Ben Johnson is ready to train you

Though the former 'world's fastest human being' might show up a little late

Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

For someone once known as “the world’s fastest human being”—he set a world record for the 100-m sprint in 1987 (9.83 seconds), and beat it at the 100-m final at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul—you would think Ben Johnson would be on time. Alas, he arrives almost 25 minutes late for the body conditioning class he’s teaching at Track Fitness, a gym in Toronto’s tony Forest Hill area.

Earlier in the week, founder and owner Larry Track had sent out an email to his hundreds of loyal members, some of whom do two or three classes a day, to let them know that due to popular demand, Ben Johnson would be returning to lead the Thursday class. “Space is limited so register now,” he wrote. In truth, Johnson himself didn’t make it to his first class, which was to occur just before the New Year.

Before his fall from grace—he was disqualified three days after his Olympic win, and admitted to having used steroids before his 1987 race—Canadians rejoiced in Ben Johnson’s glory. At the height of his success, Brian Mulroney, then the PM, called and congratulated him. “It’s a marvelous evening for Canada,” he said.

This evening at Track Fitness is less marvelous for Johnson. He has a litany of excuses for why he’s so late. He had to see his lawyer in Brampton. He had to drop off his sister. Traffic was a nightmare. And, to make matters worse, only three people, including me, signed up for his class. The other two are Howie Track, founder of Traxel, which specializes in high-end renovations, and Ethan Grober, one of Canada’s top urologists.

Johnson walks in holding a bag of dry cleaning before heading to the locker room to change. He doesn’t seem fully prepared for class. He makes us run back and forth with our knees lifted, do step-ups and sit-ups and burpies (his most hated exercise, he says, where you start in push-up form and then jump up). But there is no pattern to the routine and he seems to be making it up as he goes. At one point, he says, “I’ll be back in 10 minutes. Just stretch,” and leaves the room. The three of us look at one another. “Well, he has been working out for three decades so he must know something about working out,” someone says.

A trainer at Track Fitness introduced Larry Track to Johnson. “I was a huge fan and the experience of training with an elite athlete such as Ben doesn’t come around too often,” says Track. Aside from teaching the conditioning class (he will also personally train you for $100 an hour) Johnson says he has a few projects on the go. “I’m opening a café,” he says. “In Markham, near where I live. It’s going to be Italian style.”

At 52, he looks fabulous for his age. He’s not as tall as I would have assumed, and tells us he weighs between 180 and 185 lb. (Men find this fascinating.) He gave up alcohol six years ago, and tries to eat healthy. He has an eight-year-old granddaughter, he says, laughing, who has “so much attitude.” Asked how he spends his days, he says he sleeps a lot. He works out at the men’s gym at York University, where he says he is training Toronto Maple Leaf David Clarkson, who’s had a troubled season. Johnson says next time we see him on ice, “He’s going to kill!”

In class, he does not work out, instead sitting on a bench and telling us what to do. He seems happy. Though he’s tried numerous comebacks, including a gig as a spokesperson for an all-natural energy drink called Cheetah Power Surge, he doesn’t act like a disgraced hero. “People make mistakes in life, but like many other sport stars today, they can and do turn their lives around,” he’s said. He doesn’t seem to care there are only three of us in his class. (Track says he only just started promoting Johnson.)

Grober is a fan. “I liked the casual feel to the class and old-school approach to his exercises. No gimmicks or fancy equipment,” he said. “Clients are going to love their experience with Ben,” Track says. “His combination of experience and techniques will make them feel like they are training for the Olympics.” I didn’t exactly feel that, but I will admit I was hurting for the next few days.

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