With nearly 2½hours to go before the start of the 50-meter dash at last Friday evening'sHamilton Spectator Indoor Games, Ben Johnson stepped out onto the CoppsColiseum track. Wearing baggy green sweats and flanked by his coach, hismanager, his masseur and two uniformed Hamilton, Ont., police officers, Johnsonwent momentarily unnoticed by the sell-out crowd of 17,050—a throng that hadplowed through a blizzard outside for just one reason: to see the return of BenJohnson.
Fleeing the crushof reporters and photographers that had surrounded him in the warmup areabeneath the stands, Johnson took refuge in the middle of the infield. The crowdspotted him. Cheers erupted. One fan unfurled a GO BEN GO! banner. Anotherbanner read HE WAS FRAMED. Young girls squealed for autographs as Johnson ranhis warmup strides, and one of his practice starts drew a collective gasp and aripple of applause. Finally, a few minutes before 11:00—right on time for thenational TV audience—Johnson received a 30-second standing ovation during hisprerace introduction.
For the runnerwhose disqualification and suspension after a positive drug test at the 1988Seoul Olympics cast him as international sport's biggest villain—Johnson hadbeen greeted with headlines of CHEAT! and SHAME!—it was a startlinglyaffectionate reception. In the hearts and minds of Canadian fans, their Ben,clean and rehabilitated after 27 months of exile, was back. And welcome.
Moments laterJohnson finished a close second in the 50 to 26-year-old Daron Council, aworld-ranked 100-and 200-meter runner from Gainesville, Fla., out of AuburnUniversity (and a former undercover narcotics officer). That relatively strongperformance, in Johnson's first race since his suspension, put to rest anydoubts that he could ever again be competitive at the world-class level.
But just how farback Johnson can come remains to be seen. After all, before Friday the lastimage we had of Ben Johnson in competition was one of total dominance—crossingthe line in Seoul, glaring, right arm raised in triumph, after crushingarchrival Carl Lewis and the rest of a superb field with the fastest 100 metersever run. Two days later came the news that Johnson had tested positive forstanozolol, a banned anabolic steroid. He was subsequently stripped of his goldmedal and world record and banned from competition for two years. Also,effective January 1990, he was relieved of other medals and world records.
For his part, the29-year-old Johnson has announced his intention of returning to the very top,insisting he can regain his world and Olympic titles as well as set new worldrecords—all without steroids. He has been tested at least six times sinceSeoul, including an unannounced test by the International Amateur AthleticFederation five weeks before his return. All of the tests have been negative.With his former coach, Charlie Francis, suspended in 1988 by the Canadian Trackand Field Association (then the sport's governing body in that country),Johnson has been training since July under the guidance of former LSU women'scoach Loren Seagrave.
While not asextravagantly muscled as he was, Johnson has maintained much of his legendarystrength, bench-pressing 365 pounds and squatting 600 (compared with 385 and635, respectively, in '88). Johnson's start, always one of his greatest assets,has been less consistent but still is explosive. Nevertheless, Seagrave knewthat whatever he was seeing in workouts, he couldn't be sure of Johnson'sstatus without the test of competition. When the ban was lifted on Sept. 24,Hamilton, the second meet of the 1991 indoor Mobil Grand Prix, became thetarget.
In the daysleading up to Friday's meet, Francis and others accused the Hamilton organizersof bringing in a loaded field to run against Johnson, including PatrickWilliams, from Jamaica, and U.S. runners Andre Cason, Mike Marsh and DennisMitchell, all of whom ran 10.16 seconds or better for 100 meters last season.Johnson would have no walkover. On Wednesday, Mitchell withdrew, saying that hewas not ready to run against Johnson so early in the season. Ex-narc Councilwas the replacement. Council, who finished third behind Johnson at Hamilton in1988, was eager to meet him again. "Before with Ben, most times you steppedin the blocks it was, Who's going to get second?" he said, "Now it's,Who's in shape, who's worked harder?"
Johnson had nocomplaints about the competition. "I'm not here to lose," he said. Heseemed relaxed and eager. On Wednesday, Johnson's mother, Gloria, who had weptwhen told of her son's disqualification in Seoul, was beaming. "The hardtimes are over," she said.
The race itselfwas over in what seemed a single breath. After false starts by Council andCason (on the latter's, Johnson was left flat-footed), the field got awaycleanly. While Johnson reacted as quickly as the others, his form was ragged,and he came out of the blocks third. Then, 20 meters in, he began to move.
"You saw someserious, serious acceleration there once block clearance occurred," saidSeagrave after the race, sounding like a proud NASA technician.
Indeed, Johnson'scharge was enough to take him past the rest of the field, but not enough tocatch Council, whose time of 5.75 edged Johnson by .02 of a second. Afterward,Johnson said he had mistaken a line across the track at 50 yards for thefinish. ("I didn't realize there were two lines until I got up in thestands," said an upset Seagrave, who videotaped the race from high in thearena. "It was my fault.")
A relaxed Johnsontold the press after the race that he was pleased with his general fitnesslevel. "I'm just not race-fit yet," he said, adding that he neededseven or eight more races to be sharp. It will be a lucrative process. Johnsonwill reportedly pocket $30,000 for running in the Sunkist meet in Los Angeleson Jan. 18, and $100,000 to compete in Osaka, Japan, on Feb. 11. Somewherealong the line will most likely come a much anticipated rematch with Lewis.(Lewis, who underwent arthroscopic surgery in October and is skipping theindoor season, has his own positive test to deal with now. He was charged withdriving under the influence of alcohol after allegedly failing an Intoxilyzertest administered, police said, after he ran his car over a curb last Friday inHouston.)
"It's good toget the feeling back," said Johnson before heading off to drug testing. Hespent more than an hour in the doping room before finally producing a sample(the test results were unavailable at week's end). From there he returned tothe hotel, but he was not yet ready to sleep. An hour later Johnson was stillin the lobby, chatting with friends and other athletes—and looking glad to beback.