They went through hell and heaven together.
But in the end, the bond between Ben Johnson and Charlie Francis, was never completely broken.
And the love Johnson felt for his former coach never ceased.
“I will always have a lot of love for Charlie,” an emotional Johnson told the Toronto Sun. “I never stopped being Charlie’s friend. Charlie and I were always friends, never mind what happened in the past.
“I’m very sad.”
Francis died on Thursday after a five-year battle with cancer. He was 61.
Perhaps Canadian track and field guru Cecil Smith said it best in describing Francis.
“I think you’d be a hypocrite if you only thought of Charlie in one way,” said Smith.
To some, Francis will be remembered as one of the top minds in track. To most of his athletes, he was more than a coach. He was a friend and mentor.
But, of course, the unfortunate side to Francis’ legacy was his decision, those many years ago, to put the best of his flock — Ben Johnson, Angella Issajenko, Mark McKoy, Desai Williams — on performance enhancing drugs. He did it, he said, to level the playing field.
“His knowledge was unquestionable. Unfortunately, like many people of talent, there was a tendency to try to go beyond expectations and in order to do that, one stepped over the mark. And that’s what happened with Charlie,” said Smith. “He did level the playing field, but the way he went about it will forever be a source of controversy.”
Long before Johnson broke the 100 metre world record (9.79 seconds) at the 1988 Seoul Olympics to win the gold medal (which was later taken away after his positive test for the steroid Stanozolol), Francis maintained that the best track and field athletes in the world were using steroids, and getting away with it.
Only years later, was it shown that he was correct.
But for most of his former athletes, including Johnson and his greatest female sprinter, Issajenko, Francis will be remembered more for his compassion and loyalty than for his technical prowess on the track.
“Charlie would have done anything for us,” said Issajenko, who first joined Francis at the Scarborough Optimists Club when she was a teenager running with the boy’s relay team at Parkdale Collegiate. “Charlie would have given you the last shirt off his back, he cared about us so much. I never wanted to leave him, not even after I got a scholarship to Arizona.”
When Issajenko’s youngest daughter, Sophie, was born, Francis become her godfather. Smith, a long time track and field meet director in Ontario, including the Hamilton Indoor Games, witnessed first hand how Francis fought for his athletes.
“If everything wasn’t just perfect for his athletes, he’d let you hear about it,” said Smith. “If a wind gauge was off, or the air conditioning inside wasn’t right, he’d be on you until it was straightened out.”
When the Dubin Inquiry was established in 1989 following Johnson’s positive drug test in Seoul, it was Francis who set the table early in the proceedings by revealing the extent of the use of steroids in international track and field. Johnson and others followed. He was later banned from coaching in Canada as a result of his testimony.
Smith said that Francis warned the world for years that athletes from many of the track and field superpowers were using performance enhancers and was one of the first outsiders to reveal that the East Germans had set up drug labs in ships at Olympics, including the 1976 Montreal Games — though, at the time, his charges were largely ignored. Documents released in 2009 proved that to be the case — officials from the former GDR dumped leftover serum and syringes in the St. Lawrence River following the Montreal Games.
Francis’ assertions that he gave his athletes steroids only to level the playing field were also shot down. Again, years later, it was proven that virtually every sprinter in the 100 metre final in Seoul, used performance enhancing drugs at one time, including American Carl Lewis who was awarded the gold after Johnson’s disqualification.
Francis was born on Oct. 13, 1948 in Toronto and was once one of Canada’s best sprinters, winning the national 100 metre title from 1970 to 1973. He represented Canada at the 1972 Munich Olympics, reaching the second round. His personal best in the 100 was a 10.1, recorded at the Pan Am Games in Vancouver in 1971.
He then went to Stanford University on a track scholarship and after retiring as an athlete, became a coach — guiding his athletes to some 250 Canadian records, 32 world records and won nine Olympic medals.
In later years, Francis became a highly sought after personal trainer, working with clients ranging from businessmen to professional athletes in the NBA, NFL and NHL, including former Maple Leaf forward Tie Domi. who hired Francis to help him become a better all-round athlete.
“He’s an intelligent man and I was quite impressed,” Domi said in 2003 of Francis. “He’s on a different planet than we all are, it’s scary really. I can’t really understand half the words he says, but I’m still using his methods today.”
Francis worked with American sprinters Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones for a time in 2003. It was discovered later that they both had used performance enhancing drugs, though Francis was never linked with their drug use.
He also authored two books on sprinting, Speed Trap and Training for Speed, and operated a popular internet sprint training forum (charliefrancis.com).
Five years ago this past April, Francis was diagnosed with Mantle Cell Lymphoma, a relatively rare form of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“He fought it very hard,” said his brother Barry Francis on Thursday. “Because of his young son, he wanted to extend his life as long as possible.”
Barry said that Charlie had become a big fan of the Montreal Canadiens as he once worked with Habs star Mike Cammalleri before the Toronto native made it big in professional hockey.
“He was very excited about how well the Canadiens were doing in the playoffs,” said Barry.
Barry said that his brother was at Sunnybrook Hospital for a round of chemotherapy and was expecting to return home sometime this week. A stem cell match had recently been located and Francis was optimistic at the prospect of a successful transplant.
“I spent two hours with him (on Tuesday) and he was alert and really quite with it,” said Barry. “He was very excited about all the hockey playoff games going on.”
Barry said that Charlie was lucid and talking right until his condition took a sudden turn for the worse on Wednesday morning. His family and close friends was notified and were with him when he passed away, including his wife, former national team hurdler, Angie Coon, and their 11-year-old son James.
Johnson was also able to see him on Tuesday morning before he passed.
Funeral arrangements will be handled by the Humphrey Funeral Home — A.W. Miles Chapel in Toronto, with very details to be announced.