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Ben Johnson, the great Canadian hope who won Olympic gold as well as national hero's status in 9.79 seconds, now stands accused of a high crime: heaping shame on a nation.

"Not guilty," cried a majority of the dozen Canadians interviewed Wednesday along the Niagara Peninsula.

Denial -- not national shame or vilification of a star athlete -- seemed the predominant reaction to Johnson's woes. Only two of the 12 people interviewed in St. Catharines and Niagara Falls, Ont., said they believed that the 100-meter sprinter knowingly took an anabolic steroid to enhance his performance, ultimately resulting in his being stripped of both a gold medal and a nation's adoration.

The reaction of Leacroft Panton, 21, a Brock University basketball player, was simple and direct: "He didn't do it."

"I think it's a bunch of bull," said Jamie Glazier, 25, a waitress from St. Catharines. "I don't think he took the steroids. They're just ticked off that he won."

"I think he's innocent," said Sue Stokes, 50, a customer-service agent for Air Canada in St. Catharines. "I think if anything was done, he didn't knowingly take any steroids. It's just the type of person he appears to be. I don't think he's on an ego trip. And I don't think an athlete of his stature would knowingly jeopardize his chances."

Katherine Cuillerier, 21, a legal secretary from Niagara Falls, said she thought Johnson, who previously had not tested positive for any banned substance, was framed.

Others sounded like jurors in a trial, waiting to hear more evidence and affording Johnson the presumption of innocence.

"Right now, I'm more in a state of shock, and I'm reserving judgment," said Rick Lavery, 36, another Air Canada representative. "But I believe that if he was taking them, he wasn't aware they were steroids."

Most people mentioned Johnson's personality in explaining their faith in him.

"Having followed the guy since he won the world championship last year, he's come across as a quiet, reserved person and very truthful," said Darcy M. Flarity, 39, sales representative for a St. Catharines travel agency.

Several people mentioned the folly of an Olympic athlete taking steroids when he knows he would be tested for them.

But a small minority had trouble understanding all the denials of Johnson's steroid use.

"When you take a look at the man's body, you have to wonder," said Harry Kitchen, 46, a professor from Peterborough.

Kitchen did not underplay the national reaction to the plight of Johnson, who only a few days earlier had dedicated his gold medal to his mother and all Canadians.

"It's a disaster," Kitchen said. "I think every Canadian is saddened. It reminded me of President Kennedy's assassination. I feel the same hollow feeling."

Flarity and Lavery, chatting in the Air Canada office on King Street, tried to explain why the Johnson controversy touched off such a strong reaction in Canada, where Olympic gold medals are rare.

"When you have a larger-than-life presence like a Wayne Gretzky or a Ben Johnson, it captures the attention and focus of people, even people who aren't interested in sports," Flarity said. "In the U.S., you have your presidents and movie stars."

Lavery pointed to Canada's inferiority complex and the resulting love affair with those who excel in their fields.

"We do tend to grasp onto heroes of this nature, but we're also very fickle," Lavery said. "If they fall from grace, we quickly lose our . . . (affection) for them."

Canada, where Johnson returned home Tuesday, now is in a mourning process, which may explain the reactions evident Wednesday.

First, there is the denial stage, Lavery said. Then the public looks for someone to blame.

"Unfortunately, in this case, the athlete has to take the fall," Lavery said. "I just feel sympathy for the man as an individual, whether he's innocent or not."

Johnson's troubles are a far greater blow to Canada than the move of hockey superstar Gretzky from Edmonton to Los Angeles, because Johnson is going through such personal adversity, several people pointed out.

Americans might have a hard time understanding how captivated Canadians were by Johnson's record-setting gold-medal victory over his principal U.S. rival, Carl Lewis, who represented a nation that dwarfs and often overwhelms Canadians. It was like the American reaction to the U.S. Olympic hockey team's victory over the Soviet Union in 1980.

Taxi driver Alan Devine, 22, remembered watching Saturday's Olympic 100-meter final in a bar, where people jumped up and down, screamed and spilled their beer all over the place.

"The whole bar went nuts," he said.

Kitchen's son, a student at McMaster University, told his father that after Johnson's victory, hundreds of people paraded across the campus, chanting, "Canada, Canada."

Then there was the opposite reaction, voiced Wednesday by a woman in St. Catharines who would not give her name:

"I don't want to hear Ben Johnson's name once more. I'm so sick of Ben Johnson stories."

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