HAMILTON, ONTARIO, JAN. 10 -- Curiosity hangs in the bitter cold air here. Anticipation envelops almost every Canadian sports fan. "What will he look like?" they ask. "How will he do?" There never has been a moment in this country's sports history quite like this one.

Ben Johnson is coming back.

Johnson, the sprinter who was stripped of his Olympic gold medal after testing positive for steroid use after winning the 100-meter dash in the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, will run a 50-meter race in the Hamilton Spectator Indoor Games Friday night.

He faces a formidable field and victory is no certainty. It's also no sure bet Johnson will be drug tested after the race; only a maximum of 10 athletes, selected at random, will be required to undergo urinalyses. About 80 top-flight athletes will compete in the meet. However, Johnson has taken -- and passed -- six random drug tests since Seoul.

Johnson's appearance, scheduled for 10:48 p.m. Friday, will pack 17,000-seat Copps Coliseum, meet organizers say. The meet will be televised nationally in Canada. It has attracted about 350 reporters from around the world.

What they will see is anyone's guess.

Johnson, 29, hasn't run a race in 27 months. He hasn't entered the blocks and waited for the starter's gun since the Seoul Games. He hasn't crossed a finish line since the 100 meters in South Korea, when he pumped his right fist into the air, raised his index finger to the sky and looked behind him to see a vanquished Carl Lewis.

And, perhaps most important, by his own admission a year and a half ago, he hasn't run a race without the aid of performance-enhancing steroids in 10 years.

"I'm not here to lose," Johnson told reporters after his final workout Wednesday. "I've been training too hard for this moment. I'm psyched. I'm ready. I think I can handle these guys with no problem at all."

Allowed to return to his sport by the Canadian Olympic Association on Sept. 28, 1990, after serving a two-year suspension, Johnson said he has lost only about three pounds of muscle since giving up steroid use. He reportedly is running well and is said to be in good shape.

"He's as ready as he can be at this point," said his coach, Loren Seagrave, who denied allegations involving steroids when he was track coach at Louisiana State University.

"We just need competitions in order to get race sharp now."

There will be other races and other athletes competing Friday, but they will not gain a lot of attention. Everyone in the world of track and field, even those thousands of miles away, wants to know how Johnson will do.

His performance is important for his reputation and for his earning power.

"People will be suspicious if he comes back and runs better than before," said Tony Campbell, the agent for U.S. sprinter Dennis Mitchell, who pulled out of the 50 earlier this week with a twisted ankle. "I guess any event Ben runs in, people will be hollering about drugs."

U.S. middle-distance runner PattiSue Plumer sounded an alarm at a Washington luncheon for the Mobil I Invitational indoor meet the other day. She said someone who takes steroids for as long as Johnson said he did perhaps still will benefit from their use.

"I would think that the muscles he built up {through steroid use} wouldn't go away," she said.

John Cook, director of the Mobil I meet at George Mason University Feb. 3, had no success trying to lure Johnson to his meet and the Millrose Games Feb. 1 in New York for a combined $35,000. (Johnson is reported to have been paid a minimum of $10,000 to run here, close to his Toronto home.)

"Everything depends on how he does in Hamilton," Cook said. "If he loses up there, it's a different ballgame as far as money goes."

Johnson held the 50-meter world record of 5.55 seconds, set four years ago, but lost it due to his admitted steroid use. The same thing happened to his record times of 9.79 seconds and 9.83 seconds in the 100 meters. Lewis's 9.92, run in Seoul, is now the recognized world record.

Lewis and top rival and teammate Leroy Burrell are not competing on the winter indoor circuit.

But Johnson will face four top sprinters: Americans Mike Marsh, ranked No. 1 in the world last year in the 50 meters; Andre Cason, No. 1 in the world in the 55 last year; Daron Council, who ran the sixth-fastest time in the 55 in 1990; and Jamaican Patrick Williams, ranked sixth in the world in the 100 last year.

"They've jumped Ben," Charlie Francis, Johnson's banished former coach, told local reporters. "They've kicked him when he's down. They went and got the three top American indoor runners {now minus Mitchell} over the last two years."

Seagrave said none of this should matter.

"The one thing I want to stress, with all the media and all the hype, this ain't the world championships, folks," Seagrave said. "That's what we're pointing at -- Tokyo in August. That's the real focus for this season.

"Hamilton, although it's the first race back in a long time, is just maybe the first step back in a path up the mountain."