HAMILTON, ONTARIO, JAN. 11 -- After doing his time for steroid use, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tonight had the misfortune of running into a deputy sheriff from Gainesville, Fla., in his first race back -- and losing.
Daron Council, a former narcotics officer who now visits schools to tell students not to use drugs, was a late replacement for a runner who dropped out of the race.
With just two days of preparation, Council upset Johnson, who had been waiting 27 months for this moment, by two-hundredths of a second in the 50 meters at the Hamilton Spectator Indoor Games at Copps Coliseum before a capacity crowd of 17,050, the largest-ever gathering for an indoor track meet in Canada.
Council, who said he was running the 50 for the first time in his life, came from behind to win in 5.75 seconds. Johnson was second in 5.77 and Mike Marsh of Houston third in 5.79. Andre Cason of Tampa finished fourth in 5.80 and Patrick Williams of Jamaica was last in 5.99.
There were three false starts, one by Council, before the runners finally went off. As a result, everyone got off to a slow start. Johnson, known as an extremely fast starter, found himself in the strange position of having to catch the field.
"I got caught in the blocks," he said. "I made up ground, but it was too late."
In a bizarre twist, Johnson and coach Loren Seagrave said they both miscalculated the distance of the race, believing Johnson was running to the first white line on the track (50 yards), rather than the second (50 meters). The strategic mistake didn't seem to matter, though, because Johnson appeared to be farther behind Council at 50 yards than he was 12 1/2 feet later, at the true finish line.
To Council, the excuses didn't matter.
"It means a lot to me," said Council, 26, who trains at the University of Florida. "The crowd got me fired up: 'Ben! Ben! Ben!' I was very satisfied."
This was Johnson's first race since the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and his first without steroids in a decade, by his own admission. After the race, he was whisked off to be drug tested, officials said, apparently selected at random. Only about 10 athletes of 80 were tested. Johnson had taken -- and passed -- six previous drug tests since Seoul.
"I don't think it was a failure," Johnson said of his race. "It takes a long while before I get into top shape. I was very anxious to get into the blocks. We have a long way to go."
Johnson, who is scheduled to run eight more races this winter, might face a significant loss in earning power if he doesn't come back with a victory in his next race in Los Angeles a week from tonight. Then again, there are others who believe the true test of Johnson's steroid-free ability will come later this year during the outdoor season, when he finally runs the 100 meters.
Still, Johnson is trying the most difficult of comebacks. He just turned 29, which is well past a sprinter's prime. No man ever has run under 10 seconds in the 100 meters at his age.
Johnson nervously appeared on the track two hours before his race. He appeared thinner in his green sweatsuit. He nudged his starting blocks into position with his feet. He practiced his starts. He fidgeted. It is very unusual to see a runner on the track so early, but it was believed he went to the track to escape reporters working near the warm-up area under the stands.
Johnson used to walk onto a track as if he owned it. Tonight, he was an anxious visitor.
"When you ran against Ben, it was, who was going to get second," said Council, a last-minute replacement for his training partner, Dennis Mitchell. "He looked a lot smaller. I was wondering, can this guy have the same power? It used to be his first step would literally bump me off the track."
Johnson set the world record of 5.55 seconds in this event four years ago, but lost it after he admitting he used steroids before that race. He also had his world records of 9.79 seconds and 9.83 seconds in the 100 meters, and his world mark of 6.41 seconds in the 60 meters, taken away for the same reason.
Before his suspension, Johnson was a wonderful runner indoors because of his renowned burst from the blocks. He came here with a 10-meet unbeaten streak indoors, dating to March 1987. The 50 meters requires only about 25 strides, so there is not much a runner can do to correct a slow start. It was Johnson's quick start out of the blocks in the 100 in Seoul that easily propelled him past Carl Lewis.
But that was long ago. Apparently training without steroids, Johnson said he weighs 174 pounds, which is what he weighed in Seoul. But he no longer has the bulging biceps and chest. And, tonight at least, he no longer had an explosive start.