Ben Johnson (Profile) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Ben Johnson (Profile)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 1, 2010. Partner content is not updated.

Ben Johnson (Profile)

Ben JOHNSON knows exactly when his troubles started. Not, as one might expect, on that day in Seoul in September 1988, when his "A" sample tested positive, setting off a chain reaction that saw him stripped of his 100-m OLYMPIC gold, and transformed from World's Fastest Man to global poster boy for cheating. Nor was it the time, seven years earlier, when his coach Charlie Francis first took his bone-rack 19-year-old protege aside to explain the concept of making a better living through chemistry. No, Johnson confides as he sits in the suburban Toronto office of his new spiritual adviser, his downfall began far earlier than that - 7,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt, to be precise.

"I know I've always really, really loved the Egyptian monuments and drawings. I'm fascinated by them," says the 48-year-old, but still buff, former sprinter. "So when he told me certain things, I said that makes sense."

Sprawled on a leather couch, enormous, bare feet poking out from his dress pants, Bryan Farnum takes up the story. "My gift allows me to go within the matrix to other galaxies, other universes. We're just part of this huge pathway of experiences. And the actual shape of the matrix, believe it or not, is the shape of the pyramids, and this is Ben's connection."

"Don't say too much," Johnson warns, and then laughs. "When you read the book, you'll understand the link, and everything."

Seoul to Soul, Johnson's self-published memoir, written in collaboration with Farnum, will be released on Nov. 2. No one outside of their select circle has yet been allowed to see a copy, but the passage that Farnum has earlier commanded his secretary to read aloud suggests it will be more like The Secret than a conventional athlete biography. In God's eyes, in God's truth there is no such thing as one being a loser. For the human experience has been set up for all my children to learn about love and forgiveness.

The initial print run for the book, available only via, is 2,000 copies, but Farnum confidently predicts they will sell more than 100,000. The hook is the truth. Not only spiritually, but the straight goods about what really happened 22 years ago in Seoul. How a "mystery man," working on behalf of Carl Lewis's sponsors, spiked Ben's beer with a different steroid than the ones he regularly took under Francis's guidance. How the win-at-all-cost American psyche affected not only the Olympics, but U.S.-Canada relations. And how everything that has happened was predestined; set in motion by a tragic event involving two men on the banks of the Nile circa 5000 B.C.

Johnson and Farnum are reluctant to speak of the details, hoping to build anticipation for the book. "It's just like how nobody knows who shot John F. Kennedy," says the sprinter. "The whole world was shocked when I tested positive in Seoul. Everybody wants the answer. Now is the time."

Pressed for at least a teaser of the revelations to come, Johnson turns his intense gaze on his confidant. Farnum, as he will do frequently throughout the interview, closes his eyes and tilts his chin up to the heavens. The eyelids flutter. He grunts, and stretches out a bear-like paw to scratch his salt and pepper mane. "Jonathon is not going to hurt you," he says finally. The guru has travelled through space and time to look at my aura and has determined I am trustworthy. Better yet, God has weighed in on the mystery man. "The Father says we can mention his name."

Bryan Farnum used to tell people what to do with their money. Now, the 51-year-old tells them what to do with their lives. The transformation began in 1998, when Michael, the youngest of his and his wife Cathy's five children, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Even after surgery and chemotherapy, the then five-year-old was given just a 20 per cent chance of survival. The Farnums decided to try to improve the odds by seeking alternative assistance, booking a meeting in Toronto with Almine Barton, an American "intuitive healer." Barton, a bosomy blond who is also a British countess via her marriage to the ninth earl of Shannon, not only offered advice on treating the cancer, she informed Bryan that he himself possessed the gift of healing.

So, that fall, Farnum shut his financial consulting business and travelled to Oregon to study with the mystic. (Barton's website notes that she has since become an immortal, receiving eternal life in February 2005.) Meditating in a cave, he experienced his own epiphany, a light that went into his head and left him with the power to communicate directly with God. He returned home and began treating his son through herbs, diet and prayer. Today, he reports Michael is a healthy 16-year-old who plays select baseball in the summer.

