HAMILTON, ONTARIO, JAN. 12 -- There are too many races remaining to close the book now on Ben Johnson.
He lost Friday night to a last-minute fill-in named Daron Council, but he has eight more indoor races this year, then the outdoor season, and, finally, the event he and all runners are pointing toward, the world championships in Tokyo in August.
Yet, in 5.77 seconds, the time it took Johnson to finish second in the 50 meters at the Hamilton Spectator Indoor Games, the Canadian sprinter left more questions than answers. His return from a two-year ban for using steroids was anything but impressive. He and his coach claimed they didn't even know where the finish line was.
And four things were obvious for all the sporting world to see:
Johnson looked nervous, small and extremely slow out of the blocks -- and he doesn't seem to scare anyone anymore.
"I would say the perception of Ben is different now," said Council, who won the race in the relatively slow time of 5.75 seconds. (Johnson has the world-record time, 5.55.) "The times I competed against him back in 1988 and 1987, you were thinking as soon as you stepped in the blocks, 'Well, who's going to be second?' Now, it's, 'Who's in the best shape and who's worked harder?' "
Council gave Johnson, trying a comeback at the sprinter's old age of 29, the once-over when he first spotted him.
"He looked a lot smaller," said Council, a 26-year-old deputy sheriff from Gainesville, Fla. "It was the first time I'd seen him in two years. That was the thing that amazed me. I was wondering if he had the same power that he had a few years ago. He definitely looks smaller."
As long as Johnson has been in our consciousness, he has admittedly been on performance-enhancing steroids. Until now. He fooled the drug-testing system for nearly a decade. He now has passed six unannounced drug tests since the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He was picked, apparently at random, to be tested after the race Friday night. Results of that test will not be known for a while.
Not only is he smaller in his upper arms and chest, he also seemed to stand still at the starting line. His trademark used to be his extremely fast start. Yet he nearly was left in the blocks on one of three false starts and didn't anticipate the starter's gun at all when the race finally went off.
"I messed up," Johnson said. "I didn't get out of the blocks well."
American Andre Cason led for most of the race until Council, running far to Johnson's right in the outside lane, emerged to take the lead. Johnson was with Cason at the end, but acted as if the race was over at 50 yards, not 50 meters.
There were two white lines on the track at Copps Coliseum -- one for 50 yards, the other for 50 meters. Johnson and his coach, Loren Seagrave, spent two hours on the track before the race counting strides and figuring distances, but somehow managed to confuse which finish line was which. Seagrave said only when he went to his seat and looked down did he realize there were two lines.
The runners were warned about this, Council said.
"Before the race, someone came and said, 'Second line, second line.' I heard it and I assume everyone else heard it."
Apparently Johnson did not.
"There were two finish lines, the 50-yard and the 50-meters, and I picked the wrong one," he said.
However, his mistake hardly was the difference in the race. Johnson was farther behind Council at the 50-yard finish than he was 12 1/2 feet later at the 50-meter finish.
"He had to have tremendous pressure on him in his first race back," Council said. "If he keeps working hard, then he'll be No. 1 again. I think he deserves a second chance."
So do many Canadian sports fans. Johnson received a standing ovation from the capacity crowd of 17,050 and, when he lost, they cheered him just the same.
"It's just one race," Johnson said. "I still have a long way to go. It takes a long while before I get into my top form. It's going to take a few races. I put a lot of pressure on myself and I could feel that."
Johnson wore black patches of cloth pinned to the front and back of his singlet to honor his father, who died of a heart attack a year ago. "I tried to dedicate this first race to him, but I failed," Johnson said. "Things will be different next time."