The mayor and the sprinter

In early April, the media had a field day when Toronto Mayor Rob Ford announced that disgraced sprinter Ben Johnson was going to be a part of his campaign team as he went after re-election.  Along with a minor bit part actor from the cable series, The Trailer Park Boys, Johnson showed up at a media conference for the mayor, but had very little to say. 

The newspapers and broadcast news fussed about the optics of Johnson joining forces with Ford; after all, here was the big city mayor labouring under a drug scandal. And now standing tall beside him was a sprinter who for three days appeared to have been the fastest man in the world until the Olympic committee stripped Johnson of  his gold medal for doping in his 100-metre race against American Carl Lewis at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. 

No one bothered to ask why Ford would want to associate with Johnson, particularly given the fact the sprinter became a national disgrace for his use of steroids during the games.

Of course, at this point, the media is happy to report on any move Ford makes with very little analysis. But why Johnson? A city mayoral campaign is, excuse the analogy, much more of a marathon than a sprint. Maybe Ford was trying to drive home a point about having a strong finishing kick, but I don’t actually think that’s why Johnson is involved.

Rather, when reporters were questioning the “optics” of Johnson’s involvement, they were on the right track without even realizing it. Back in late January, a video surfaced of Ford at a fast food restaurant in Toronto “swearing, mumbling and speaking in Jamaican patois,” according to CBC News.

The public broadcaster reported that Ford attempted to use a Jamaican swear word four times and questioned him as to whether his use of the accent was offensive. Ford told CBC, “I met some friends. If I speak that way, that’s how I speak with some of my friends and no, I don’t think it’s discriminative at all.”

According to sports journalist Richard Moore in his definitive book on the 1988 Johnson-Lewis match titled The Dirtiest Race in History, Johnson “suffered slurs and innuendo about his intelligence” later in life. But Moore notes the sprinter’s teachers called him “average.” In school, in Toronto, the Jamaican-born sprinter was placed in classes for slow learners, but Moore points out Johnson not only had a heavy accent, but stuttered. The latter may be one of the reasons why Johnson had little to say at the recent news conference.

It doesn’t matter. Johnson didn’t need to say anything. Only his presence was required. Ford’s labouring under a lot of pressure in the current mayoralty race and his handlers may be looking for any kind of edge. Again, though, why would Ford decide that a sprinter who had his Olympic gold medal rescinded because of his use of drugs would be a good choice to stand next to him? It could be Ford or his handlers thought the presence of a famous, heck, an infamous, Jamaican friend might help diffuse at least one of the issues of recent months: Ford’s late-night mumbling in a Jamaican accent. LookMayor Ford really does have friends – and at least one of them is Jamaican, so that legitimises that entire episode.

Or, maybe it’s just another one of Ford’s wacky ideas, like suddenly jetting off to Hollywood for the Oscars to network, even though Toronto’s film commissioner and others knew nothing of the idea and no previous agenda had been planned.

There’s also an interesting side note to all of this. Last November, news broke that Ford’s new personal fitness trainer was convicted in the U.S. for steroid trafficking and is currently in the midst of a 12-year ban from coaching in Canada for administering steroids, according to the National Post.

Whatever the reason for Ford parading out Johnson, it’s certainly one of the oddest pairings ever seen in the history of track and field and does’t seem very likely to give the mayor an edge on his competitors. 



About subthree

A multiple award-winning journalist, I'm currently a contributing editor with both Canadian Running and Canadian Cycling magazines. My articles have appeared in Explore, Canadian Geographic, enRoute, The National Post, The Globe and Mail, and many other magazines and newspapers. Formerly a competitive cross-country mountain biker, I switched to running in 2006. I've run seven marathons, qualifying for Boston five times (and which I've run once). Generally, I've placed or won in my age group in races, in distances ranging from five and 10 kms to half and full marathons. I've also taught spin classes at a number of leading Eastern Canadian gyms. Sub-three was a 2012 #Runchat finalist for Best Overall Blog.
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