An Olympic legacy etched in a 'benevolent dictatorship'

Athletes train with Brooks Johnson at Disney

Olympic 110-meter hurdles bronze medalist David Oliver sprints while training with coach Brooks Johnson at ESPN Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World, on Monday, June 11, 2012. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda, Orlando Sentinel / June 11, 2012)

LAKE BUENA VISTA — Deep in the heart of make-believe magic, Brooks Johnson is delving into the political philosophy of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and the Russian Revolution. You can almost hear Mickey Mouse in his high-pitched voice screaming, "Oh, nooooo! ... This is a happy place!"

Johnson continues anyway, noting that Russia was an agrarian society that would morph into an industrial society before embracing communism. But Lenin was in a hurry. Reform had to come quickly in the way of revolution. 'What we have to do is telescope time down and skip over the middle phase and go right to communism," Johnson said, paraphrasing Lenin.

Johnson and Lenin are blood brothers from different wombs. Tick, tick, they are in a hurry. Lenin wanted to jump-start a communist nation. Johnson simply looks at a stopwatch to see whether it reflects Olympic potential.

It is what track coaches do. Johnson has been trying to shrink time at this since John F. Kennedy was elected to the White House in 1960. Few are better at the game. Johnson's Olympic journey began with Willie May, a silver medalist in the 110-meter hurdles in the Rome Olympics in 1960, crisscrossing continents as he approaches another Olympic cycle in London in the summer of 2012.

All in all, 12 Olympics and a slew of decorated champions, including Evelyn Ashford, Chandra Cheeseborough and reigning 110-meter hurdles bronze medalist David Oliver, currently training with Johnson at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World.

"We have to compress time down," Johnson said. "If we can't compress time down, you don't need to be here.

"And you play the part of Lenin?" Johnson is asked.

"I tell them this is a benevolent dictatorship," Johnson said. "This is not a free-for-all."

If you want your kid to get a few pats on the back and participation medals, go find another coach. If you believe the kid has the makings of an Olympic champion, go see Brooks.

You will find him most weekdays at Disney, his signature beige straw hat shielding him from the sun — or better yet, in the covered stands — screaming, imploring, cajoling, cursing, doing everything possible to shave a split second of time.

At 78, Johnson isn't looking to make a move anywhere else. Instead, you come to him. It's up to you whether you stay.

He doesn't coddle or acquiesce to self-absorbed athletes. No earrings, dreadlocks, gold grills on the teeth. Show up on time, or you get bounced. Work hard, or you get bounced. Listen to what the man says, or you get bounced.

Don't like it? Leave.

There's a long line. Oliver has been training with Johnson since 2005 at Disney. He is one of the few men or women left standing from a total of 40 athletes or so who have come and gone.

"Basically he's like a brutally honest mirror," Oliver said.

Johnson's reflection is etched in a disciplined work ethic and a sharp mind that could have taken him different directions in life. His father shined shoes in Miami. His mom was a housemaid. Johnson had higher aspirations, excelling academically at Tufts University in Boston before earning his law degree at the University of Chicago.

He thought about becoming a "corporate player" until he had lunch with the father of a schoolmate. The kid's dad was a partner at a prestigious firm in Chicago.

"Regardless of what I think personally, my partners will say there is no room for blacks in corporate law," he said.

"So I can go get pimps and prostitutes out of jail, but I can't do corporate law?" Johnson said.