Rocket Scientist

An interview with Charlie Francis


On September 24th 1988, the world held its breath for 9.79 seconds. It was the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea and Ben Johnson had just become the fastest human being on earth.

He reacted to the gun in 0.132 seconds and had taken three blazing steps by 0.8 seconds. Moving at five strides per second, Johnson reached a top speed of 30 MPH. At 94 meters, knowing he had won the gold and already ahead of his arch rival Carl Lewis by six feet, Ben raised his hand in the air in victory. Despite the fact that this caused him to lose form and decelerate drastically, he still shocked the world with the fastest time ever recorded. Ben's coach, since the age of 15, was Charlie Francis.

Later, the 26-year-old sprinter told reporters that he had eased off at the end of the race, saying that he could have run a 9.75, but he was "saving that for next year." You know the rest of the story. Ben tested positive for steroids. His medal and his record were stripped, he and Charlie Francis were painted the biggest cheats in Olympic history, and there would be no next year.

Charlie Francis has been called the greatest living coach in the world and a brain surgeon among sprint coaches. But he's also been dubbed a scoundrel and a "drug pusher to children" by newspapers who are blissfully unaware of what goes on behind the scenes in the world of elite sports. You see, today's top athletes have a choice: Use or lose.

Given that the Olympics are going on right now, it seemed timely to sit down and talk to Charlie Francis about this topic and many more.

T: You were ranked the number five sprinter in the world in 1971 and competed in the '72 Olympics. Does being an athlete yourself make you a better coach?

CF: I think it helps. I was a slow learner as an athlete; I didn't have perfect technique right out of the box. I had to learn it. Knowing how I had to learn it myself helped me to teach. Coaches, to some degree, have to be frustrated jocks.

T: Do you miss competing yourself?

CF: Once I started coaching, it really knocked the competing aspects of my career right out of the picture. I've run into people who were athletes in my era and they still talk about the good old days. I've never really thought about it. I've moved on to something better.

T: Can good coaching be taught to any extent?

CF: Absolutely. You wouldn't let a plumber loose in your house without him having trained under supervision. Yet we have coaches who sent away for a mail order course or get classified as a level four or whatever just because they passed an exam. There's a program in Canada that says, "Doesn't your child deserve a certified coach?" Then you see the work that these idiots do! I think the word is certifiable, not "certified." They take a good concept and turn it into crap.

T: You were very critical of organized athletics in Canada in your book Speed Trap, calling it a bureaucracy at its worst. Anything changed?

CF: Yes, it's worse now.

T: We like to joke at T-mag that the scientists administering the drugs to the Olympic athletes need gold medals of their own. Are there any clean athletes left at the Olympic level in sprinting?

CF: When I testified at the Dubin Inquiry all those years ago, the information I had was that the number of athletes using performance enhancing drugs, at the Olympic level, was about 80%. The IAAF secretary, John Holt, said that my charges were "wildly exaggerated" and said his research showed it was only 30 to 40%, which he obviously considered to be acceptable. Whether it's 30, 40, 50, or 100% is immaterial. The dividing line is not left and right, with the drug free on one side and the dirty cheats on the other. It's divided horizontally with those above the line on the drugs and those below, perhaps being clean.

T: So would it be fair to say that only the losers are clean?

CF: If anyone is clean, it's going to be the losers. The irony becomes that in order for an athlete to be an anti-doping advocate he must be, as a general rule, on drugs! How else would he rise to such a level of prominence so that he would have a platform from which to speak?

T: Supposedly, they're testing for EPO this year on the Olympics. What do you think of that?

CF: Well, they've made a huge story about this implying that it will clean up the Olympic Games. First of all, they've completely glossed over the fact that they have no test for growth hormone, insulin, IGF-1, L-dopa, nerve stimulating hormone, nootropics, and on down the list. But they get a test for EPO and lo and behold, this will cure everything.

What they failed to mention is there are two different tests and you must fail them both. One has a retrospectivity of, at most, four days. The peak reached by EPO after injection is five days. So the only people who will be suffering from this are those that have multiple events that require the blood boosting. So in order to be optimal they would need to top it up somewhere through the meet and they can be grabbed at any time.

T: So they could potentially be dropping off later in the competition?

CF: Well, there's another drug which has now supplanted EPO called Hemopure, which is pure hemoglobin and can be supplemented. There's no test for that. So athletes have already found a way around the EPO test before they've even introduced it, at least at the highest level.

T: So the athletes are going to stay ahead of the game regardless, right?

CF: Well, the top people will. What officials want is to clean it up at the bottom and leave it dirty at the top.

T: You wrote about that in your book. You said they'll bust the nobodies so that it will look like proper testing is taking place, but the star athletes who attract the money are often protected.

