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SMOKE TURNS TO FIRE IN JOHNSON STEROID CASE

A Canadian federal inquiry into drugs and athletics appears to have its smoking gun - with Ben Johnson's fingerprints on it.

Johnson's personal physician provided the next best thing to the testimony of the sprinter himself when the commission heard a static-filled tape of a phone conversation surreptitiously recorded by Dr. Jamie Astaphan in January 1988.In one portion of the recording played in the hushed hearing room on Thursday, Johnson admitted he used the banned steroids which led to his loss of an Olympic gold medal and 100-meter world record in Seoul last September.

Astaphan told Mr. Justice Charles Dubin, a national TV audience and reporters from around the world he made the recording to protect himself if Johnson or other steroid users got caught by a drug test.

Astaphan, a Caribbean-born, Canadian-educated doctor, said he had concerns in 1987 that Johnson was using vitamins and creams with foreign labels that he had not prescribed.

"I told him it might be something that could interfere with any (drug) tests," said the 43-year-old Astaphan. "But Ben told me if he got caught `You or (Coach) Charlie (Francis) would take the rap.'

"I taped my conversations to make sure they understood and admitted they knew they were taking anabolic steroids so that my tail would be covered too," Astaphan said.

On Jan.27, 1988, Astaphan taped calls to Johnson, Italian sprinter Pierfrancesco Pavoni, Canadian sprinter Angella Issajenko and Francis. In each case, he steered the conversations to steroids.

Johnson, 27, who was banned from competition for two years but resumed training last November, has denied he ever knowingly took illegal drugs. His lawyer, Ed Futerman, refused to comment on the tapes.

He also said he provided steroids to Canadian football players; discussed the banned drugs with skiers, cyclists and volleyball players and counselled world-class track-and-field athletes from the United States, Italy, The Netherlands, Australia, Sweden, Finland, East and West Germany, Bulgaria, Jamaica, several African countries and Britain.