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SIDETRACKED : Johnson Proves He Can Run and He Can Hide, but How Long Can He Win?

September 17, 1987|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Canada's Ben Johnson gave track and field its finest 9.83 seconds of the year. That's how long it took him at the World Championships in Rome to win the 100 meters over Carl Lewis and break the world record by a full one-tenth of a second.

Since then, Johnson has given track and field its most frustrating 18 days of the year.

He and Lewis have been entered in the same meets three times since their memorable race Aug. 30, have even run the same distances in two of them, but have not competed against each other.

Unfortunately for track and field, this sort of occurrence, or non-occurrence, is all too common.

It happened for a number of years with the two great British middle-distance runners, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. It happened last year with the intermediate hurdlers, Edwin Moses, Andre Phillips and Danny Harris. It is happening now with the world's best milers, Morocco's Said Aouita and Great Britain's Steve Cram.

In those examples, it has been impossible to determine the avoider from the avoidee.

That is not the case here. Johnson admits he is the avoider.

Two days after the World Championships, in a meet at Rieti, Italy, Lewis was told by the organizer he could not run the 100 because Johnson did not want him in the race. When Lewis insisted, the organizer arranged separate races for them.

Three days later, at the Mobil Grand Prix Final in Brussels, Lewis, aware that Johnson was entered in the 200 meters, also entered the 200. Lewis discovered when he arrived that he was in the main draw against world champion Calvin Smith, while Johnson was in a special 200 against a bunch of other guys named Smith.

Before last Sunday's meet in London, Lewis was told not to come because Johnson did not want him there. Lewis was told the same thing about a meet this Saturday in Monte Carlo.

The accounts of those negotiations were provided by Joe Douglas, Lewis' manager, but Johnson does not deny them.

Johnson also tried to prevent Lewis from appearing in a meet at the Olympic Stadium here Tuesday night. Johnson was furious when he discovered Lewis was entered in the 100 and said he would not run if the American did.

When the organizer, Jacky Delapierre, refused to withdraw Lewis from the race, Johnson demanded to run a 60-meters race. That is a standard indoor distance, but has been run rarely, if ever, in an international meet outdoors.

Delapierre suggested placing him in a separate heat of the 100, but Johnson said he did not want his time compared to Lewis' time. That happened in the 100 at Rieti and the 200 at Brussels, Lewis coming out on top both times.

Tom Sturak, the manager of several athletes entered here, said he was at the meeting when Delapierre was forced to deal with Johnson's demands. Sturak said Delapierre considered telling Johnson he was not wanted here.

That was encouraged by the managers.

"They weren't offering any performance bonuses to the athletes here," Sturak said. "We figured that if Ben was out of the meet, that would free about $30,000 that he was supposed to get for his appearance fee."

Another manager, Tom Jennings of the Pacific Coast Club, told Delapierre he had nothing to lose by taking a stand against Johnson.

Delapierre eventually decided otherwise, relenting to Johnson's demand for a 60-meter race.

"What else could I do," Delapierre asked. "I promised (the fans buying tickets) I would have Ben Johnson, and I could not go back on my word."

But Delapierre, probably to avoid taking the heat, made sure his negotiations with Johnson were well publicized by the media.

When Johnson came onto the track for the start of the 60, a crowd of 19,000 whistled its disapproval. It resumed after the race, which he won easily against an undistinguished field, and continued until he no longer was in sight.

According the local sports newspaper, Le Matin, Johnson requested that there be no victory ceremony for the 60 because he did not want to hear the crowd's response. There was no victory ceremony.

Meantime, Lewis won the 100 and the 200, to the obvious delight of the crowd.

The lead headline in Le Matin said: "Lewis: Star And Class." Another headline said: "The Great Carl Gave Johnson A Lesson, Twice Rather Than Once." The first paragraph of that story said, "The pranks of the diva, Ben (little) Johnson, turns against him."

Johnson was angry after his race, shoving a reporter who asked him a question about the crowd's reactions.

He said he decided not to run against Lewis after the World Championships because of fatigue.

"Any time he's ready to go, I'm ready," Johnson said. "But not now. I'm not in very good shape. I just want to go home."

But Wednesday night he competed at Cagliari, Sardinia, in a meet in which Lewis was not scheduled to run. Johnson won the 100 meters, edging fellow Canadian Desai Williams with a time of 10.10.

Some have suggested money is keeping Johnson and Lewis from going head to head.

Douglas said there have been negotiations between him and Larry Heidebrecht, Johnson's South Carolina-based manager, for a series of races next year before the summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.

While Douglas said he prefers two races, one at 100 meters and another at 200 meters, Heidebrecht prefers three--the 100, 200 and 60 meters.

But, Douglas said, Heidebrecht believes the races will be easier to sell to sponsors and a television network next year if Lewis and Johnson don't meet again this year.

"I don't agree," Douglas said. "I think it (another meeting) would do nothing but enhance the interest."

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