Ben Johnson's indoor comeback is complete. His performances have been mixed, his vaunted personal appeal has waned and, clearly, his dominance over the world's sprinters is over.
Johnson's fourth-place finish at the World Indoor Championships at Seville, Spain, last weekend did much to dismantle his reputation as a feared competitor. But beyond his performance on the track, there was his bizarre behavior off it.
At a news conference Friday, Johnson, 29, announced that he would retire from the sport after the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. This revelation came as quite a shock to Johnson's attorney and manager, who was hearing it for the first time.
But that decision lasted about as long as one of his races. The next day, Johnson told NBC-TV that he reconsidered and would retire in 1993.
What is going on with Johnson, who has gotten rid of two coaches and is apparently on his own? Charlie Francis, the coach who developed Johnson, said he is perplexed by Johnson's attitude.
"To announce you are retiring--it's not an encouraging thing to be saying before a big race," Francis said. "It would indicate that he knew he wasn't in good shape. Ben always knows how his training is going. He's the one who knows himself the best."
How did Johnson look?
"Not too good," Francis said. "He obviously was in trouble. He was simply not prepared. He blew it out by running the week before at Sindlefingen, Germany. Ben should have had a 10-day taper."
Francis, who coached Johnson for 11 years, said the sprinter clearly has "technical teething problems." He said Johnson's start is not what it once was, in part because Johnson has lost considerable power.
By Francis' calculations, Johnson has had a 22% decrease in strength since his comeback from a two-year steroid suspension. Francis said the strength loss from discontinuing drugs should be closer to 10%.
"He's simply not as strong," Francis said. "Clearly, Ben's weightlifting is way off target. He's not being pressed hard enough."
Francis watched the races on television and noted a mistake in every one of the three races: stumbling out of the blocks in the heats, "goofing around" in the semifinal, an allusion to Johnson's lackadaisical effort and his turning and looking at Linford Christie for the final few meters and, along with Christie, leaning a stride too soon in the final.
"By 30 meters it was clear Ben would not win," Francis said.
Johnson, says his former coach, has major problems that may or may not affect his outdoor season.
"He can fix some of it, but he will never be what he was," Francis said. "If he comes out running in May, it's not going to be good. If he does things well, he can be pretty good by June."
Johnson's comeback has captivated the track world this indoor season, and rightfully so. But in terms of perseverance, grit and longevity, Johnson's huffing and puffing promo show pales in comparison to the workmanlike approach of two new world champions--Greg Foster and Sergei Bubka.
Foster's various injuries, personal trials and abortive comebacks have been well-chronicled. Foster, 32, won the 60-meter hurdles over a world-class field. His renewed vigor bodes well for the outdoor season, where the tall hurdler will have an advantage.
Bubka not only won the pole vault, but had three attempts at 20 feet, the first time any vaulter has attempted the height, indoors or out.
The Soviet said he expects to clear the height sometime this year. It seems likely he will do it.
The Mobil Tom Sullivan 10K, with the lure of $45,000 in cash and bonuses, will have a stellar field for Sunday's 12th annual race. The men's field has John Treacy of Ireland, Thom Hunt, John Sinclair and Steve Scott of the United States, Marcos Barretto of Mexico and Michael Musyoki of Kenya. The women's race has Elly van Hulst of the the Netherlands, defending champion Tina Ljungberg of Sweden, Leann Warren and Nancy Ditz of the United States, Sue Lee of Canada and Christine Pfitzinger of New Zealand. The race, in Torrance, will also serve as the national wheelchair championship event.
While Diane Dixon was setting records at Seville, Maicel Malone of Arizona State was setting records at the NCAA indoor meet at Indianapolis. On Saturday, Malone broke Dixon's 400-meter record of 51.77, with a 51.05. Dixon, however, got the record back on Sunday with her 50.64. . . . Eric Bergreen of UCLA won the shotput with a throw of 62 feet 10 3/4 inches.