Commentary

Francis didn't run from steroids truth

Updated: May 13, 2010, 5:12 PM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

One particularly sunny day early last June, as he regaled a visitor to his Toronto home with tales of his headline-grabbing days in the sports spotlight, Charlie Francis abruptly picked up his cell phone and called his former protégé Ben Johnson, the onetime fastest sprinter on the planet who is remembered as one of the first marquee names busted for steroids. Within a few minutes, Johnson, who is 47 but still carries a muscular sprinter's build, sauntered into the Francises' second-floor family room and pulled up a seat alongside his coach.

The old gang was together again, smiling and reminiscing -- the Canadian sprinter who showed the world what hard work and a heavy steroid diet could do at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and the old coach, always the smartest guy in the room, who even back then boldly suggested that the best track athletes in the world were doping and getting away with it.

As history has proved, he was onto something.

Francis, a brilliant coach and student of human physiology, died Wednesday in a Toronto hospital after a five-year battle with cancer. Only a day earlier, Johnson had stopped by for a final visit.

[+] EnlargeBen Johnson/Charlie Francis
AP Photo/Hans DerykBen Johnson and Charlie Francis say they embraced steroids in 1988 because other sprinters were using them, too.

"Well, this is the first time the world had seen 9.79 run," Johnson recalled last June of his record-shattering Seoul performance. "Testing positive [for the steroid Stanozolol] there and the automatic [suspension] comes out -- everybody says drugs is the reason [for the time]. But I don't think that was the case. I think it was more than that.

"It was Charlie coaching me, the genetics and the hard training for all the years. Charlie coached me to run fast."

But two decades ago, folks were looking for a scapegoat after Johnson -- who blew away American rival Carl Lewis in Seoul -- let the genie out of the bottle on doping in sports. Johnson went from a national hero in Canada -- as well in his birthplace of Jamaica -- to being branded the world's biggest cheater. Francis, his well-spoken, Stanford-educated coach, was banned from coaching and forced to consult discreetly with athletes in the dark of night, out of the spotlight.

Francis didn't run from the truth, though. Unlike recent developments that have seen some prominent U.S. athletes and coaches facing perjury charges after being questioned by federal investigators and even by Congress, he didn't deny his connection to steroids.

When Canadian authorities impaneled the Dubin Inquiry to investigate the doping scandal after Seoul, Francis was the first witness called, testifying for eight days. He acknowledged responsibility for introducing Johnson to performance-enhancing drugs. He helped set the tone for the hearings when he testified to the widespread use of drugs. As the late Charles Dubin wrote of Francis in his 638-page report: "He believed that the majority of world records broken in sprint events in recent years were achieved by athletes who were on steroids and that the dramatic improvement of their performance could only be explained in that way. In his opinion, in order to compete successfully against those athletes at the very top level, an athlete had to take steroids."

He was later banned from coaching in Canada as a result of his testimony.

Francis thought highly of Dubin and his efforts, and when Dubin passed away in 2008, Francis and Johnson attended his funeral.

"It is interesting when you think back on that situation," Francis said last June of the post-Seoul days. "Initially, I found it incredibly frustrating because you'd be standing around and people would be talking who didn't know their business. They didn't know what they were talking about. What happened in the Dubin Inquiry is you had a period of time where people now understood what was going on.

"It drove the officials crazy, of course. They didn't want to hear it. They didn't want to know [about the steroid use]. … And, of course, they have to make the worst example. And nobody can be worse than me because I talk about it under oath and all at the inquiry. So, of course, this drives them all crazy.

"And they later wanted me to come back [to coaching]. I'm told I can get myself re-instated. But, well, the only way you can get reinstated is to say [the testimony] was all bulls---. That I was wrong. What is the point of it? So I just stay out of it."

Instead, Francis, 61, became a highly sought-after personal trainer, working with clients ranging from Toronto businessmen to pro athletes. He worked briefly with sprinters Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones in 2003 before the public revelation of his role led the sprinters to end the relationship. He also wrote two authoritative books on sprinting and along with his wife, Angie, a former top Canadian hurdler, operated a popular training website, charliefrancis.com.

Francis was never the demon or the bad guy he was made out to be after the Seoul doping scandal. He was a decent guy, a stand-up character who confessed to his mistakes and went on to shed a rare light on doping in sports. Even out of the spotlight, he was still widely perceived to be the valedictorian of sprint coaches and was regularly in consultation with coaches and athletes.

Francis himself was once one of Canada's top sprinters, qualifying for the 1972 Munich Olympics. He ran at Stanford on a track scholarship.

Born in Toronto, Francis lived in the city's upscale Rosedale section in a 19th-century home previously owned by his parents. The restored home serves as a gallery to many of his late father's paintings and art works, as well as housing the keyboard and guitars Francis played with his own 11-year-old son, James.

The day Ben Johnson visited last June, Francis and a visitor walked his young son to and from his neighborhood school. Later, with his wife, Francis stood and cheered as his son placed third in the 100 meters at the city championships -- on the same University of Toronto track where Usain Bolt competed a day later.

"For me, my life has been better since I stopped coaching," Francis reminisced last June.

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.

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