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Ben Johnson Suddenly a Hero in Canada : He's a Native of Jamaica, but They Love Him North of the Border

September 06, 1987|HERBERT H. DENTON | Washington Post

TORONTO — The mayor of Toronto is fighting with a suburban counterpart over which of them will play host to the official welcome and ticker-tape parade for Ben Johnson. At Monica's Hair Salon in the "Little Jamaica" section of the city, young women getting their hair done turn around suddenly to ask anxiously whether proprietor Monica Lewis thinks that the 25-year-old sprinter might notice them when he comes home.

The stunning world record set by Johnson in the 100-meter race at the World Track and Field Championships in Rome last Sunday is being hailed here as something of a morality play between the shy immigrant from Jamaica and his defeated rival: the brash, flag-waving Carl Lewis, whose cocky manner seems to epitomize what most irks Canadians about Americans.

Johnson's gold medal is the first won by a Canadian in a world championship meet in 55 years, and the pleasure felt here is made even sweeter by the fact that he did it by beating an American. But the outburst of national pride in his victory also has focused attention on the plight of Canadian blacks, many of whom, like Johnson, immigrated from Jamaica and resent what they feel is their second-class status.

"Lewis was pretty and polished in his U.S. national colors," the Toronto Globe and Mail chortled afterward. "Johnson was plainly attired in his baggy suit."

George Lewis, who runs the reggae shop below his wife Monica's hair salon, was less restrained. He happened to be in New York City the day after the race, a day he says exuberantly that he spent going around Manhattan telling one and all, "We kicked your butt. We kicked your butt."

"It's for everyone but more so for us," Monica Lewis said of Johnson's victory as she talked about the young man she described as humble and well-mannered who often comes into the store to buy funk and reggae records. "It means a lot to everyone but it touched our hearts." She threw her arms up in the air. "It has got to be the hands of God."

Ben Johnson is the star of a cadre of young Jamaican immigrants who have revitalized the sport of track and field in Canada in just one decade. They have raised the profile of the largely unnoticed hard-working and religious Jamaican community of roughly 60,000, which has more than its share of maids and cab drivers in polyglot Toronto.

Local radio commentator Robert Payne, who is black and native-born, remarked sarcastically that after his performance Johnson had ceased abruptly being called a "Jamaican-Canadian" by the Canadian media and had become a "genuine Canadian."

Discrimination has long been a sore point among the young, Jamaican-born athletes, especially because they feel that their status as "Canadians with an asterisk" has cut them off from lucrative promotional contracts. "I mean, look at beer commercials," said one of Johnson's friends and track mates. "Everyone's blond with blue eyes. We're not looked upon as typical Canadian role models, right?"

That is likely to change now. The media here estimates that Johnson's gold medal could be worth $1 million a year in commercial contracts and track appearance fees. "There's Gold in Ben's Gold," said a Toronto Sun headline. Johnson already represents Mazda, Timex and Adidas and is reported to have made about $76,000 two years ago, one-tenth of the reported earnings of Carl Lewis--a difference that has been often cited here as yet another example of how life is stacked in favor of the Americans.

Perhaps the calmest reaction among Canadians to the stunning record that Johnson set--knocking a tenth of a second off the previous record time--has come from the taciturn, single-minded sprinter himself. His aplomb comes as no surprise to his oldest sister, Dezrine. "Ben never tells you anything. Ben's not the kind of person who comes in and brags," she said.

She recalled how the family had to read the newspaper for years to keep up with the records that he was setting in Canada. He would come home, drop his gear and watch television, neglecting to tell them of the outcome. When he called home from Rome after the breaking the world record Sunday, he asked rather nonchalantly, "Anybody call? Did I get any mail?"

Ben Johnson was considered one of the most unlikely candidates to become a future track star when his brother Edward brought the scrawny 15-year-old to a suburban Toronto Optimist Club. Edward Johnson, four years older than his brother, was one of the star runners. "The first day he ran one lap around the track, and he just sat down," Edward Johnson recalls. "He said he was very tired."

But demonstrating a doggedness that would become the hallmark of his career, Ben decided nonetheless to enter a Black Heritage track meet three days later. He did not have cleats. He had the starting block turned in the wrong direction. According to his coach, Charlie Francis, he ran the 100 meters in 11 seconds flat.

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