Johnson Admits To Use Of Steroids

Posted: June 13, 1989

TORONTO — Ben Johnson admitted for the first time yesterday that he was a steroid user.

The Canadian sprinter, who was stripped of a gold medal at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul after he tested positive for the muscle-building drug, said at a government inquiry here that he began using steroids in 1981 after being urged to do so by his only coach, Charlie Francis.

For the first three years that he took them, Johnson said, he did not even know they were called steroids. He took them, along with his vitamins, because his coach strongly encouraged him, he said.

"Francis said the whole world is using drugs and the only way I'm going to get better running times is to take them," Johnson testified.

Johnson referred to steroids as "drugs" through much of his three-hour testimony. He made several statements that conflicted with testimony of earlier witnesses, including his doctor, George Mario "Jamie" Astaphan; former teammates, and Francis.

In the last three months, both Francis and Astaphan have testified that Johnson understood the health dangers of steroid use, and Francis said he injected the sprinter with the drug.

Johnson, testifying yesterday before his mother, Canadian sports officials and scores of reporters, said he was ignorant of the potential dangers.

Most of his responses to politely worded questions posed by Robert Armstrong, a government lawyer, were terse. Johnson frequently gave answers of ''Yes, sir," or "No, sir," to long, complex questions. In his more detailed answers, Johnson tried, it appeared, to shift much of the responsibility for his steroid use to Astaphan and, especially, Francis.

At one point, explaining why he did not understand his own steroid-taking schedule, Johnson said, "I'm not the coach. I just take orders."

Explaining why he didn't understand the medical risks of steroids, Johnson said, "I'm not a doctor."

Johnson, 27, said that he first met Francis in 1977, shortly after Johnson moved to Toronto from Jamaica. "He had huge legs," Johnson said, remembering his first meeting with Francis, a former sprinter. "I told him I want my legs to be like his."

Francis' first step was to put Johnson on a weight-lifting program. Johnson said he could now bench-press more than 400 pounds and squat-thrust more than 600 pounds, about the same amount as a standard-issue NFL linebacker.

At the hearing, held in a downtown office building, Johnson contended that he did not know how steroids worked and said he could not distinguish between the different types of steroids. Yet at times he mentioned the steroids stanazolol, furazabol and dianabol.

Johnson said that if he had known of the potential for sterility and liver damage caused by steroid use, he would have "no relationship at all" with the drugs, which are banned by the International Amateur Athletic Federation.

The native Jamaican, who wore a gray, double-breasted suit, a white shirt, a dark tie and a gold ring on his left index finger, blinked frequently and appeared nervous. His last previous public comment about his steroid use had come on Oct. 4, 1988 - just after his disqualification in the Olympic 100- meter dash - when he said that he had "never, ever knowingly taken illegal drugs."

He made it plain yesterday that the statement had not been true.

The chronological testimony Johnson gave yesterday concluded in 1987 and did not include the events leading up to the 1988 Olympics. He is expected to testify on that today.

It is still not clear why Johnson got caught by drug testers from the International Olympic Committee, since he was routinely able to mask his steroid use in drug tests at other competitions.

Johnson spoke quickly and with a strong Caribbean accent; at times, Armstrong had difficulty understanding the sprinter. When Johnson spoke at one point of "banned drugs," Armstrong thought he was referring to "bad drugs."

Johnson said that in 1981, he and his coach went together to see a Toronto physician, Gustav Koch. Johnson said he had not understood why he went to see the doctor.

"Were they talking about drugs?" Armstrong asked.

"I don't remember," Johnson said.

But less than a minute later, Johnson said that Francis and Koch "were talking about drugs, and I wasn't going to be a part of it, so I left."

Koch was not available for comment on the sprinter's testimony.

Soon after the conversation between the doctors, Johnson began - unwittingly, he said - a steroid program. The steroid pills were given to him with his vitamins, he said.

"Did you know they were steroids?" Armstrong asked. No, said Johnson. ''Charlie's my coach, and if Charlie gives me something to take, I take it," Johnson said.

"Did you know they were banned?" Armstrong asked.

"No, no, no, no," Johnson said.

Later, Armstrong asked Johnson whether he was familiar with some of the slang names for steroids - "roids," "juice," "the white stuff" - names that other witnesses have said were familiar to Johnson. Johnson said he did not know those names.

Last month, the inquiry heard a secretly taped telephone conversation between Astaphan and Johnson, recorded on Jan. 27, 1988. In the conversation, Astaphan asked, "You haven't used any of the white stuff, the steroids, since

December, have you?"

To which Johnson responded, "Part of it, yes."

Perhaps surprisingly, Johnson referred to Astaphan and Francis as friends yesterday. Johnson said that he liked and respected Francis. He said he respected and trusted Astaphan as a doctor and liked him, too. "He gave me food, he gave me a place to sleep for free," Johnson said, commenting on his trips to the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, where Astaphan has his practice.

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