Ben Johnson brings crowd to its feet in first race in decades

TORONTO – Two decades after he’d run his last race, Ben Johnson can still bring a crowd to its feet.

He just wishes he had a little more notice.

“I’m exhausted,” the former Canadian sprint star said, laughing.

More than twenty years after his fall from grace, Johnson was back on the track Tuesday night anchoring his pro-am relay team to victory as part of the Toronto International Track and Field Games at Varsity Stadium.

“It’s been a long time,” Johnson said. “If I knew that this (race) was going to happen, I would have trained myself two or three months ago.”

How much notice was he given?

“About two weeks,” he said. More laughter.

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A crowd that nearly filled the grandstand stood and cheered on Johnson, who won by a good 30 metres. Now 51 years old and a grandfather, he still looked strong, roaring down the track at “three-quarter pace.”

“I haven’t trained properly for months and months,” Johnson said. “I’m in good shape but my cardio is really bad, my breathing is pretty bad. My running style is OK, just the breathing, I have to get back used to it again.

“I’ve got nothing to prove. I don’t want to hurt myself, you know?”

Video: Rob Malcolm reports from track and field showcase that welcomed Ben Johnson back to racing
Children posed for pictures with Johnson. They wouldn’t have been born when he raced to Olympic gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics in a world record 9.79 seconds, only to have his performance erased for a positive doping test – an event that changed the landscape of track and field in Canada.

“I’ve got lots of fans, it’s just a few people in track and field who don’t like me,” said Johnson. “I’ve got great fans everywhere. It’s good for the young generation to recognize me and know who Ben Johnson was, a little bit of history.”

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He was banned for life by the IAAF – the world governing body for track and field – in 1993 for a second positive test.

Johnson was one of several celebrity anchors for the pro-am that included Johnson’s former Mazda Optimist teammate Angella Issajenko, triathlete Simon Whitfield, former skier Brian Stemmle, CFL commissioner Mark Cohon, and Paralympic racer Josh Cassidy.

Johnson said he still trains at York University “every so often,” and coaches some masters athletes. He has some business deals in the works, he said, but “nothing I can speak about right now. Things are OK.”

Save for ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “9.79” that first aired last year, Johnson has been out of the spotlight in recent years.

His post-track career included everything from coaching Muammar Gaddafi’s son in soccer, to racing a thoroughbred horse and a stock car for charity, to developing his own clothing line, and pitching energy drink “Cheetah Power Surge.”

In 2010, he released his autobiography entitled “Seoul to Soul.”

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