olympic Stadium on the third day of track and field's World Championships.

Not since the invasion of Grenada has so much been said about something that took so little time to finish.

"It was the best performance I've seen since Beamon's 8.90 (meters)," said D.H. Potts, a Cal State Northridge professor and noted track and field historian. "This was a good second."

Dave Johnson, statistical editor for the Palo Alto-based Track & Field News, said it might have been better than that, particularly considering that Beamon set his record in the thin air of Mexico City, which is 876 feet above sea level. Rome's altitude is only 66 feet.

"Beamon's jump certainly had more shock value as far as going beyond what anyone had ever seen or expected," the statistician said. "But when you consider what we know now about the effects of altitude, this may have been a better performance."

What did Ben Johnson do on the night he became part of track and field's lore?

"I asked him how he was going to celebrate," said Jim Christie, a Toronto Globe and Mail sports reporter who is writing Johnson's authorized biography. As of Sunday, "The Fastest Man on Earth" is the working title.

"He looked at his watch and said, 'It's 9:45. I think I'll go back to the hotel and go to bed.' "

That is about as long a declaration as anyone coaxes from Johnson, who is quiet even among friends, probably because of his speech impediment. But he does occasionally surprise his friends with his sense of humor.

Christie said he once asked Johnson how he adjusted to Canada after living the first 13 years of his life in Jamaica, moving from a predominantly black society to a predominantly white society.

"I decided before I came that I wasn't going to be prejudiced," he said.

Johnson's older brother, Edward, introduced him to track one year after their mother moved them and their four sisters to Toronto. Their father remained in the small industrial town of Falmouth, Jamaica, where he works for the telephone company.

Gloria Johnson and her husband are not divorced, but she said she left home for the city because she thought it would offer more opportunities for her children. Little could she have known then the opportunity that awaited her second-youngest child.

On the first day in 1976 that Johnson, in his high-top sneakers, arrived with his brother at the York Institute track, Coach Charlie Francis saw the Jamaican teen-ager's potential. He was more astute than his established sprinters, most of whom were several years older than Johnson and did not think much of their scrawny teammate.

When Francis' most experienced sprinter finished well behind several others in a race, he retired on the spot.

"Even Ben beat me," he said, unaware that someday he would be able to include himself among some distinguished company, including Carl Lewis, who finished second Sunday in 9.93.

Johnson recalled last week the first time he realized that he was fast, but it happened in the water, not on land. He said that while living in Jamaica he once outswam a shark.

"My mother told me the water was dangerous," he said. "She was right. The shark almost et me."

Asked if Johnson, 25, has a friend who is closer to him than others, Christie did not hesitate. Anyone who did not know better might have thought he would name Johnson's British girlfriend, Jade Martin, Miss Black United Kingdom.

"His mother," Christie said. "When he was on the European circuit this year, he called her every night in Toronto."

Johnson also is close to his father, who saved enough money to buy a five-bedroom house and plots of land in Jamaica for each of his six children. Johnson goes to Falmouth as often as four times a year.

But after Sunday, Canada no doubt will claim Johnson as its own, something it has been reluctant to do.

Christie said he believes race has been a factor in that, although not the primary one. He said the main reason is that Johnson is good in a sport other than ice hockey. Christie added that Johnson's stutter also has prevented him from receiving exposure, particularly on television.

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