CF: Exactly. And they'll know who the stars will be so they'll know where to concentrate the money and the advertising. The same people will win over and over again because the normal process, the distribution of results, will not be there.

T: Would the average person out there watching the Olympics on TV be really shocked if they knew what all went on behind the scenes?

CF: Yes, but only here in North America. In Europe, of course, they all know because they grew up in an athletic environment and participated in it in school. The irony is that once you really know the total scope of the doping, then rather than thinking that all is not as it appears, you realize that everything is at it appears. First is first, second is second etc

T: That makes sense given that everyone is using something. Now, at the end of Speed Trap, you provided a number of theories as to why Ben tested positive for stanozolol in Seoul. Have you come to any conclusions since then?

CF: We know more now than we did at the time the book was written. Pure stanozolol was found in Ben's urine. This is not possible. Stanozolol is the control agent used in all labs. They set up all the equipment and calibrate it using stanozolol, so they have it there. Now, in order to have pure stanozolol in the urine sample, it can't have been conjugated by the body, and the body breaks it down within 45 minutes of administration. Yet pure stanozolol was found in Ben's urine.

Note: This may be confusing to some readers not familiar with this case. Ben Johnson, like every other top athlete in his sport, did use steroids as part of his training. However, he had not taken that particular drug for some time and was well beyond the accepted clearance time.

T: So in short, you think it was sabotage.

CF: Absolutely. Sabotage occurring at the lab level. In the time frame necessary, the drug will break down in the body or in the sample bottle, and the bottle is sealed. However, if the machine is tampered with, then anything going into it will be contaminated by what's already present in the machine controlled at the lab.

Furthermore, when the sample was re-tested three months later, pure stanozolol was found again. If it had been tampered with at the lab level, then in order to generate the same results the same method would have to be used because the sample itself is sealed. When it's opened, people are watching, so whatever is happening must have already been done inside the machine.

T: So what were the politics behind the sabotage? Who did this to Ben in your opinion?

CF: I can't talk about that. It's gets into too much potential libel. Suffice it to say, that enough things came out after the Games that it was clear that not only were they after Ben in Seoul, but that an attempt was orchestrated to get him in Rome. In fact, a dealer was phoned by a meet organizer to purchase 300 stanozolol tablets in my name for Ben Johnson. I've never met this guy in my life and I wouldn't know him if I tripped over him! Ben doesn't know him either. Clearly, a trail was being established to this particular drug for use later.

T: The director of America's anti-doping program, Dr. Wade Exum, has quit and filed suit against the USOC because he says the US Olympic Committee encourages athletes to take performance enhancing drugs. Is this a "Duh!" situation?

CF: Obviously. Nobody needs to enhance or encourage drug use. You just set the standards and see who comes to the table.

T: You've pointed out that the standards are set so high that clean athletes don't stand a chance. Yet the standard setters then take a moralistic stance against performance enhancing drug use.

CF: The testimony at the Dubin Inquiry is clear: no one knew of any example of a shot putter who ever threw 20 meters clean. The standard for getting on the Canadian Olympic team in 1988 was 20.50! This was commented on in the Dubin Report as proof of encouraging drug use. The response by the Canadian Olympic Association was to raise the standards for the 1992 games to 20.85! Then they said they were glad they ignored the Dubin Report because, and I quote, "Excellence is still the goal of the Canadian Olympic Association."

T: So how do we fix the doping problem in the Olympics? You've written something before about allowing drug use, but not to the point where the athlete begins to compromise his health.

CF: The philosophy is simple. If athletes are doped to the point where their own hormonal production is significantly disrupted, then they should be reined in. Offenses should be punished with suspensions, three months for the first offense and on up from there. The emphasis, however, would be on protecting the athletes, not punishing them. I don't see any other possibility because you have a situation where you have a choice to either break the rules or lose.

The drug testers have a vested interest in this whole sport. They want to pick out the sacrificial lambs and screw them, while letting everyone else walk free even though they know they're all dirty. They do this precisely to keep their jobs. If they cleaned it all up they'd be out of work. And they're making a lot of money.

This guy Wade Exum sure has a big mouth now, but of course he was glad to get all the money from his job before. Then when they don't want to promote him and give him more, he starts talking. They're all happy to take the dough, but when they don't get the promotion they think they deserve, they want to squeal. They knew all along, and if they knew, who else knew?

Then you have the organizers. They don't want to clean it up. It's the same thing; they want to have a few sacrificial lambs. It enhances the unfairness of the entire procedure because it singles out certain individuals for certain treatment.

T: In Speed Trap, you said there were always positive tests but that the powers that be "took care of them" before they came to light.

CF: Well, it's like in 1984 when the name list with all the extra positives was "stolen" from a locked safe in the locked hotel room.

T: Didn't something similar happen in Helsinki?

CF: The story is there were 50 positives, so many that all of them were thrown out.

