It was a scene that recalled the golden days for Ben Johnson. Almost. The media were there, as before, chronicling a news conference. Johnson was as before, shy and yet brimming with confidence. There was the bluster, the bragging, the promise of big things to come.
This scene, which played out two weeks ago in Italy, was familiar, with one exception. The new element was the pervasive skepticism that now attends Johnson's boasts. Overweening confidence among world class athletes is well accepted--even expected. However, part of the expectation includes the understanding that the athlete can back up the boasts.
Johnson will at last get his chance to do that. It has been two years since Johnson, then world record-holder at 100 meters, was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for anabolic steroids at the Seoul Olympics. Johnson was also suspended from competition for two years; that suspension ends today. And so the questions begin: What can Johnson do when not assisted by performance-enhancing drugs?
"Once he returns to the sport, and if he returns a winner, all is forgiven," said Paul Gaines, assistant meet director for the Hamilton Spectator Indoor Games, the Canadian meet to be held Jan. 11 that will mark Johnson's return to competition. "I think that is the attitude the public will display. You hear grumblings among media types and in some circles of the sport, but you have to give the guy the benefit of the doubt.
"When this happened, it was a bitter disappointment for everyone in the sport to acknowledge that the No. 1 athlete in the sport was using drugs. With the accolades cast upon him in the previous years, people were resentful. With the humility and shame that has been reflected on him, people tend to be more open minded about it. They hope the guy comes back clean and fast."
Clean and fast. To some in track and field that represents a contradiction in terms. It is this apparent contradiction that Ben Johnson must overcome in his comeback. Charlie Francis, who coached Johnson for 12 years, estimated that steroids made Johnson faster by one meter. How much ground will Johnson lose as a drug-free sprinter?
Johnson, speaking at a news conference in Castelfranco Veneto, Italy, expressed little doubt he can regain his form of 1988.
"I want to take back the titles and the records I have been deprived of," the Associated Press quoted Johnson as saying. "I have been training very hard recently. I am at 90% right now. By strengthening training, I will be 100% by January. I have decided to start again to show everybody I'm still the best. I'm convinced I can set a new world record."
Promoters of indoor meets this season doubt that Johnson will regain his records, but they hope that fans will turn out in huge numbers to watch him try. Indeed, in a season that holds the promise of high performance levels in general (as athletes peak for the world indoor championships in Seville, Spain, in March), Johnson's return to competition might help rejuvenate a sport in need of public interest.
Al Franken, promoter of the Sunkist Invitational, is close to signing Johnson for his Jan. 18 meet, saying Johnson will receive the highest appearance fee Franken has ever paid--$30,000, compared to the $23,000 Franken paid Carl Lewis. And there is a bonus in the contract that rewards Johnson for high attendance figures.
"I think honestly, you have to figure that a lot of it is curiosity," Franken said. "You'll get people who don't care about track, and you may attract back people who have quit coming to track. We need a push in the sport. It's been struggling. We need a hype. Someone who is a ticket seller. Ben sort of transcends the sport, and, God knows, we need someone to transcend the sport."
Transcendent is the word for the appearence fees Johnson will reportedly earn. His value in Europe and Japan has not waned. He will be paid $60,000 for a meet in Stockholm. But American meet directors say they can't pay that kind of money, especially for an unproven runner.
"If he's eligible to compete, to me, Ben Johnson is an attraction," said Ray Lumpp, meet director for the indoor meet at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J.. "I'd like to have Ben Johnson regardless of how he runs. But how well he's running will determine his value. That's the key. Whether he is worth as much after six meets, I don't know. You're only as good as your last race, and the fans know that."
Howard Schmertz of the Millrose Games in New York has an interest in Johnson, but perhaps not the budget.
"There is a lot of interest in seeing whether this fellow is a truly great runner or if he is what Carl Lewis said he is, a fair runner who got there by taking drugs," Schmertz said.
"I have no way of knowing. As far as the money, I expect a lot of big stars and I'm going to have a lot of problems giving out (big appearence fees). If you give him $10,000 and people are beating him, you could have problems."