Johnson came into Farnum's life two years ago, referred by a mutual friend. In their very first session, the healer determined the former athlete was suffering from depression, and cured him on the spot. The darkness, undiagnosed by conventional physicians, had existed since Johnson was 17, but had its roots thousands of years before. "They would say, Ben got depressed because he lost his gold medal, but that had nothing to do with it. It had to do with other incarnations he had, where his parents had passed away," says Farnum. "Basically he had not forgiven them, and that energy got attached to him in his next lives."

Whatever the reason, Johnson says the effects of the revelation were immediate and profound. "When I met Bryan, everything lifted," he says. "I feel more relaxed, more calm, not so intense; my anxiety and depression are gone." And certainly, the sprinter seems a man transformed; his famed truculence replaced with a shy smile and surprisingly frequent laugh.

At subsequent sessions, Farnum tackled Johnson's physical woes, healing nagging injuries with his mind, and "taking care" of the adverse consequences of years of steroid abuse that had yet to manifest themselves. Through it all, the men grew closer. "We had very tight bonds in other incarnations," says Farnum. "There was a natural trust."

Gradually, a plan was hatched to turn Johnson's long-delayed autobiography into a joint collaboration. Large portions were trashed and replaced with insights Farnum had discerned directly from God. When the publisher who had originally contracted for the book objected to the change in editorial direction, the pair decided to put it out themselves.

Johnson sees it as the fulfillment of his late mother's belief that track and field was just a sideshow, a diversion from God's purpose for him. "Many people who will read it don't believe there is a God and different past lives," he says. "But this book won't only speak the truth, it will teach the young generation."

For his part, Farnum is quick to point out that he has never taken any payment from Ben. He calls the book a labour of love that he hopes will bring mainstream recognition of his unique talents. Academics and scientists refuse to take his gifts seriously, he complains. "They are not prepared to sit down and consider truly why people get sick." He cites his experiences with a U.S. researcher who conducted a phone interview in which he asked Farnum to discern the colour of his underwear. "They ask me these ridiculous questions to make me look like a fortune teller. My gift is not for that purpose. It's not trivial."

For a guru, Farnum does seem to keep a rather low profile. Apart from a generous National Post story in 2003, his name has only appeared twice in the mainstream media - once in 2007 when a follower buttonholed the Dalai Lama about Armageddon, and in 2001, when Farnum divined that Eddie the Jack Russell terrier from Frasier, was suffering from depression and anxiety. The healer says he has treated a number of other high-profile individuals in the past, but doesn't go into detail. However, in his office alongside the painting of Jesus hugging a man in the clouds, and the TV screen displaying live feeds from 14 surveillance cameras around the property, there is a photo of Farnum and Sam Mitchell, the former coach of the Toronto Raptors. When asked, Farnum allows that he did work with the 2007 NBA coach of the year and helped "lift the curse" off the team. (Basketball fans may disagree.) Mitchell, now an assistant with the New Jersey Nets, said via a spokesman that he and Farnum are friends, but that the healer didn't officially work with the Raptors.

In another case, it appears that Farnum's profile wasn't quite low enough. Two years ago, a former employee of Omega Nutrition Canada, a Vancouver company that markets herbal supplements under Farnum's name and uses him as a spiritual counsellor, filed a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal complaint against the firm and the guru. The woman alleged she had been let go from her job as an executive assistant to the company president after she failed to accept Farnum's diagnosis that she suffered from depression. A confidential settlement was reached before the dispute was adjudicated.

What is clear is that those who do believe in Farnum's gifts see no limits to his God-given powers. In the reception area, a new patient, Marsha, talks about how her neck pain - a chronic complaint since a car accident 17 years ago - disappeared after just one session. Again, it all has to do with past lives, says Farnum. "Marsha was once aborted as a fetus. That's were the pain came from."

Ben Johnson fixes me with a stare that lasts for so long that I am compelled to ask whether he wants a drum roll. "The answer you are looking for," he says finally, "is André Jackson."

