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OLYMPICS '88: A PREVIEW : THE RECORD MAKER : As Seconds Are Ticking Away, Canada's Big Ben Johnson Tries to Regain His Timing for Olympics

September 14, 1988|JULIE CART | Times Staff Writer

TORONTO — Before I was big, nobody had time for me. Now I am big, everybody want to ride the big train. --Ben Johnson, world record-holder at 100 meters

Ben Johnson is supposed to be here but he's not. He is in Italy. Before that he was spending a great deal of time on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts.

After Italy he was in town for a while. He gave a press conference and everybody came. Johnson told how he was going to smash Carl Lewis and what a joke it was that anyone would even think Lewis could beat him.

Of course, this was before the world's fastest human had come back from his injury. This was the heady between time--after the world record and before the joke smashed him .

BEFORE

The Ben Johnson myth has reached such proportions that it is possible to put forth almost any implausible story and people will nod and say, "Yes, I can believe that of Ben."

For example. There is the story of young Ben growing up in Jamaica. He loved to swim. One day Ben was swimming in the ocean and saw a small shark. The shark began to swim toward him. Ben, frightened, swam furiously to shore and out-raced the shark.

It is a true story.

That harmless story has been refashioned somewhat. In the European press, where Johnson has an image of heroic stature, it now goes that young Ben rode a killer shark to Canada and, upon arrival, ate it for lunch.

The real Ben Johnson-growing-up story is fairly tame. Johnson was born in Falmouth, on Jamaica's north coast. He was the second-youngest of six children and was an unremarkable child. In fact, baby Johnson was a weak infant, born during an epidemic.

Ben Johnson Sr. built the family house himself--four bedrooms and two baths. Outside were chickens and ducks and everywhere were mango trees.

Ben Sr. had worked for 30 years for the national telephone company, JAMINTEL. He and his wife Gloria were known as hard-working, religious people. Like many Jamaicans they wanted more for their children and they looked to North America to provide it.

So Gloria Johnson left Falmouth and alone headed for Toronto, where she knew no one. She worked for two years, first serving food in a cafeteria then as a cashier at the Canadian Institute for the Blind.

She sent all the money she earned to Jamaica and in 1976 her children came to live in Canada. Little Ben's first request was to be taken "to the place where the Olympics are being held." The family couldn't afford to take him to Montreal, but he burned to watch his sprint heroes, Hasely Crawford of Trinidad and Donald Quarrie of Jamaica.

Beginning in 1977, Johnson competed in track and field in school and at the club level. But he hated to train. His coach, Charlie Francis, encouraged him to lift weights. Johnson hated it.

By then, Johnson, 18, was a Canadian citizen. He was selected to the 1980 Canadian Olympic team but didn't go to Moscow because of the boycott.

By 1984 Johnson was in the Olympic final. He said he intentionally false-started to throw off Carl Lewis but if anyone was to rattle it was Johnson, who got a slow start and ended up with a bronze medal.

Johnson felt he had let his country down and promised to do better the next time. He promised his mother he would do better. Johnson is unashamedly close to his mother, Gloria. They live together in Toronto.

It is Gloria who has supported Ben through the lean times, who he completely trusts.

"What she says is the law," Johnson said. "If she doesn't want me to do something, I don't. If I get married and the wife doesn't get along with my mother, it's too bad--the wife goes."

It was reported that Gloria Johnson saw nothing of her son's world record race in Rome--she was praying with her eyes closed.

THE RECORD

The last time a Canadian sprinter was expected to do well in a meet in Rome the year was 1960 and the man was the late Harry Jerome of Vancouver. He blew his hamstring in an Olympic semifinal.

Johnson came to the 1987 World Championships in Rome in much the same postion, but unlike Jerome, Johnson's devastating hamstring injury did not occur in Rome but four months later.

The talk last summer was centered on the showdown between Johnson and Carl Lewis. Johnson had been openly bitter that Lewis had retained his No. 1 world ranking, despite Johnson's better times and head-to-head victories.

Both sprinters swept into Rome with all the fanfare of starlets descending on Cannes.

Lewis, as ever, out-glitzed the competition. He held his press conference at an opulent villa. Johnson held court from a more modest downtown hotel. The hotel manager apparently got caught up in the pre-race hype--he told Johnson that if he won the 100, the room would be free. The world championship rate.

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