Duncan Mackay

This month I have been mourning one of my sporting heroes, Charles Merrick Francis.

Yes, that Charles Merrick Francis, the man who coached Ben Johnson, the disgraced Canadian sprinter, and who died of cancer on May 12, aged 61.

It was not, of course, his use of anabolic steroids that made me grow to respect Francis.

Although I can understand how he came to conclude in the 1970s and 80s that, in his words, "As I saw it, a coach had two options: He could face reality and plan an appropriate response, or he could bury his head in the sand while his athletes fell behind".

After all, as he also wrote: "Throughout two decades of acknowledged doping in East Germany…only one G.D.R. athlete has failed a drug test at an international competition."

Nor would I necessarily quibble with the opinion attributed by Francis to a respected medical director that, "when regulated in small doses [my italics], there was no evidence that anabolic steroids had any significant side effects".

What qualified him for hero status in my eyes was the way he reacted to the disaster of Johnson’s sensational positive test at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

He tried - without undue delay - to tell the truth, both in 29 hours of testimony to the Commission of Inquiry into the Use of Drugs and Banned Practices Intended to Increase Athletic Performance, the so-called Dubin Inquiry, and in a subsequent book.

To quote him once again, this time at length:

"As I saw it, I could only gain by providing the Inquiry with the fullest and most detailed truth.

"I had lost my career and my athletes.

"I’d been branded a cheat, a Svengali, and even (by the more imaginative commentators) a pusher of drugs to children.

"I’d been portrayed as a coach who took short cuts because he couldn’t succeed in any other way…

"But while my career was a dead issue, I thought I might still salvage my reputation and those of my athletes…

"There was more at stake, of course, than my personal honour.

"In giving my testimony, I hoped that others would be induced to follow my lead."

To my mind, that book, Speed Trap, written with Jeff Coplon, is one of the best sports books ever published.

I don’t know if everything in it is true.

And what it does not do is provide a definitive explanation of how Johnson came to test positive after the most important race of his life when, in Francis’s words, "using the same steroid, Ben had tested clean on 29 previous occasions".

Actually, more than 20 years after the event, I think we still await a wholly convincing explanation.

But the tone is unflinching, matter-of-fact and utterly candid.

The picture it paints is at times shockingly bleak, sometimes perhaps unjustifiably so.

Francis could, in my experience, be cynical about the world at large.

I would hope, for example, that in this passage relating to the tragic 1972 Munich Games, in which he competed, he was mistaken about athletes’ reactions.

"The massacre evoked little outward emotion among the Village survivors," he wrote.

"The incident was jolting, even numbing - but there were still races to be won, medals to be earned.

"Olympic athletes are the most single-minded people on earth.

"Their grand obsession cannot be shaken by a last-minute intrusion of the real world."

When talking about the nitty-gritty of track and field and, in particular of course sprinting, however, the insights are profound, the prose lucid and the messages simple to comprehend.

Take this on his training methods:

"My theory was simple: Sprinters needed to train at race pace, both to imprint the higher speeds on their muscle memory and to acclimatize their muscles and tendons to the demands of racing…

"No one in North America conducted special endurance drills this fast."

Or this on the peculiar discipline that is sprinting:

"The 100 metres is track’s ultimate challenge precisely because it is so austere, so short…

"Precision matters more than effort…

"In the greater athletic community, however, sprinters get little respect.

"Distance runners disdain them for their lack of suffering.

"These Calvinists equate pain with achievement…"

Or this on the anguish that lies in store for all but the lucky and hyper-talented few:

"My chosen sport was one of ultimate frustration for almost everyone who played.

"There can only be one Olympic champion.

"The rest of us must confront our limitations.

"It might happen at the local level, or at the national, but we reach a point where we stop winning.

"(The purest expression of competitive agony is the face of a silver medallist just after a near-miss for the gold.

"I’ve lost, the face tells you, I’m a loser.)”

He must, in short, have been a brilliant coach.

On a bitterly cold Toronto day five months ago at Christmas-time, Francis had the good grace to spend a good two hours answering my questions, though he was plainly very ill.

I’m grateful that I had that opportunity to meet him face-to-face.

Now that we can no longer do so, it would be a fitting tribute if someone would re-publish Speed Trap, which has become quite scarce.

David Owen is a specialist sports journalist who worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering last year's Beijing Olympics. An archive of Owen’s material may be found by Twitter users at www.twitter.com/dodo938