TORONTO, SEPT. 3 -- The mayor of Toronto is fighting with a suburban counterpart over which of them will host the official welcome and ticker-tape parade for Ben Johnson. At Monica's Hair Salon in the "Little Jamaica" section of the city, young women getting their hair done turn to ask anxiously whether proprietor Monica Lewis thinks that the 25-year-old sprinter might notice them when he comes home.
The stunning world record set by Johnson in the 100-meter race at the World Track Championships in Rome Sunday is being hailed here as something of a morality play for the shy immigrant from Jamaica and his defeated rival: the brash, flag-waving Carl Lewis, whose cocky manner seems to epitomize what most irks Canadians about Americans.
Johnson's gold medal is the first won by a Canadian in a world championship meet in 55 years, and the pleasure felt here is made even sweeter by the fact that he did it by beating an American. But the outburst of national pride in his victory also has focused attention on the plight of Canadian blacks, many of whom, like Johnson, immigrated from Jamaica and resent what they feel is their second-class status.
"Lewis was pretty and polished in his U.S. national colors," the Toronto Globe and Mail chortled afterward. "Johnson was plainly attired in his baggy suit."
George Lewis, who runs the reggae shop below his wife Monica's hair salon, was less restrained. He happened to be in New York City the day after the race, a day, he says exuberantly, that he spent going around Manhattan telling one and all, "We kicked your butt. We kicked your butt."
"It's for everyone but more so for us," Monica Lewis said of Johnson's victory as she talked about the young man she described as humble and well-mannered who often comes into the store to buy funk and reggae records. "It means a lot to everyone but it touched our hearts." She threw her arms up in the air. "It has got to be the hands of God."
Ben Johnson is the star of a cadre of young Jamaican immigrants who have revitalized the sport of track and field in Canada in just one decade. They have raised the profile of the largely unnoticed, hard-working and religious Jamaican community of roughly 60,000, which has more than its share of maids and cab drivers in polyglot Toronto.
Local radio commentator Robert Payne, who is black and native-born, remarked sarcastically that after the meet Sunday Johnson had ceased abruptly being called a "Jamaican-Canadian" by the Canadian media and had become a "genuine Canadian."
Discrimination has long been a sore point among the young, Jamaican-born athletes, especially because they feel that their status as "Canadians with an asterisk" has cut them off from lucrative promotional contracts. "I mean, look at beer commercials," said one of Johnson's friends and track mates. "Everyone's blond with blue eyes. We're not looked upon as typical Canadian role models, right?"
That is likely to change now. The media here estimate that Johnson's gold medal could be worth $1 million a year in commercial contracts and track appearance fees. "There's Gold in Ben's Gold," said a Toronto Sun headline. Johnson already represents Mazda, Timex and Adidas and is reported to have made about $76,000 two years ago, one-tenth of the reported earnings of Carl Lewis -- a difference that has been cited here often as yet another example of how life is stacked in favor of the Americans.
Perhaps the calmest reaction among Canadians to the stunning record set by Johnson -- knocking a tenth of a second off the previous record time -- has come from the taciturn, single-minded sprinter himself. His aplomb comes as no surprise to his oldest sister, Dezrine. "Ben never tells you anything. Ben's not the kind of person who comes in and brags," she said.
She recalled how the family had to read the newspaper for years to keep up with the records that he was setting in Canada. He would come home, drop his gear and watch television, neglecting to tell them of the results. When he called home from Rome after breaking the world record Sunday, he asked nonchalantly, "Anybody call? Did I get any mail?"
Ben Johnson was considered one of the most unlikely candidates to become a future track star when his brother Edward brought the scrawny 15-year-old to a suburban Toronto Optimist Club. Edward Johnson, four years older than his brother, was one of the star runners. "The first day he ran one lap around the track, and he just sat down," Edward Johnson recalls. "He said he was very tired."
But, demonstrating a doggedness that would become the hallmark of his career, Ben decided nonetheless to enter a Black Heritage track meet three days later. He did not have cleats. He had the starting blocks turned in the wrong direction. According to his coach, Charlie Francis, he ran the 100 meters in 11 seconds flat.
Ben Johnson is disciplined, determined and unstoppable when he fixes on a goal, said Dezrine Johnson. Around Gold's Gym in the suburban Toronto community of Scarborough, he is a familiar, solitary figure when he works out. Long before he was discovered by the rest of Canada, he was a legend among black teen-agers here as a runner who stayed after track practice. When the others had gone home, he was still drilling and pushing himself.
In 1979, three years after Gloria Johnson had pulled up stakes in the little Jamaican town of Falmouth near Montego Bay and moved to Toronto, she called coach Francis and told him, "I think Ben could be really good. I'm taking a night job so he doesn't have to work."
Although her work as a caterer kept her away from most of their meets, Edward Johnson said their mother would spare nothing to encourage them in sports. "Anything that would make us better, she would do it," he said. "Even if it was the last dime in her pocket, she would say, 'Take it. Go.' "
She believed in her two sons even if others regarded them as slow because of their thick Jamaican accents and stuttering speech. For reporters here, Ben Johnson is regarded as one of the most difficult of public figures to interview. Early on, his deep silences and stammering made him the object of abuse by even his fellow Jamaican-born teammates.
Edward Johnson received a track scholarship to Lamar University in Beaumont, Tex. He grew to like Texas and has settled there. After graduation he became an ordained Baptist preacher.
When Ben Johnson finished high school, he decided to turn down offers of track scholarships to American schools. "Those guys just want to use you," he said in a newspaper interview last year, "and I didn't want to go down and let them use me."
Edward Johnson says of his brother, "I believe that he just loved Charlie Francis and thought he was the only person who would take good care of him."
Coach Francis had ranked fifth in the world in the 100 meters in 1971 but did not run in the Montreal Olympics the next year because of a leg injury. Five years later, he and Edward Johnson and other experienced, Jamaican-born runners who were dissatisfied with the quality of training by their high school coaches, found one another. Francis said recently that he never intended to build a track program around Jamaican sprinters. "I started with a couple, they brought their friends and cousins, and I ended up with a whole pile of them."
Said Edward Johnson, "He's not just a coach, he's a friend, plus he's white, and all of us he trained were black, and he never asked us for nothing."
With his earnings, Ben Johnson has moved his family from "Little Jamaica" in Toronto to a five-bedroom split-level home in the far green suburbs of the city. In the living room are gold velvet couches, and prominently displayed on the wall is a portrait of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, halos over their heads. The den has been turned into what the family calls "Ben's Trophy Room" and is filled with hundreds of ribbons, cups, medals and plaques.
In confidential tones, Edward Johnson, who is visiting the family in Toronto this summer, told a visitor, "I'm the only person who can beat Ben -- and the world doesn't know it. I know his secret. Carl Lewis doesn't know it."
He paused for effect. "I can match him stride for stride -- if I have 30 meters on him."