T: Yeah, I guess they'd have to leave some athletes intact for the public to adore. Is that why China pulled so many athletes out of the Games this year?

CF: They knew they weren't going to clear in time for the Games so China kept them out. This is exactly what the Russians and everyone else used to do, only in those days they just said they were injured. The East Germans and the Russians used to bring ships to the meets and park them in the harbor. They would test their athletes right then and there.

I told them this at the Dubin Inquiry and they said I was a liar. Then later it came out that the East Germans, after the Olympics in Montreal, had dumped all the stuff in the Montreal harbor. The only comment from the IOC was, oh, gee, they shouldn't have dumped it in the harbor!

T: Sprinters are born and not made. You say that's a myth. Why?

CF: Well, nobody just comes out of the box and performs at gold medal level. It just doesn't happen by chance anymore. Everybody is a creation of a program, of training, of systems, etc. A minimum of five to eight years of correct training is required before an athlete's potential becomes apparent.

But, you cannot make a silk purse out of a cow's ear. Without the talent, nothing will help, and no drug will help. Not only that, the more talented you are the more the drugs will help. This is because you have more receptor sites at the muscle level to receive the drug. If you have less receptor sites, meaning you basically have less talent, it takes more of the drug to stimulate what receptor sites you have to a reasonable level.

T: You said before that the Olympics are actually a bad time to try to break a record. Do you see any records falling this year?

CF: It can be done. Seoul was a special circumstance because we had an excellent warm-up facility. And although it was cold in the morning, by the time the competition came up it was okay. I don't expect that to be the case in Sydney. I expect there to be headwinds and I expect it to be cold. It would be almost like having a meet in New York at the end of April.

T: Why do think it took so long for someone like Maurice Greene to match Ben's time?

CF: First of all, it depends on whether he matched it or not. Ben shut down before he finished his race. It's called "slicing the bologna thin." If you can break your record more often you'll pick up your bonus money every time you do it at $300,000 a pop. If Ben had run through the line he'd have gone 9.72.

T: Did Greene's 9.79 have anything to do with the new "springy tracks"?

CF: Yes, they've sped up the tracks. The IWAF, which is the sport governing body for track and field, set criteria for competition sites. The frequency of the tracks was to run between 28 and 80, 28 being very hard and 80 being very soft. 80 would be something like what Munich was: it was so soft people were even falling down. Seoul would have been about a 34.

These days they're going right outside of the specifications to try to speed up the tracks. In Tokyo, the track was a 13 and in Los Angeles it was an 11. In other words, fuck the distance runners! So the long distances runners are getting stress fractures, but the sprinters are running faster. They've done everything to make conditions better for the sprinters.

T: Are they catering to the sprinters because it's the most marketable event?

CF: Yes, because it's the most marketable event and because they want to erase Ben Johnson's time. They want to get him out of there.

T: Many people still refer to Ben as the fastest human on earth. Could he have gone even faster? What was he capable of?

CF: All those athletes in all those races — at least until 1996 — would never have beaten him. He would have still been there. It's very clear that had he run in Tokyo with that harder surface, he'd have broken his own record. He would have ran a 9.72 simply running through instead of raising his hands at the end. Add in the hard surface and we could have seen a 9.69. He slowed down and raised his hand at the end because, obviously, he wasn't anticipating that to be the last race he ever ran.

T: We've heard of sprinters performing a three rep max in a certain lift, like a stiff leg deadlift, and then being able to perform better 10 minutes later.

CF: Yeah, I've heard all that. They're claiming Ben did this.

T: Is there anything to this?

CF: No. Well, you'd have to warm-up to warm-up to warm-up The reason people are lifting now before the sprinting — and it's usually divided by many hours — is because of the popularity of insulin. They get up in the morning, they do their heavy lifts, then they'll shoot insulin and then immediately load up with carbs. About six hours later they're getting a spike in the fuel at the cell level, and then they'll come out for their speed work afterward.

The upside is, it maximizes the drug. The downside is, once you've done the lift, you're already committed to that level of output. Meaning that your strength may suffer if you're off at all. We always lifted after sprinting because it was the number one priority and everything else had to be adjusted accordingly.

T: If an athlete hits a personal best, you usually stop the workout, regardless of what's left on the paper. Why is that?

CF: Well, it's dangerous. The time people get hurt is the next session after they've had a tremendous performance.

T: Because they're trying to top themselves?

CF: Not just because they're psyched up and trying to beat their PR, but because their bodies haven't recovered from it. With very heavy weights it can take ten to twelve days to get over a maximal lift, same thing in sprinting. There's a huge difference between 95 and 100% performance. So instead of the 100 meters in 10 flat, it becomes 10.45 or 10.50. The difference in output and effort is unbelievable. Even though it's in the 95th percentile and qualifies as high intensity work, it's a joke. Keep in mind this only applies at the highest levels. If a kid gets a personal best, so what? We're talking about world record levels.

