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Disgraced Johnson no longer running from doping past

Sprinter Ben Johnson of Canada runs next to a scroll petition laid out on the track at the Seoul Olympic Stadium in Seoul September 24, 2013
Sprinter Ben Johnson of Canada runs next to a scroll petition laid out on the track at the Seoul Olympic Stadium in Seoul September 24, 2013

By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - For 10 awe-inspiring seconds on September 24, 1988, Canadians held their breath then exhaled and exploded in the type of wild chest-thumping celebrations usually reserved for the hockey-mad nation's greatest victories on the ice.

That evening Canadians from Newfoundland to Victoria had stopped to watch as Ben Johnson rocketed across the finish line, right hand thrust triumphantly into the Seoul sky, to claim the crown of world's fastest man as he blazed to an Olympic 100 metres gold medal in a stunning 9.79 seconds.

Photographs of the magical moment bear witness to the pure joy attached to an athletic achievement that had pushed the boundaries of human limitations to new frontiers.

A quarter of a century later, however, the grim image that lingers is not one of amazement but of crushing, drug-fuelled betrayal.

Johnson is now a fallen hero at the centre of a cautionary tale about the evils of doping rather than the protagonist of an uplifting story of a shy immigrant with a nervous stutter who shot to glory, fame and fortune.

The morning after the race, Canadians continued to bask in the brilliance of Johnson's Olympic medal with the country's newspapers proclaiming the moment 'Pure Gold'.

'Big Ben' was athletic royalty, the world sprint king and a great Canadian, held up as a symbol of Canada's sporting ambition.

Three days later, in a fall from grace as breathtaking as his rise to superstardom, the pride of Canada had become 'Jamaican-born' Ben Johnson, another country's shame, stripped of his Olympic medal after testing positive for the steroid stanozolol.

On Tuesday, Johnson, now a 51-year-old grandfather, returned to South Korea and the scene of his crime as an act of repentance, the newest recruit in the war on performance-enhancing drugs.

Asked recently how he would react if he discovered his grandchildren engaged in doping, Johnson took a diplomatic approach in keeping with his new role as an anti-doping advocate.

"I don't think they would be involved in it, if I live to see that day," Johnson told Reuters in a telephone interview from Japan, a stop on his anti-doping world tour. "I think they will go to school and get an education and this campaign I'm trying to do is so kids do not need doping.

"We are trying to do the right thing in life and trying to make sure the young generation doesn't get involved in it."

It is a long and winding road that has led Johnson back to the place where his world began to crumble.

What began with denials was followed quickly by claims of sabotage and conspiracy theories, some of which Johnson has clung to for 25 years.

QUIET LIFE

Over the decades an unapologetic Johnson has been unable to outrun his infamy, retreating into a quiet life in a Toronto suburb, his friends, millions of dollars in endorsements and his prized Ferrari all gone.

Once an A-list celebrity, who counted Enzo Ferrari among his many fans, Johnson soon found himself alone.

Some of those who played major roles in one of sport's biggest doping scandals: Johnson's coach Charlie Francis, Jamie Astaphan, the doctor who allegedly supplied the drugs, his former lawyer, advisor and confident Ed Futerman, have died, leaving the disgraced sprinter alone to face still-unanswered questions.

His Seoul suspension served, Johnson had a second chance to reinvent himself, returning to the Olympic stage at the 1992 Summer Games and reaching the semi-finals, but soon afterwards turned to drugs again and in 1993 was banned for life by world athletics body the IAAF.

With no human to race against, Johnson became a circus sideshow running against horses and stock cars.

He briefly flirted with a professional football career and later had an unsuccessful tryout with the Inter County Maple Leafs, one of the lowest rungs on the professional baseball ladder.

With nothing left to trade on but his infamy, Johnson became a pitch man for Cheetah energy drink appearing in a television commercial admitting: "I Cheetah all the time".

The Ben Johnson Clothing Collection failed to find a niche while Johnson carved out a small personal training business that has attracted a few high-profile clients, including Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona and Al-Saadi Gaddafi, the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi who was hoping to land a spot at an Italian football club.

"So far I'm doing fine," Johnson said. "I'm still travelling, doing some reality shows, mostly in Japan.

"I have some contacts in Europe to do some coaching of professional soccer players so I am doing okay."

"Everything happens in a life, I'm a man now, much older, much stronger maybe than I was."

In the quarter-century since Seoul, the sporting world has been rocked by a steady stream of outed drug cheats.

When Australian businessman Jaimie Fuller, chairman of sports compression wear company SKINS and a passionate anti-doping campaigner, needed a face to front his newest initiation 'Choose the Right Track' he reached out to Johnson.

"I've always looked at Ben as being 'the guy'," Fuller told Reuters. "That was a seminal moment in the history of world sport for a number of reasons.

"Ben's involvement may raise a few eyebrows but after 25 years of dealing with the consequences of his actions as an athlete, he is completely committed to the cause of anti-doping."

(Editing by Clare Fallon)

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