Ben Johnson stood in lane 3 of the sprint straightaway at the Hamilton (Ont.) Spectator Indoor Games last Friday night, listening to the most satisfying prerace introduction he had ever received. "The whole world watched last summer," intoned the public address announcer, pausing for dramatic effect, "as he humbled America's Carl Lewis at the World Championships in Rome...." With that, the crowd in Copps Coliseum erupted in cheers. Even Johnson, normally so contained, so emotionless when racing, seemed on the verge of a grin—but only for a moment. He let the applause die, then crouched into the blocks for his season-opening 50-yard dash.
The World's Fastest Human wanted to make his 1988 debut a dashing double: He would run the 50 in Hamilton, then fly 2,800 miles to Vancouver for a 60-meter race the next night. This year Johnson is traveling in the real fast lane—of endorsements, large appearance fees and hardball-playing agents—and he showed up in Hamilton having logged 25,000 air miles the last six weeks. If he weren't Ben Johnson, you might worry.
To showcase Johnson, whose world-record 9.83 for 100 meters in Rome last August stunned the track world, meet organizers scheduled Friday's events in reverse of the traditional order. All the longer races had come first, setting the stage for the chiming of Big Ben, as Johnson's Canadian countrymen have dubbed their new hero. Also with Johnson in mind, the sprint straightaway had just been resurfaced. And the sprint distance would be the rarely run 50 yards, so that Big Ben would have a good shot at a relatively soft world best, the 5.22 set by Stanley Floyd of the U.S. in 1982.
Johnson had scarcely curled into position when the gun fired. "I got caught on the blocks," he said later. "It was a quick pistol." At 20 yards the surprise leader was World University Games 100-meter silver medalist Brian Cooper of McNeese State, two lanes to Johnson's left. Cooper was up by almost half a yard.
January 25, 1988
There wasn't much time to catch up, but the 5'10", 174-pound Johnson never needs much. Astonishingly at 26 he is still growing stronger and faster. Johnson ran down Cooper with a surge of power. "I didn't see him until it was time to dip," said Cooper. Cooper's finish-line dip was futile. Johnson had already crossed.
His time was 5.20, a new world best. Cooper had finished in 5.25. "Ben was sluggish," said his longtime coach, Charlie Francis. "When he got back from a trip to Europe on Wednesday, his legs had stiffened up. They felt like wood. Later on I think he can bring [the 50 record] down to 5.16."
Old Wooden Legs looked thoroughly at ease. After two—arguably three—years as the world's top 100-meter sprinter, Johnson has become unshakably confident of both his own talent and Francis's scientific coaching. And why not? Big Ben has won his last 26 100-meter finals, a streak that dates to August, 1986. "Can anyone beat you this year, indoors or out?" he was asked as he stood on the infield on Friday.
Johnson shook his head and smiled. "Nobody."
Not that running is quite so simple for him anymore. He has an aggressive Williamsburg, Va.-based agent named Larry Heidebrecht, who has negotiated endorsement deals for Johnson in both Canada (a supermarket chain, an air courier, Johnson outboard motors and a vitamin supplement company) and Japan (VISA card, Johnson's wax, Mazda and an oil and gas company). Those commitments, plus trips to Europe to pick up a steady stream of awards, and his work on an upcoming as-told-to autobiography (The Fastest Man on Earth) have kept Johnson on the go.
Meanwhile Heidebrecht has been putting pressure on meet promoters for some big-time appearance money. Heidebrecht won't disclose figures on any of Johnson's activities, but the sprinter's standard appearance fee for indoor meets is said to be more than $15,000. That's nearly double what Johnson got last year, and far greater than what other top competitors command.
Johnson has not gotten bogged down by such matters. His ability to block out distractions is one of his talents. "He has amazing powers of concentration," says Heidebrecht. "Ben can direct his tunnel vision into whatever he needs to accomplish, whether it's winning a race or sleeping on an airplane."
Johnson, in fact, napped for most of the five-hour flight from Toronto to Vancouver. As he waited to board the plane Saturday morning, he was asked a question about his less-than-friendly rival Lewis. "Carl Lewis?" Johnson said. "He's only good in the long jump." He chuckled and would say no more.
Arriving at Vancouver's airport, Johnson was greeted by a flock of meet officials wearing sweatshirts and T-shirts emblazoned BEN JOHNSON/THE WORLD'S FASTEST HUMAN. His name and likeness were everywhere, giving the impression that the meet was called Ben Johnson, but the actual name was the Achilles International '88 Indoor Games. "Some of the other athletes here might not appreciate all this," said Francis.
As in Hamilton, the men's sprint was saved for last. Johnson met a field of opponents including former 100-meter world-record holder Calvin Smith. "I just want to win" said Johnson, who also said his muscles felt tired and tight.
Johnson didn't just win; he romped. He was a meter clear of the field coming off the start, and by the finish he was ahead by about three meters. "Unofficially 6.14 seconds!" yelled the announcer. Johnson's own world indoor record for 60 meters is 6.41. The crowd, and Big Ben, waited.
"You leaned two meters too soon, eh?" Francis shouted to Johnson from up the track. "You were bending backward when you crossed the fine." Francis knew that this had not been a record performance.
Sure enough, Johnson's official clocking turned out to be a respectable 6.54. Second was 1984 Olympic 200-meter bronze medalist Thomas Jefferson of the U.S., in 6.78. Smith finished fourth.
On Sunday morning Johnson had to fly off to Palm Springs to shoot some ads for a Japanese real estate corporation he represents. "Got to get this stuff out of the way now so it won't interfere with the Olympics," said Big Ben. While the World's Fastest Human sells land, the rest of the world's sprinters will have to make up a lot of ground.