By Jim Ferstle
Funeral services were today for Canadian sprinter and coach, Charlie Francis, who died last Wednesday after a five year battle with cancer. We met nearly two decades ago when I was working on a television documentary for the BBC. During those 20 years we had many long conversations—you didn’t have short chats with Charlie—about everything from family to his fight with cancer to his latest theory on sprint training.
Mostly we talked about the topic that had brought us together, drugs in sports. He was a Shakespearean figure. Triumph and tragedy, great ambiguity, comic relief, lessons learned, and great stories. We made a strange pair, two men who viewed the world, ethics, and sport from opposite poles when we met, but probably came closer together as the years past and we became friends. His was a tale of great ambition, a thirst for knowledge, great hubris, and harsh reality.
As a young man, Charlie wanted to be the best sprinter in the world. He earned a college scholarship to Stanford where he was tutored to be both an athlete and a coach by Payton Jordan. He made it to the second round in the 100 in the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, but had already made a discovery that would change his life. In discussions with an American hurdler he was introduced to steroids and said he felt like an idiot for not figuring out sooner what was happening. While steroids were banned, the tests to detect their use would not be used to sanction athletes until the 1976 Games in Montreal.
Both Charlie and I grew up in a generation of idealists who saw the Olympics as the Camelot of athletics where the best in the world were crowned and recognized for their achievements. Where you were taught to play by the rules and not take “short cuts.” Sometimes. The lesson Charlie took away from Munich was that steroids weren’t “short cuts,” they were part of the program if you wanted to be the best. One reason for this was that there was very little deterrence to their use.
In the GDR, as we would all discover later, there was a government sponsored program to exploit these doping products in sports. But the real escalation of doping in sports was another byproduct of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US. American sports officials became aware in the 1950s that the Soviets were using testosterone to help their athletes, so, like the nuclear arms race, a US doctor, John Ziegler, who had worked with US teams, used the wealth and scientific technology of the US to “invent” designer testosterone—anabolic steroids. The US wanted a better steroid to use in the “war” with the Soviets.
Francis picked up information like a sponge from everyone he could. As a coach on the international circuit, he made friends with some of the GDR coaches, who observed what he had done with Canadian sprinters and had heard of Francis’ technical expertise. They shared information on workouts, drills, spotting talent, and, ultimately, doping. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone was seeking an “edge” from doping, many just wanted it to be a “fair fight” where each side came into the battle with similar tools.
There is the famous story of a US and an Iron Curtain country athlete who competed against one another in the ‘70s. They were friends off the playing field, but on it they would do whatever was necessary to win. They talked openly about their drug regimens. Compared notes on substances and doses, concluding that they were on similar programs. Then they went out and beat the rest of the opposition.
For them, that was a “level playing field.” At that time, doping was not the “Scarlet Letter” that it is today. The IOC and the sport governing bodies just wanted to make sure athletes didn’t die during events, and the testing was done primarily on stimulants. The medical community kept debating whether or not steroids really “worked,” aided performance. The athletes figured out that they did through trial and error and sharing information.
In the early 1980s two American coaches took a trip to a US military research facility to meet with one of the “steroid gurus” of the day. He gave them a lesson in proper, “safe,” steroid administration. One coach left the session troubled by what he had witnessed. The other said the reason for it was that the team knew the athletes were going to experiment with drugs, thus it was his duty to educate them on how to do it properly. Papers were prepared, sort of a CliffsNotes version of the infamous Underground Steroids Handbook that outlined how to take the drugs, and handed out to athletes. I still have copies of some of them.
In addition to the GDR coaches, Francis had compared notes with Chuck DeBus, a US coach who would become the first to be sanctioned by the sport’s governing body for aiding his athletes in the use of performance enhancing drugs(PEDs). Francis became known in the Canadian athletics community as “Charlie the chemist.” He had absorbed everything he could about the technical aspects of sprinting, probed the best minds, but knew from his own experience and what he would encounter on the world track circuit that the use of PEDs was common at the upper levels of competitive sport. From this Francis concluded that success at the pinnacle of sport not only took knowledge and application of training, recovery, and performance, but PEDs as well.
Not everybody in our generation made that choice. John Treacy was World Cross Country Champion and later a silver medalist at the 1984 Olympics in the marathon. In the spring of that year he had walked into the bathroom at the Meadowlands race track where the World Cross Country Championships were held and observed the Spanish team injecting themselves. Blood doping was believed to be the PED of choice for distance runners at that time. But Treacy didn’t conclude from his experience that he had to dope to be the best. He would say that his satisfaction came from beating people he knew were cheating, but had never been caught.
Mark Nenow, who ran for Anoka in high school and later became the US recordholder at 10,000 meters, was a member of the US track team at the Pan American Games in Cali, Columbia in 1983. That competition had the first major steroid scandal in sports when many athletes flunked drug tests and over a dozen of the US track team members left the Games before the competition after the entire team had been warned by US officials that they might also get caught if they had been using PEDs. Prior to the 1984 LA Olympic Games the USOC instituted a pre-Olympic non-punitive drug testing that, in effect, provided those using PEDs with information on how to avoid testing positive on Olympic drug tests. Sessions were held with Olympians prior to the 1984 Games where “experts” gave information similar to that given to the US coaches on how to use PEDs and how to use them to beat doping tests. I still have copies of those.
