Charlie Francis, the only coach Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson has ever had, stood before a crowded hearing room in Toronto on Feb. 28 and swore to tell the truth. Always before, Francis had insisted that Johnson and the other athletes he coached were drug-free, but the truth, as Francis proceeded to tell it in four days of testimony, was startling: Johnson began using anabolic steroids in the fall of 1981, and he used them routinely until shortly before the 1988 Summer Olympics, where he was stripped of the gold medal and a world record (9.79) in the 100 meters after testing positive for stanozolol. According to Francis, Johnson also took steroids before setting what is still the world record of 9.83 at the 1987 World Championships in Rome—even though the athlete passed the drug test at that competition.
Francis was testifying before Canada's Commission of Inquiry into the Use of Drugs and Banned Practices Intended to Increase Athletic Performance. The commission, formed in the wake of Johnson's Seoul disgrace and headed by Mr. Justice Charles Dubin, began hearing testimony in January. Its aim, said commission cocounsel Robert Armstrong, is "to find the scope of the problem in Canada and internationally."
Francis, 40, whose nickname in the Canadian track community is Charlie the Chemist, proved himself in his testimony to be well versed in pharmacology. But under Armstrong's questioning, Francis portrayed himself as an innocent who awoke slowly to the sordid realities of top-level international sport.
A native of Toronto, Francis was a standout sprinter at Stanford. He told of hearing rumors at the 1972 Munich Olympics—where Francis lost in a qualifying heat of the 100 meters—that 80% of the top athletes were on steroids.
In 1976 Francis began coaching sprinters with the Scarborough Optimist Track and Field Club in Toronto. He was also researching steroids, and by 1979 he was convinced that rivals of Angella Taylor (now Issajenko), his top female runner, were all using steroids. "I tried to take the examples of all the highest-ranked athletes," he testified. "I couldn't find a single case where it appeared that performance-enhancing drugs were not being used."
Francis discussed his findings with Taylor, who, he says, had independently reached the same conclusion. According to Francis, she began taking Dianabol, an anabolic steroid, in 1979—"five milligrams per day, three weeks on, three weeks off, for two or three cycles during the winter period." Issajenko said of Francis's account, "I'm happy the truth is finally coming out."
Francis testified that in 1981 he discussed steroids with his three best male sprinters, Desai Williams, Tony Sharpe and Johnson, who was then 19. "It's pretty clear that steroids are worth approximately a meter [in the 100 meters] at the highest levels," said Francis. "He [Johnson] could decide to set up his starting blocks at the same line as all the other competitors, or set them up a meter behind them all. And obviously that would be an unacceptable situation for a top-level athlete."
By Francis's account, Williams, Sharpe and Johnson began a Dianabol program similar to Taylor's. Francis said that in 1982 they switched from Dianabol to stanozolol.
In 1983 Francis met Mario Astaphan, a Toronto physician who, Francis said, took over a year later as the dispenser of steroids for Francis's sprinters. Francis said Astaphan administered shots in his office and in late 1985 switched the athletes from stanozolol to Furazabol, which he believed to be a gentler drug. After Astaphan returned to his native island of St. Kitts in 1986, Williams, Sharpe and Johnson either injected themselves or were injected by Francis in his Toronto apartment. Williams told a reporter last week that he began using steroids in 1987, but in a later interview denied ever having taken them. Johnson has denied using steroids. ST could not reach Sharpe for comment.
Francis testified that in 1986 Johnson started using stanozolol with Furazabol. He also said that last spring Astaphan treated Johnson for a hamstring injury in St. Kitts with the help of steroids. According to Francis, Astaphan administered a cycle of drugs, including Furazabol and human growth hormone, to Johnson and some of his teammates between Aug. 24 and Sept. 2. But Francis said he did not know why Johnson tested positive for stanozolol in Seoul.
All told, Francis testified that 13 of the men and women he has coached have used steroids at one time or another. He also alleged steroid use by athletes outside his club but did not name names, and his knowledge about most of those athletes seems to be secondhand at best. For example, Francis strongly hinted that Florence Griffith Joyner had used performance-enhancing substances before setting her 100-meter world record of 10.49 at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis last July. But if Francis has proof that Griffith Joyner took steroids, he didn't provide it to the inquiry. Griffith Joyner denies using drugs.
Francis claimed to have more direct knowledge of steroid use by "the world-record holder for 440 yards." That would be John Smith, who in 1971 set the record in that event, which is no longer run, and who is now an assistant coach at UCLA. Francis testified that this world-record holder told him in 1979 that all of the 400-meter runners "of his acquaintance" on the 1968 and '72 U.S. Olympic teams were taking Dianabol. Smith was a 400-meter man on the '72 team.
Smith denies having used drugs or having told Francis that he, or any other runners, had. "Charlie is reaching for straws," says Smith. "He's been caught for drugs, which he's repeatedly denied [using], so what kind of credibility does he have?"
That is a question worth asking. Indeed, as Issajenko, Astaphan and Johnson testify before the Dubin Commission in the weeks to come, the credibility of the entire sport will be scrutinized as never before.
Johnson was first in the Seoul 100, but was DQ'd and lost the gold to Carl Lewis (1102).
Preparing for the '88 Games, Johnson underwent rehab in St. Kitts with Astaphan (right) and trained with Francis in Toronto.