HAMILTON, Ontario -- In his first race after a two-year suspension for drug use, Ben Johnson proved last night that he can ran fast even without the anabolic steroid that caused his expulsion from the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
But the 29-year-old Canadian, whose indoor and outdoor world records were washed away by admissions that he used performance-enhancing substances for seven years, managed only to finish second in the 50-meter -- of the Hamilton Spectator Games.
His time of 5.77 seconds was eclipsed by the 5.75-second time of Daron Council of Gainesville, Fla.
Council became part of the field only two days ago, after another American runner, Dennis Mitchell, withdrew.
Mike Marsh, another American in the five-man field, was third in 5.79 seconds.
Johnson's finish after an unusually slow start, a disappointment for all those among a record crowd of 17,050 spectators in Copps Coliseum hoping for grander developments, kept unanswered the most compelling question of the Johnson saga: Can he regain his previous form without the drugs that contributed so much to his success?
But the time was impressive enough to suggest that the two-year layoff had not caused irreparable damage or rustiness.
It has been 839 days since the race in Seoul, and almost from the moment his suspension began, Johnson focused on this day.
Throughout, however, he was the focal point of a new worldwide consciousness of drug use in sports.
Initially, Johnson denied ever knowingly taking taking performance-enhancing drugs.
But later, at a Canadian government inquiry, he admitted he used banned substances for seven years.
Although more than 100 witnesses testified at the six-month investigation -- officials, physicians, coaches and athletes from a variety of sports -- it was labeled as the "Ben Johnson Inquiry," for the Seoul episode.
After he confessed to a career of drug-aided success, the international track and field federation stripped him of all of his world records.
Rather than wallow in his misfortune, Johnson set out to redeem himself as a member in good standing of society in general and in athletics.
He spoke innumerable times before groups of schoolchildren, urging them not to get involved in drugs of any sort, and he returned to training with a new resolve: to run as fast as before, but without the aid of artificial substances.
As last night's race approached, his confidence grew to the point where he could envision eventually matching some of his former glories.
"I'm not here to lose," Johnson told The Toronto Star this week. "I've been training too hard for this moment. I'm psyched. I'm ready."
At one point, it seemed as if he might have been a little too excited about the race.
During a training session Wednesday in Toronto, his heartbeat increased to a rate beyond normal for the stress of the workout, and he grabbed his chest. He told the Star he felt as if his heart "was coming through my chest."
Johnson's coach, Loren Seagrave, attributed the irregularity to a psychological overreaction to the moment at hand.
Seagrave, a 38-year-old former coach at Louisiana State who began working with Johnson last July, pronounced him "as ready as he can be at this point in time."
But that assessment was challenged by Charlie Francis, Johnson's former coach, who said in an article in The Toronto Sun that the rapid heart rate was not a typical response. Francis also questioned the wisdom of Seagrave's tinkering with Johnson's running mechanics.
In many respects, Johnson's positive test in Seoul and the two-year suspension have had more adverse effects on Francis.
Although his testimony at the government inquiry revealed for the first time the pervasiveness of the drug-use problem -- including Johnson's use for seven years -- Francis was not allowed to resume his career.
This week, Canada's national governing body for track and field banned him for life from coaching in the country.
Throughout the two years, Francis has clung to the belief that steroids were an important component of Johnson's success through 1988 and necessary because of his perception that most of Johnson's competitors also were using them. He contends that world-class athletes still are using artificial substances to improve performance.
Ostensibly, Johnson is not among them. He has been tested six times in the 27 months since the Olympics, and all the results have been negative.
His body has become far more steamlined than it was in Seoul. Gone are the bulging muscles from his neck, shoulders and thighs.
The competition last night was perceived by Seagrave to be nothing more than a first race after a long layoff.
The year is too important for that, with the indoor world championships seven weeks from now in Seville, Spain, and the outdoor world championships five months later in Tokyo.
"Everybody is blowing this thing to cosmic proportions,"
Seagrave said of Johnson's return. "It's only a small piece of the ++ puzzle."