by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

BARCELONA, Spain — They come to stare at Ben Johnson now, as if he were a baby in a stroller, only they look at how much smaller he has grown, instead of how much bigger.

“His torso’s half the size!” someone whispers.

“Look at the arms. Much less definition.”

“Thighs are shrunken, too.”

In the belly of Estadi Olimpic, Johnson pulls off his track shoes and unzips his bag. The throng of reporters pushes over the railing to get a closer look. Maybe they think he has a mysterious bottle in there. Maybe something marked “Steroids” in blue magic marker. One reporter scribbles on his pad. Johnson doesn’t speak.

“Ben, can we have a word with you?”

He reaches for a T-shirt.

“Ben, any comment?”

He pulls it over his head.

The Olympic 100 meters will be held today. The winner is traditionally called “the fastest man on earth.” Johnson, in his bigger body era, held that wonderful title once, for three days, until the drug tests came back positive. Then the authorities took away his gold medal, erased his name and sent him home. He has been a freak show in a cage ever since.

And yet he is back, four years later, competing on an Olympic track. And a lot of people are wondering what he’s doing here. He is not staying in the athletes’ village — in fact, no one knows where he is staying, not even members of the Canadian Olympic Committee. He has no coach here, as far as we can tell. He survived the first two rounds of the 100-meter heats Friday, barely advancing, showing little of his old flash.

He left quickly.

Ben Johnson is like this Olympic commuter, who leaves the car parked in a 30-minute space. Run in. Race. Run out. The role model

This is an awful existence. Everyone knows Johnson was hardly the only athlete — or the only medalist — in those 1988 Games who used steroids. So it begs the question: Hasn’t Ben suffered enough?

The answer is no.

This story is why.

There’s this British kid, short, stocky, lives with his mother in a small house in the south end of London. The kid dreams of being a sprinter, and Ben Johnson is his idol. So he decorates his bedroom with posters of Johnson, and he studies all of Johnson’s races.

When he starts running himself, he tries to copy Ben’s explosive start. He even shaves his head, just like his hero.

He gets pretty good, this kid, good enough to win the European Indoor Championships at 60 meters. He is hailed as a bright young star by British track experts. His fellow athletes call him “Baby Ben,” a name he enjoys.

His times keep going down. This spring, one of his biggest dreams comes true: He makes the British Olympic team, in the 100-meter dash.

The kid’s name is Jason Livingston. He is 21 years old.

He came to Barcelona on Tuesday.

Wednesday he was sent home.

He failed his drug test.

‘Knock, knock’

Now, in case you’re wondering, this kid knew all about Johnson in 1988, and was heartbroken when it happened. He once told reporters, “It was like part of me died. I could not live with myself being Olympic champion knowing that I cheated. It is a shame people have to go to such lengths.”

Then he went to the same lengths himself.

Which shows you the immeasurable temptation of success, the enormous power of a role model. The Olympics can do little about the first. But they can do something about the second.

Why is Johnson on the track Friday, wearing the shoes that he still gets paid to wear, hearing his name over the loudspeakers, stepping out to wave to the crowd? Sure, many of them cheer. Many feel you should give a guy a second chance.

But allowing Johnson back in these Games suggests that his crime was not so terrible, nothing that can’t be cleaned up and made nice again.

And the drugs-in-sports situation — particularly in track and field — can’t be cleaned up and made nice.

Drug testing, especially Olympic drug testing, simply cannot keep up with the athletes and their personal chemists, who earn big bucks for devising
“masking agents” that hide everything from tests.

And understand this: For every Ben Johnson who wins, then gets caught, there are a thousand kids who figure they’ll do everything Ben did except the last part. It is part of hero worship. How many rock guitarists followed Jimi Hendrix to the grave thinking they could be “just like Jimi” except for the overdose part?

You are never going to stop hero worship. And you are never going to stop one athlete from trying something another athlete is trying.

The only thing you can hope for is to stop the first athlete before he tries it.

And the only resource you have for that is punishment. Like a lifetime suspension from the Olympics.

Which is what Jason Livingston — “Baby Ben” — got from the British authorities. You know how they caught him? They went to his house a few weeks ago, knocked on his door and demanded that he fill a beaker. This is standard practice in British track and field now. “Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Urine sample.”

Now, Livingston is history, banned for life. But his idol, Big Ben, the incredible shrinking man, is out there running today. A real hero

In one of the earlier 100 heats Friday, a British runner named Marcus Adam got a bad start, recovered and tried desperately to catch the field before the finish line. He lunged at the tape. Only the top four finishers qualified for the semifinals, and when Adam came into the mixed zone area, he still didn’t know whether he had made it.

He began to change, pulling off his cleats. He kept glancing at the TV results. Finally, a reporter came over, British guy, and said, “Marcus, sorry, mate, you came in fifth.”

“Oooh,” Adam said, pinching his lips together. “By how much?”

“Hundredth of a second, I’m afraid.”

“Oooh,” he said again. He was silent for a moment. Then he shrugged.
“Well, my start was rubbish. I was hoping I could make up for it, but I couldn’t. No worries. I’m in one piece and I’m still alive, so everything’s OK.”

And then he smiled.

I have never seen an athlete — especially under those conditions — take defeat with such grace. And I wish this Livingston kid had seen it. I wish he had chosen his countryman to be his hero, instead of Ben Johnson.

But that’s not the way it happened. Instead, Livingston is in hiding somewhere in London, probably in tears, and Johnson, now out of hiding, gets a second chance in the Olympics today. It’s crazy, sometimes, the way things work out. As crazy as knocking on a door with a beaker.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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