Francis testified at the Dubin hearings that Canadian officials told him in prior to the 1988 Olympics that out of competition testing that was beginning to be implemented in selected countries would not target his athletes. Francis also said that meet promoters would also “protect” certain athletes by either manipulating who would be tested or tipping off the athletes to what places in each race would be tested. Most athletes didn’t need a lot of help to beat the testing system.
As one lab director admitted in 1984 the labs could not detect stanozolol, the steroid found in Ben Johnson’s urine in Seoul. That wasn’t the only “loophole” in the testing. There are countless stories of athletes who tested positive only to be exonerated by appeals panels that were intentionally stacked with people predisposed to let off the athletes. The testimony given in those hearings would be laughed at today for the rationale given to not impose a sanction.I have copies of some of the decisions in these cases as well.
All this illustrates the “environment” back then. Not to condone the choices Francis and others like him made, but to provide an understanding of what he was thinking. Why he chose that path. If he wanted to be the best, Francis believed, he had to “level the playing field.” Don Kardong, who would finish fourth in the marathon at the Montreal Games in 1976, was a teammate of Charlie’s at Stanford. I asked him once for his impressions of Francis. He responded that it did not surprise him that Charlie made the choice to encourage his athletes to use drugs, but it also didn’t surprise him that when he was caught in 1988 in Seoul and when the Dubin Inquiry convened that Francis didn’t try to do what nearly every other person who has faced that situation did and deny any wrongdoing.
Instead Francis decided to attempt to blow the lid off of what he saw as the hypocrisy in the sport where athletes, coaches, administrators, and the like who publicly denounced doping while either engaging in the practice themselves or aiding it. He had been part of that hypocrisy before Ben got caught. Yes, one motivation in his confession was to expose others he either knew or believed were “dirty,” but the other was that old idealism. The hope that by coming clean on all this it would force the Olympic sports world to finally address the problem, not sweep it under the rug and hope that nobody noticed.
Charlie was no angel. He could be profane and vitriolic toward those who he considered to be the greatest hypocrites. He could be stubborn. He could be arrogant and displayed plenty of hubris. As the years rolled by he often found himself caught between two worlds, the present where he now had a young son, who was the light of his life, and advised a bevy of eager clients who wanted his knowledge on the finer art of training, and the past where he had worked with the top of the pyramid in the athletic world.
He told me during one conversation in the early 2000s about a job he’d been asked to do in California. They wanted his technical expertise on training and sprinting. I didn’t ask for specifics. Later I found out that the project he was talking about was Victor Conte’s Project World Record that resulted in Tim Montgomery’s short lived 9.78 world best. Montgomery, in turn, would recommend to his then wife, Marion Jones, that the pair train with Francis. Marion paid for Charlie’s trip to Hawaii to work with her and Tim. The arrangement was kept undercover until Tim and Marion showed up in Toronto to train, and a media firestorm erupted.
Francis tried desperately to salvage the project. He insisted that the goal was to prove that an athlete with Marion’s talent could accomplish what she had clean. He knew that he could not afford to be associated with them if they could not buy into that goal. Marion was pregnant when they were working together in Toronto. Charlie had filmed them, worked with them, and was firmly convinced that they could improve on what they had already done, and do it without drugs. While Francis would insist that he was happier being out of top level coaching, he also really wanted to get another shot at working with the best.
He had Tim and Marion come to Toronto knowing that this would be the make or break point in his quest. Prior to this he had always insisted that he could have gotten back into top level coaching if he had been willing to grovel and declare that he was wrong in giving his athletes steroids, sort of do his public penance for another shot at the big time. The fallout from the discovery that he was working with Marion and Tim killed that notion. In athletics circles he would always be the “disgraced coach,” the pariah. It was a hurtful revelation.
He admitted in our conversations that until he’d worked with Marion he hadn’t believed it was possible to compete clean at the highest level. He believed that she could. But the harsh reality was that nobody in the athletics world was going to let him try. Before his belief was that the key to ridding the sport of drugs, if it could indeed be done, was to give the athletes an alternative to PEDs. Demonstrate that it can be done without “short cuts.” Instead there was a market flooded with unregulated supplements that promised to deliver the same benefits as steroids.
Supplement makers got rich and athletes suffered. There was a period of bitterness and remorse. If he knew then what he knew now, Charlie said, he never would have come clean at the Dubin hearings. What good did it do? Why would anyone confess when it did no good? While those sentiments reflected more the anger of the moment than the true impact of his testimony and continued efforts to expose what was happening in sports, his confessions were a key element in the attempts at reforming and improving the drug testing system.
It may well be his enduring legacy. Soon after the collapse of his working with Marion and Tim, the BALCO scandal erupted, he found out he had cancer, and the trivial things of the past became not all that important anymore. Just as he had in athletics, Charlie plunged into cancer research, sought out the best information he could find, the best treatments. He was able to get five pretty full years. Years to continue to work and help others realize their dreams. Years to watch his son grow up. Years to spend with his family and friends.
He didn’t totally separate from track as there were many conversations about the present environment, Usain Bolt, and a snippet of the past. He finally answered questions he’d had about Seoul in 1988 and what really happened. Some day the full story may yet emerge. But the last sprint for Charlie Francis was perhaps best expressed in a Dylan Thomas poem that his wife Angie recited during the visitation services on Monday. “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”