TORONTO — Almost eight months after the gold medal he won in the 100 meters at the Seoul Olympics was taken from him because an anabolic steroid was found in his system, Ben Johnson is still on the front page of newspapers more often than not in his hometown.
That is due for the most part to the Canadian government's nationally televised, $3.74-million inquiry into drug use by athletes. The track and field phase began in early March and probably will not end until late June, when Johnson, 27, is finally expected to testify.
Meanwhile, Johnson manages to make headlines anyway. Early last Thursday morning, he and two friends were involved in a highly publicized confrontation after spending a few hours at a nightclub in the upscale Yorkville section of Toronto.
It reportedly was instigated by five other men, one of whom kicked in the windshield of the car that Johnson was driving. Another punched Johnson in the mouth. Johnson later went to a hospital, where he was treated for a broken tooth and a swollen lip. But first, while his assailant escaped, Johnson caught the man who broke the windshield and held him until police arrived.
A recent story in the Toronto Star suggested that Johnson is as fast as ever. Percy Duncan, a 74-year-old former sprinter for Guyana who immigrated to Canada in 1967 and still jogs almost every day at the Metropolitan Toronto Track and Field Centre, said he hand-timed Johnson twice in one day at 6.2 seconds for 60 meters. Johnson's world record is 6.41.
But that claim was not given much credence by two people who should know, the friends who were drinking beer with Johnson in the early morning hours Thursday. Mark McKoy and Desai Williams, two of Johnson's Canadian teammates at Seoul, seem to spend as much time in Yorkville nightclubs with him as they do at the track and field center.
On a recent afternoon, while sitting in the spectators' balcony above the track, McKoy described Johnson's workout schedule. McKoy is a hurdler who has been suspended by the Canadian Track and Field Assn. because he left Seoul without permission after Johnson was disqualified.
"When he's here, he's here," McKoy said of Johnson. "When he's not, he's not."
When Johnson is there, he sometimes parks his black Porsche, with his world-record time of 9.83 on the license plate, next to the eight-foot chain-link fence behind the center, climbs over and enters through the back door.
That is to avoid attracting attention, his friends say, but word gets around. Everyone at the center knows when Johnson is among them even if he is not wearing the black warm-up suit with his name on the back given to him by his Italian apparel sponsor. Because the center is open to the public, he sometimes has an elderly man or a pregnant woman sharing the track with him.
"It's more like a social club for us," said McKoy, who estimated that he and Johnson spend three or four hours at the center but actually work out no more than 30 minutes. Because their only starter's pistol was confiscated by police last winter, they have someone bang two hurdles together to send them out of the blocks. Except when Duncan is there, they don't have a stopwatch, either. The serious workouts, McKoy said, take place in the weight room.
Through his new adviser, a retired hairdresser from Jamaica, Johnson said he would not agree to an interview until after he testifies. Some who have spotted the 5-foot-9 Johnson report that he is considerably less muscular than he was eight months ago and has developed a paunch. But McKoy said Johnson looks about the same as he did at Seoul, when he weighed 174 pounds.
Asked if it is possible that Johnson is still using steroids, McKoy smiled.
"I don't know," he said. "We don't talk about it at all."
McKoy said he doubted that Johnson has been running world records in workouts.
A few minutes later, Williams, a finalist in the 100 meters at Seoul, joined McKoy on the balcony. Told about the time Duncan claimed to have recorded for Johnson during a workout, Williams laughed until tears came to his eyes.
"I'm going to take Percy to all my major meets," Williams said. "I can finish last and still set world records."
A day later, speaking by telephone from his Toronto home, Duncan insisted that the times he recorded for Johnson were accurate. But he also insisted that he, not Charlie Francis, was the man who taught Johnson the explosive start that separates him from other world-class sprinters.
"I was the wizard in the background," he said.
Duncan is openly campaigning to join Johnson's entourage, which dwindled considerably after the Olympics. In recent years, Johnson was attended to by: Francis, who was one of the world's most highly acclaimed sprint coaches; Dr. Jamie Astaphan, who became recognized as one of North America's leading steroid experts; Waldemar Matuszewski, an internationally renowned physiotherapist; Ross Earl, a family friend and business adviser, and three agents.