Truth be told, this is not a surprise. Johnson and Charlie Francis began suggesting someone had spiked his post-race beer almost the moment he tested positive back in Seoul. And for a while, a great many Canadians wanted to believe him, especially when it emerged that the mystery man was a friend of his hated U.S. rival Carl Lewis. An Edmonton businessman even offered a $10,000 payment if "Mr. X" would agree to testify at the Dubin inquiry into steroids in sport. The man never took up his offer. The inquiry examined the claim, but ultimately dismissed it, concluding the sprinter had simply been undone by a mislabelled vial of steroids - injecting stanozolol, which took 28 days to clear the system, instead of his usual furazabol, which took 14.

In Lewis's 1990 autobiography Inside Track, the nine-time Olympic gold medallist, who continues to be dogged by allegations of his own performance-enhancing drug use, devoted two chapters to Johnson and Seoul. He confirmed Jackson was in the doping control area after the race, even including photos of his friend and his nemesis grinning for the camera. Lewis was a little vague about his exact relationship with Jackson, nicknamed "Action," describing him only as a family friend. As for how he came to be in the room, Lewis writes he had no idea. "But I'm never surprised when André shows up, no matter where it is, floating around doing whatever he wants, being in places he doesn't belong. Some people just have that knack."

Interest in the mystery man dwindled after Johnson failed a second doping test in 1993, and was handed a lifetime ban. But a decade later, the tale began to pop up again, mostly in the British press. Since then, Johnson has identified Jackson as the saboteur on a number of occasions, going so far as to allege he had obtained a taped confession.

Today, the sprinter is a little more circumspect. "We have a tape, but somehow ... " he trails off. Farnum clarifies that they have a confession with a witness. The face-to-face meeting is said to have taken place in Los Angeles in September 2004. "He said the main reason was because of the shoe sponsors," says Johnson. Was Lewis privy to the beer-spiking? "Say it wasn't necessarily on behalf of Carl Lewis," Farnum stage whispers from the couch.

The bigger mystery might be why Jackson has never taken legal action. He hardly lacks the means. Little is available about his background, but he does appear to be a very wealthy man. After founding a diamond company in the mid-1980s, he became a close adviser to the late Zairean dictator Mobuto Sese Seko. Since 1999, Jackson has been chairman of the African Diamond Council, and at the forefront of the fight against blood diamonds. Car blogs identify him as the owner of the world's most expensive sports car, a one-of-a-kind 700 h.p. Maybach Exelero, purchased for US$8 million. Sometimes he lets his friend Jay-Z drive it.

In an email to Maclean's, Jackson refused an interview request. "I've never felt compelled to ever defend myself regarding this issue." he wrote. "Apart from what really took place inside the drug testing room in Seoul, it doesn't really amend the string of events that took place following his positive drug test in 1988."

Johnson says he doesn't fear Jackson. He is ready for "everything to come out." It soon becomes clear that the disgraced sprinter again sees God's hand at play. The weekend he met with Jackson, he says, was the weekend his mother died. He had taken a chance and flown to L.A. in hopes of clearing the family name. He was preparing to return home, "confession" obtained, when Johnson's sister called to break the news. "My mom always said I won't live to see this day, but the time will come when you will tell the true story that happened," Johnson says. "I had to lose one to gain another, to get this major answer."

Then there's the other spirit he feels is watching over him - Charlie Francis's. When his long-time coach died of cancer this past May, Ben was at his side. In his last weeks, they talked a bit about what happened in Seoul. Johnson says his coach remained convinced to the end that somebody had messed with their golden plans.

Above all, Johnson is bitter about how no one seems to remember him for anything else. How his charity work, like raising money for AIDS orphans in Africa, gets overlooked. And the knocks he still takes in the media. "Every time there is a positive test in the world, doesn't matter where, they mention Ben Johnson's name. This is why I have to speak the truth." Few people could endure what he has for the past 22 years. "I gave them my heart and they took it out," he says. "Oh yes, oh yes, they will pay for that. Not in this life, but maybe when their soul is gone, maybe they will be facing God." Karmic payback is due. After all, Ben Johnson has been waiting 7,000 years.

Maclean's November 1, 2010