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Controversial track coach Charlie Francis dies at age 61

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The Canadian Press
5/12/2010 4:42:52 PM
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TORONTO -- The co-architect of one of the biggest scandals in Olympic history has died.

Charlie Francis was the Canadian coach best known for Ben Johnson's fall from grace when the sprinter became the first athlete to be stripped of an Olympic gold medal for using banned drugs.

The 61-year-old Francis died Wednesday at Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital after a five-year battle with cancer, according to a statement from his family.

Johnson tested positive for the steroid stanozolol after winning the 100 metres at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. In the ensuing scandal that rocked track and field, Athletics Canada banned Francis from coaching for life after he told the 1989 inquiry, headed by Charles Dubin, that he introduced Johnson to steroids.

Some of his former athletes and colleagues remembered Francis on Wednesday for another side than the one painted during his tumultuous time in the spotlight.

"People have a whole range of characteristics, a whole range of impact, a whole range of the ways they see the world, and the ones he's going to be remembered for are the Dubin Inquiry and the Johnson race," said Athletics Canada head coach Alex Gardiner.

"I think he certainly was man enough to realize that. But there are other elements in every one of us that are worth cherishing as well."

Francis brought innovative coaching strategies to Canadian sprinting that are still used today, Gardiner said, and off the track he was well-known for his generosity with his time and his money.

"He would dig deep into his pockets and help kids out all the time, whether it was for track meet fees or airfare or lunch, or whatever it was," Gardiner said. "He was never short on generosity and compassion."

Angella Issajenko, Canada's top women's sprinter in the 1980s and Johnson's teammate with the Francis-coached Scarborough Optimists, said she and Francis became close friends through their years working together.

"Charlie would have given us the last shirt off his back if we needed it and I certainly would not have become one of the best sprinters in the world without him," Issajenko told The Canadian Press in an email.

Francis was the godfather of Issajenko's youngest child Sophia.

"He was always around for my children, he was a good, good person," said Issajenko, a silver medallist in the 4x100-metre relay at the 1984 Olympics and a world indoor silver medallist in the 60 metres. "I have so many memories of the 10 years we spent together and he and I, more than any of the others, were together outside of track.

"I am devastated. All I accomplished in my sport was due to him. But I will hold on to my memories and cherish them."

Gardiner came to know Francis in the late 1970s when they travelled together with Canada's national track and field team, and became friends in the mid '80s when both their mothers died of cancer in the same year.

"He was a very bright man, exceptionally bright. We would talk about things that had nothing to do with track, but he would always have insight, a view on something," Gardiner said. "He was very thoughtful and very intense, and he really changed the way we think about running in Canada."

Johnson was 15 when Francis began coaching him.

At the Dubin Inquiry, Francis said the use of performance-enhancing drugs in track and field was rampant.

Francis was himself a champion sprinter for Canada in the early 1970s and reached the second round of the 100 metres at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

While he was banned from coaching in Canada, he worked with American sprinters Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones in 2003.

Francis was the author of two books on sprinting -- "Speed Trap" and "Training for Speed" -- and operated a website dedicated to sprint training.

He is survived by his wife Angela and son James. Funeral arrangements have not been finalized.

CHARLIE FRANCIS (Photo: Gray Mortimore/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Gray Mortimore/Getty Images)
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