SI Vault
Richard O'Brien
January 21, 1991
Ben Johnson (Lane 3), racing for the first time since his ban was lifted, drew an emotional crowd in Canada
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January 21, 1991

A New Start

Ben Johnson (Lane 3), racing for the first time since his ban was lifted, drew an emotional crowd in Canada

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With nearly 2� hours to go before the start of the 50-meter dash at last Friday evening's Hamilton Spectator Indoor Games, Ben Johnson stepped out onto the Copps Coliseum track. Wearing baggy green sweats and flanked by his coach, his manager, his masseur and two uniformed Hamilton, Ont., police officers, Johnson went momentarily unnoticed by the sell-out crowd of 17,050—a throng that had plowed through a blizzard outside for just one reason: to see the return of Ben Johnson.

Fleeing the crush of reporters and photographers that had surrounded him in the warmup area beneath the stands, Johnson took refuge in the middle of the infield. The crowd spotted him. Cheers erupted. One fan unfurled a GO BEN GO! banner. Another banner read HE WAS FRAMED. Young girls squealed for autographs as Johnson ran his warmup strides, and one of his practice starts drew a collective gasp and a ripple of applause. Finally, a few minutes before 11:00—right on time for the national TV audience—Johnson received a 30-second standing ovation during his prerace introduction.

For the runner whose disqualification and suspension after a positive drug test at the 1988 Seoul Olympics cast him as international sport's biggest villain—Johnson had been greeted with headlines of CHEAT! and SHAME!—it was a startlingly affectionate reception. In the hearts and minds of Canadian fans, their Ben, clean and rehabilitated after 27 months of exile, was back. And welcome.

Moments later Johnson finished a close second in the 50 to 26-year-old Daron Council, a world-ranked 100-and 200-meter runner from Gainesville, Fla., out of Auburn University (and a former undercover narcotics officer). That relatively strong performance, in Johnson's first race since his suspension, put to rest any doubts that he could ever again be competitive at the world-class level.

But just how far back Johnson can come remains to be seen. After all, before Friday the last image we had of Ben Johnson in competition was one of total dominance—crossing the line in Seoul, glaring, right arm raised in triumph, after crushing archrival Carl Lewis and the rest of a superb field with the fastest 100 meters ever run. Two days later came the news that Johnson had tested positive for stanozolol, a banned anabolic steroid. He was subsequently stripped of his gold medal 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, the 29-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 world records—all without steroids. He has been tested at least six times since Seoul, including an unannounced test by the International Amateur Athletic Federation five weeks before his return. All of the tests have been negative. With his former coach, Charlie Francis, suspended in 1988 by the Canadian Track and Field Association (then the sport's governing body in that country), Johnson has been training since July under the guidance of former LSU women's coach Loren Seagrave.

While not as extravagantly muscled as he was, Johnson has maintained much of his legendary strength, bench-pressing 365 pounds and squatting 600 (compared with 385 and 635, respectively, in '88). Johnson's start, always one of his greatest assets, has been less consistent but still is explosive. Nevertheless, Seagrave knew that whatever he was seeing in workouts, he couldn't be sure of Johnson's status 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 the target.

In the days leading up to Friday's meet, Francis and others accused the Hamilton organizers of bringing in a loaded field to run against Johnson, including Patrick Williams, from Jamaica, and U.S. runners Andre Cason, Mike Marsh and Dennis Mitchell, 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 he was not ready to run against Johnson so early in the season. Ex-narc Council was the replacement. Council, who finished third behind Johnson at Hamilton in 1988, was eager to meet him again. "Before with Ben, most times you stepped in 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 no complaints about the competition. "I'm not here to lose," he said. He seemed relaxed and eager. On Wednesday, Johnson's mother, Gloria, who had wept when told of her son's disqualification in Seoul, was beaming. "The hard times are over," she said.

The race itself was over in what seemed a single breath. After false starts by Council and Cason (on the latter's, Johnson was left flat-footed), the field got away cleanly. 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.

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