Two days ago, Ben Johnson’s former coach and mentor, Charlie Francis, died at the age of 61. The vast majority of Canadians, who are old enough to remember him, think of Francis as the man who made one terribly destructive decision. The decision that sent Canada hurdling toward absolute elation and crushing disappointment at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. But don’t blame Francis. He only did what he had to do.
Francis was the man who shepherded Ben Johnson through the world of illegal Olympic substances. But it’s important to understand the reasons behind Charlie’s decision. And why he had absolutely no choice.
In September 1988, Canada’s sports psyche was reeling. In February, Calgary had hosted the Olympic Winter Games. It was an absolutely spectacular platform for Alberta on the world stage. Just one problem. Canada did not win a gold medal. In fact, it wasn’t until freestyle skier Alexandre Bilodeau took gold in Vancouver that we got off that schneid. So, even though Calgary was wonderful and Liz Manley and Brian Orser were wonderful and Karen Percy was wonderful, we did not win. Canada was bummed – and a tad embarrassed.
So now it’s September. And the ONLY talk in the Canadian sports world is whether or not Ben Johnson can beat American big-mouth Carl Lewis in the marquee event at the Olympic Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea – the 100m. Every Canadian I know watched late into the night. And boy, did Ben ever shut Carl up! Johnson ran a 9.79. We did it! Canadians ruled the sprinting world!