OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Athletics: Johnson destined for the dustbin: Ken Jones reports on the return to Olympic competition of a dishonoured athlete

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A SCALED-DOWN version of the powerful figure who became everlastingly infamous in Seoul four years ago, Ben Johnson in his 31st year was an interloper at the feast.

The Canadian sprinter who brought dishonour to his sport easily finished fourth in a second- round heat of the 100 metres at the Montjuic stadium here last night to gain a place in the semi- finals against men who will leave him in their wake.

The symbolism was unavoidable. Fleetingly but phonily in 1988, Johnson was the fastest man on earth, thunderous strides eating up the track, a triumph over Carl Lewis ringing around the world for the 48 hours it took technicians to discover that he had cheated.

Now he was a sideshow to the great parade. The discredited champion had become a curiosity. Linford Christie was ahead of him by two clear strides. There was clear daylight between him and Leroy Burrell, the second-placed man, and Chidi Imoh of Nigeria, who came third.

Perhaps the chastening experiences he has been forced to endure over the last two years, the disciplinary hearings and judicial procedures that followed his exposure, have made Johnson immune to lesser irritations. Certainly, his was the least agitated response to two false starts that clearly etched nervousness on Linford Christie's features. Then it was Johnson who jumped the gun, this time to raise his arms in protest, as though feeling the cold embrace of prejudice.

Back in his blocks, poised once more for the starter's gun, Johnson once again brought his dark eyes to bear, and when it went he launched into a familiar percussive stride. But it was the past that rose up in people's minds, a renewal of the understanding that his best performances were fraudulent.

As Johnson dropped out of sight after arriving in Barcelona, not being required to show up at the athletes' village until 48 hours before competing, the circumstances surrounding his return to Olympic competition were appropriately mysterious.

Rumoured to have re-established an infamous relationship with Charlie Francis, his coach in Seoul, who was given a life ban for encouraging the systematic use of drugs to improve performances, Johnson may have sensed a better reception than his reputation deserves.

When helping the Canadian relay team to set a national record on 16 July at a grand prix meeting in Nice, he heard more cheers than jeers, and anybody who expected a predominantly Spanish audience to give him a harder time was disappointed.

As international indifference to Jason Livingston's expulsion from the Games on Thursday indicates, a world beset by ethnic upheaval and great economic difficulties grows ever more tolerant of sporting cheats.

If a rule recently introduced by the International Amateur Athletic Federation had applied in 1988, Johnson would have been excluded from the Olympics for four years. Instead he was back, ironically in the absence of Carl Lewis, his great protagonist, and the world record-holder at 100 metres, who astonishingly failed to make the United States sprint team for Barcelona after finishing sixth in the trials.

At approximately 10.55am, the temperature already in the 80s, a thin haze of pollution hanging over the city, Johnson sprang from his blocks in a heat that was not expected to provide any great difficulties for a man who was legitimately quick before yielding to the temptation of narcotic assistance.

When competing at the World Championships in Tokyo last year, Johnson no longer could present the bulging muscularity that first raised suspicions of drug abuse. He was lighter, considerably slimmer, and an ineffective figure in the relay.

The shape is more clearly defined, and Johnson finished coasting in second place behind Davidson Ezinwa of Nigeria, who immediately turned and shook the Canadian's hand.

If some athletes including, most notably, Lewis feel that Johnson should not be accorded any status other than that of a pariah, the majority appear to be sympathetic, some clearly and disappointingly believing that he was unfortunate to get caught.

The heat over, he said: 'I'm not feeling a lot of pressure right now. I'm just happy to be running again. I haven't made any promises to anyone and I just wanted to do my best.'

When thought to have gone missing, Johnson had been in Lisbon. 'Wandering around there helped to get my mind focused,' he added, 'so I'm here in a good frame of mind.'

The impression is that, come the semi-finals tomorrow, Johnson will only be making a token appearance. Others are fitter, faster. Burrell. Christie. Ezinwa. Mitchell. Dishonour knows no reward.