T: Is everyone finally catching on to the importance of recovery?

CF: Yes. Just remember the tapering cycle has been altered significantly because of the different drugs. In our day, you went off your drugs prior to competition so there was more of a taper. Today, they stay on the drugs right through competition. Because of growth hormone, IGF, etc. they're still on the drugs at the meets, which was not the case before. This requires a tremendous amount of physical therapy. I mean, these people are being worked on day and night.

T: Are there any legal supplements out there that you like?

CF: There's a lot of things out there that are very good, the problem is in how much and when. Creatine can be very helpful and very harmful. For example, jetlag can cause an athlete to lose fluid out of the muscles and into the tissue surrounding it. By taking creatine you can bring the fluid back to its normal levels inside the muscle cells and allow the proper transfer of nutrients across the cell membranes to speed recovery. You'll also have more fuel available for the activity.

The downside is if you pump too much fluid in there you decrease the ability of the muscle to move over itself because it's too pumped up. Then you're at risk of injury. So there's a very fine balance, as in all things.

T: What about creatine loading?

CF: I would never be in favor of a loading phase. It would be an unnecessary and dangerous thing to do. You put it in there and the body will use what it has, then you can gradually step it up if necessary. You want to adjust everything as finely as possible and not take the sledgehammer approach.

T: You mostly use a high intensity, low volume of work. Do you ever get into the higher rep ranges?

CF: Oh certainly. Ben at one point was doing ten sets of ten. Of course, in injury phases we'd use higher reps, but we'd taper down later.

T: Do you ever prescribe any specific calf work?

CF: Not especially, no. Sprinters do so many drills it's not often necessary.

T: There's a trend toward testing strength with triples instead of maximal singles. Why is that?

CF: The reason for that is once an athlete gets to a certain level of strength, you'd almost never be working at singles because it's too dangerous. Ben never worked with singles, certainly not in the lower body. Why take the risk?

T: In your book, The Charlie Francis Training System, there's a picture of Mark McKoy benching 315. The caption reads, "This is an indication of the upper body strength required to be a 10.19 second 100-meter sprinter and the number three hurdler in the world in 1987." Can you clarify that? Does a person need to bench a certain amount to be a contender?

CF: It's not a formula that says, you've got to be able to bench this and squat that. What it means is that high-quality performances are the result of high-quality training. There's nobody who can go out there, for example and say, "Oh, I want to beat Michael Johnson in the 400, well, I'll just go do what he does." Look, if you can't beat him in the race, you can't do his workouts! It would take years to build up to those things, so who cares what he does in his workout? You can't do it, so don't worry about it!

T: What type of stretching do you normally prescribe to your sprinters?

CF: When an athlete is very loose and muscles are in good form, then things are a little more ballistic before speed work. This used to be frowned on in the US, I know, but ballistic stretching has it's place provided the athlete is loose. Static stretching and when you're trying to increase the range should be at the end of the workout. Not only is this the safest time to do that type of stretching, but it also speeds up recovery. You can shorten your recovery by up to four hours by stretching everything out at the end of the session. That's the time to go for increased range.

T: Your training book has a whole chapter on Electronic Muscle Stimulation or EMS. I've always been leery of these devices because of the ads that say, "Rock hard abs without exercise!" and similar dribble. But they do have their uses, right?

CF: Yes. Everyone goes, "Oh, it really isn't exercise; it's nonsense." My response is, have you tried it? If they say no, then I'd suggest they strap one on, crank it up and find out! Athletes aren't pulsing it on their tummies to take the bulge down like you see on the commercials. These guys are sticking a leather strap in their teeth and cranking it up until the fibers are sticking out of their skin. After that you feel like you've been riding a bicycle up the side of a mountain! It's particularly helpful when you're injured because when one muscle group is compromised you can still work everything else.

T: Thanks for talking with T-mag, Charlie.

CF: Sure, thank you.

Shot-putter Augie Wolf once said, "An athlete asks himself, 'Do I take drugs and win medals, or do I play fair and finish last?" Perhaps it's time we face the fact that most of our sports heroes wouldn't be heroes without a little extra pharmacological help to go along with the talent, hard work, and excellent coaching. Perhaps it's time we accepted the fact that the only difference between Ben Johnson and another gold medal winner is that one was caught, while the other was not.

The difference between the cheats and the heroes is often finite, the line blurred and fuzzy. In elite competition, there are many criminals, many heroes, and one outstanding martyr who will never be recognized as the fastest man alive, although he was for many years. And perhaps the biggest criminals aren't the singled out drug users, but those in the silent majority that have since taken home medals belonging to Ben Johnson and Charlie Francis.

Perhaps it's time we ended the silence.

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram